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March 28, 2023

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At COP27, poorer countries secure climate-damage fund without pledging faster emissions cuts

6 min read


The accord at the COP27 summit in this Egyptian seaside resort hands a victory to poorer nations that have demanded that money since the first U.N. climate treaty was signed three decades ago.

Other provisions of the broader agreement, reached early Sunday morning in this Egyptian seaside resort, left negotiators from wealthy countries disappointed in their efforts to secure faster cuts of greenhouse-gas emissions. Wealthy countries managed to preserve an agreement reached in Glasgow last year on emissions cuts after big developing countries tried to water it down, but they didn’t secure new commitments.

Sunday’s agreement summit also urges wealthy governments to overhaul multilateral development banks so those institutions can increase their funding to the developing world for renewable-energy projects and infrastructure to adapt to the effects of climate change. That addresses long-running criticism from developing countries who say climate funds from institutions such as the World Bank are too hard to access and come with interest rates that are too high.

The agreement’s most consequential provision would earmark money for what is known as loss and damage: when rising seas, more powerful storms and other effects that most scientists link to climate change cause destruction that is sudden or potentially irreparable.

Negotiators representing developed and developing countries agreed to set up a fund in the final hours of the summit, defying expectations that they would take that step amid resistance from the U.S. and other wealthy nations. The fund would be targeted toward poorer countries deemed most vulnerable, a key demand from wealthy nations that didn’t want money flowing to China and other higher-income countries that are deemed developing economies under the U.N. climate treaty.

The creation of a new fund was a rallying cry for a coalition of developing nations—stretching from small island states such as Barbados to low-lying and densely populated Bangladesh. These countries are thought to be most at risk from climate change but have emitted a small percentage of the greenhouse gases that scientists say have caused the earth to warm since the dawn of the industrial era.

The scale of monsoon rains and floods in Pakistan this year, with costs assessed at $30 billion, gave momentum to their campaign. Pakistani officials blamed climate change, and some scientists say it likely was a contributing factor.

“This COP has taken an important step towards justice,” said António Guterres, secretary-general of the U.N. “Clearly this will not be enough, but it is a much-needed political signal to rebuild broken trust.”

The decision leaves open the possibility that China, oil-rich Persian Gulf states and other higher-income countries in the developing world could contribute to the fund or provide money for other efforts to pay for loss and damage. The agreement creates a committee charged in the next year with “identifying and expanding sources of funding” and sorting out other details. Officials expect those decisions will be the subject of fierce debate in the coming months.

“What we wanted to get out of this COP was a political decision to have a fund funded by developed countries,” said Vicente Paolo Yu, a negotiator for the Philippines.

Delegates from China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the developing world say they have no obligation to contribute money. The U.N. climate treaty of 1992 designates them as countries that should receive funds from wealthy countries to respond to climate change. The U.S., Europe and other wealthy nations say that divide no longer makes sense given China’s rapid economic growth over the past three decades and the vast wealth accumulated by Persian Gulf oil states.

Wealthy countries have long resisted creating a fund, fearing that agreeing to make payments would leave their governments and companies at risk of lawsuits.

A senior Biden administration official said Saturday’s deal wouldn’t create legal liability.

How much any one event can be attributed to global warming isn’t clear-cut. Some climate scientists are now weighing in on how much climate change affects the likelihood of a specific event occurring, as part of the emerging field of weather-attribution research. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather events in many regions of the world, according to the U.N.’s latest climate-science report.

Negotiators from developed nations spent the last day of the summit beating back an effort by big developing economies to unwind an agreement reached at last year’s climate summit in Glasgow. That deal urged governments to strengthen their emissions targets this year in hopes of meeting the climate targets of the Paris accord. Those call for governments to limit temperature increases to well under 2 degrees Celsius and preferably 1.5 degrees compared with the preindustrial era. The U.N. says current plans put the world on track for around 2.5 degrees of warming.

Few developing countries followed through. On the last day of the summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egyptian officials who were leading the talks released a draft agreement with text written by big developing countries that would have dissuaded countries from strengthening their emissions targets over the next decade. European negotiators threatened to walk away.

The final agreement largely preserves the text of the Glasgow accord. But it doesn’t contain measures sought by wealthy countries, in particular those in the European Union, that would go beyond the Glasgow pact to keep the 1.5-degree climate target within reach. European officials wanted a commitment to aim to hit peak global emissions by 2025, a step that scientists say is needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. That language didn’t survive the negotiations.

“What we have in front of us is not enough of a step forward for people and planet,” said Frans Timmermans, the EU’s climate commissioner. “It does not bring enough added efforts from major emitters to increase and accelerate their emissions cuts.”

A host of questions remain about how the loss-and-damage fund will operate and whether it can act quickly to help countries that most scientists say have been affected by climate change. The U.S., as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases over time, is expected to lead efforts to provide climate finance for the developing world. But any funds would need to be approved by the U.S. Congress, where the efforts are likely to face Republican opposition.

Still, negotiators see the agreement as a welcome turn of events. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine roiled energy markets and sowed geopolitical tensions in the run-up to the talks. The world’s two biggest emitters, China and the U.S., weren’t even on speaking terms coming into the conference due to disputes over Taiwan.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry managed to rekindle ties with his Chinese counterpart during the conference.

Then a rash of Covid-19 infections hit the summit. Mr. Kerry tested positive for the virus, his spokeswoman said, forcing him to isolate and work by phone with his team and negotiators from other countries. His spokeswoman said his symptoms were mild.

A breakthrough in the talks came on Thursday evening when the EU said it was willing to create the fund, but on the condition that it target the most vulnerable developing nations and that wealthier developing countries contribute.

Egyptian officials on Saturday called a meeting of negotiators from the Group of 77—which represents 132 developing countries—the EU, the U.S., and the Alliance of Small Island States, or Aosis. The Group of 77 negotiators insisted on a proposal for a loss-and-damage fund that would potentially provide money to all developing nations, even wealthier ones like China, not just the most vulnerable countries that are members of Aosis.

European negotiators asked whether that was the position of Aosis, whose members are also members of the Group of 77. The Maldives’ environment minister, representing Aosis, asked for a 30-minute break to discuss the issue with the Group of 77.

Negotiators from the two groups returned to the room saying they were willing to support a fund that would be targeted to particularly vulnerable countries as the EU wanted.

—Chao Deng and Summer Said contributed to this article.

 

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