In the event of a reversal, the United States will not block climate compensation for poor countries

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — The United States is ready to agree to the creation of a fund to compensate poor developing countries for climate damage, overturning decades of opposition and marking a major breakthrough in one of the most pressing issues. most controversial at the heart of the United Nations climate talks.

The United States is “working to sign a deal,” according to a Biden administration official who asked not to be identified because negotiations were ongoing. The change means the United States will no longer block a fund long sought after by poor countries overwhelmed by floods, heat and drought made more destructive by climate change.

Developing countries, largely in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific, see the issue as a matter of justice, noting that they have contributed little to a crisis that threatens their existence.

“A positive outcome is near,” said Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister, who leads a group of 134 nations pushing for such a fund. “Not perfect or optimal, but meets the basic demand of developing countries.”

The United States had been the main obstacle to such a fund, fearing it would face unlimited liability as the country that released the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But US negotiators, under strong pressure from developing countries as well as some of their European allies, backtracked on Saturday evening.

The United States and the European Union continue to press for assurances that China would contribute to any fund created – and that the country would not be eligible to receive money from it. The United Nations currently classifies China as a “developing country”, which would make it eligible for climate offsetting, even though it is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases as well as the second largest economy. China has fiercely resisted being treated as a developed nation in global climate talks.

By tradition, any agreement at the UN climate talks requires the consent of each country; if opposed, the talks may stall.

For the United States, this year’s climate summit, known as COP27, was a wake-up call. President Biden and his climate envoy John Kerry have arrived in Egypt to tout landmark new legislation that will invest $370 billion in clean energy and help America drastically reduce emissions. Mr Biden told the assembled ministers and diplomats that the United States wants to lead the world in transitioning from fossil fuels to a future where global warming is limited to relatively safe levels.

But once there, Americans found themselves on the defensive as frustrated and angry leaders in developing countries insisted that the United States do much more to help those outside its borders.

“Our attitude towards the United States has always been that it’s good news that Biden is in the White House and not Trump, and it’s good news that they have a law for national action,” he said. said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development. in Bangladesh, which advises some of the world’s poorest countries in UN climate talks. “But they don’t have good news on their international finance commitments.”

The two-week summit, which was due to end on Friday, was extended on Saturday as negotiators from nearly 200 countries clashed over several thorny issues. The talks come at a time of multiple crises. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rattled global food and energy markets, fueled inflation and prompted some countries to burn more coal and other alternatives to Russian gas, threatening to undermine climate goals.

At the same time, rising global temperatures have intensified deadly floods in places like Pakistan and Nigeria, as well as record heat in Europe and Asia. In the Horn of Africa, a third year of severe drought has brought millions of people to the brink of starvation.

One of the areas of concern at the talks is whether nations will work to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, a goal that nations underscored at last year’s climate talks in Glasgow. Above this threshold, scientists say, the risk of climate-related disasters increases dramatically.

The planet has already warmed by an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius, and scientists have said countries need to cut carbon emissions faster and more significantly to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world is currently on a warming trajectory of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

Every fraction of a degree of additional warming could mean that tens of millions more people around the world would be exposed to life-threatening heat waves, water shortages and coastal flooding, scientists have found. A 1.5 degree world might still have coral reefs and arctic sea ice in the summer, while a 2 degree world probably wouldn’t.

“A point five is not just a number that someone has made up,” Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s climate and environment minister, said at the conference on Friday. He spoke of “the primordial difference, the dramatic difference between the warming that ends at 1.5 and 2 degrees”.

“Whole countries that are present here will simply disappear from the face of the planet. It is mostly the ice of the world that will melt,” he said. “The cities we love and live in will be gone. There is such a drama ahead of us that we just have to make sure we stick to what we were told to do in Glasgow.

While the text released by Egypt on Saturday includes language that stresses the importance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, negotiators close to the process said Saudi Arabia was promoting language that glossed over the need for countries to set more ambitious targets to reduce online emissions. with this target.

Separately, India wanted language that would explicitly call for “phasing out” all fossil fuels – not just coal, but also oil and natural gas. But those words did not appear in the draft agreement on Saturday, after opposition from Canada, China and Saudi Arabia, among other nations, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

Xie Zhenhua, the chief negotiator for China, said when it comes to calling for a phase-out of all fossil fuels, rich countries like the United States should come first. “We should not increase the burden on developing countries,” Xie told a press conference.

Some environmentalists have criticized Egypt, which is tasked with guiding the talks this year, for omitting language around fossil fuels from the draft agreement. Egypt has increased its gas exports to Europe and argued that gas is a necessary transition fuel on the road from dirtier coal and oil to wind, solar and other energy sources. non-polluting energy.

“It seems clear that Egypt is acting in its national interest rather than acting as an honest broker,” said Alden Meyer, senior partner at E3G, a European environmental think tank.

Negotiations were sometimes resentful. Earlier in the week Diego Pacheco Balanza, Bolivia’s chief negotiator, criticized developed countries for failing to deliver on past pledges to provide $100 billion a year in climate aid by 2020 (he still missing tens of billions of dollars) and for insisting that poor countries must do more to reduce their emissions at a time when the United States and Europe are increasing their fossil fuel supplies.

“Developed countries talk a lot, but in practice they do very little,” Pacheco Balanza said. “We are still waiting for the 100 billion dollars a year.”

On Saturday morning, Frans Timmermans, the European Union negotiator, said European countries “are ready to walk away if we don’t get a result that does justice to what the world expects – that we do something something against this climate crisis.”

One of the biggest obstacles to a deal at this year’s talks, negotiators said, is the chaotic management style of the Egyptian hosts, whose job it is to understand each country’s concerns and then broker a deal.

Diplomats have complained that the Egyptian presidency held meetings in the middle of the night and allowed delegates to see only snippets of potential text. Technical issues with sound delayed trading sessions. Lack of easy access to food and water has also slowed progress; negotiators had to search for sandwiches and coffee in the sprawling venue.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this in 25 years,” said a longtime delegate, who asked not to be identified as talks were still ongoing. The delegate called the process “non-transparent, chaotic, unpredictable.”

Mr Meyer, who has attended all but one of the 27 UN climate summits, said: “No matter what happens, Egyptians have some responsibility in this process. The key is to engage parties early, to establish trust, to identify landing zones. The Egyptians waited until very late in the game to do all that. They basically gave parties a few days to try and do some magic.

“I’m not sure Houdini could have solved it,” Meyer said. “But, let me know if you see Houdini walking around the halls.”

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