UN climate talks near halftime with key issues unresolved

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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — As the U.N. climate talks in Egypt near the half-way point, negotiators are working hard to draft deals on a wide range of issues they’ll put to ministers next week in the hope of getting a substantial result by the end.

The top U.S. negotiator indicated that a planned meeting Monday between U.S. President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping of China on the sideline of the Group of 20 meeting in Bali could also provide an important signal for the climate talks as they go in the home stretch.

The two-week meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh started with strong appeals from world leaders for greater efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and help poor nations cope with global warming.

Scientists say the amount of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere needs to be halved by 2030 to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord. The 2015 pact set a target of ideally limiting temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, but left it up to countries to decide how they want to do so.

With impacts from climate change already felt across the globe, particularly by the world’s poorest, there has also been a push by campaigners and developing nations for rich polluters to stump up more cash. This would be used to help developing countries shift to clean energy and adapt to global warming; increasingly there are also calls for compensation to pay for climate-related losses.

Here is a look at the main issues on the table at the COP27 talks and how they might be reflected in a final agreement.

KEEPING COOL

The hosts of last year’s talks in Glasgow said they managed to “keep 1.5 alive,” including by getting countries to endorse the target in the outcome document. But U.N. chief Antonio Guterres has warned that the temperature goal is on life support “and the machines are rattling.” And campaigners were disappointed that the agenda this year doesn’t explicitly cite the threshold after pushback from some major oil and gas exporting nations.

Egypt, which is chairing the talks, convened a three-hour meeting Saturday in which the issue was raised several times. “1.5 is a substantive issue,” said Wael Aboulmagd, a senior Egyptian negotiator, adding that it was “not just China” which had raised questions about the language used to refer to the target. “I think we have some thoughts as to how to address the semantic aspect of that while ensuring that COP27 witnesses maximum possible advance on the cause of mitigation,” he said.

CUTTING EMISSIONS

Negotiators are trying to put together a mitigation work program that would capture the various measures countries have committed to reducing emissions, including for specific sectors such as energy and transport. Many of these pledges are not formally part of the U.N. process, meaning they cannot easily be scrutinized at the annual meeting. A proposed draft agreement circulated early Saturday had more than 200 square brackets, meaning large sections were still unresolved. Some countries want the plan to be valid only for one year, while others say a longer-term roadmap is needed. Expect fireworks in the days ahead.

US-CHINA RELATIONS

While all countries are equal at the U.N. meeting, in practice little gets done without the approval of the world’s two biggest emitters, China and the United States. Beijing canceled formal dialogue on climate following Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and relations have been frosty since. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said Saturday that he had only held informal discussions with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua lately. “I think we’re both waiting to see how things go with the G-20 and hopefully we can return,” he told reporters. Whether any formal meetings might resume in Sharm el-Sheikh was unclear, but Kerry said talks on the “existential issue” of climate change should involve all countries, “including including our friends, China.”

SHUNNING FOSSIL FUELS

Last year’s meeting almost collapsed over a demand to explicitly state in the final agreement that coal should be phased out. In the end, countries agreed on several loopholes, and there are concerns among climate campaigners that negotiators from nations which are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their energy needs or as revenue might try to roll back previous commitments.

MONEY MATTERS

Rich countries have fallen short on a pledge to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 in climate finance for poor nations. This has opened up a rift of distrust that negotiators are hoping to close with fresh pledges. But needs are growing and a new, higher target needs to be set from 2025 onward.

COMPENSATION

The subject of climate compensation was once considered taboo, due to concerns from rich countries that they might be on the hook for vast sums. But intense pressure from developing countries forced the issue of ‘loss and damage’ onto the formal agenda at the talks for the first time this year. Whether there will be a deal to promote further technical work or the creation of an actual fund remains to be seen.

John Kerry said the United States is hopeful of getting an agreement “before 2024” but suggested this might not come to pass in Egypt. “It could well happen in the next months,” he said. “It could happen during this year. It may be an outcome at COP28” next year. But he made clear where the U.S. red line currently lies for Washington: ”It’s a well known fact that the United States and many other countries will not establish some … legal structure that is a tied to compensation or liability. That’s just not happening.” That doesn’t mean money won’t flow, eventually. But it might be branded as aid, tied into existing funds and require contributions from all major emitters if it is to pass.

MORE DONORS

One way to raise additional cash and resolve the thorny issue of polluter payment would be for those countries that have seen an economic boom in the past three decades to step up. The focus is chiefly on China, the world’s biggest emitter, but others could be asked to open their purses too. Broadening the donor base isn’t formally on the agenda but developed countries want reassurances about that in the final texts.

CASH CONSTRAINTS

Countries such as Britain and Germany want all financial flows to align with the long-term goals of the Paris accord. Other nations object to such a rule, fearing they may have money withheld if they don’t meet the strict targets. But there is chatter that the issue may get broader support next week if it helps unlock other areas of the negotiations.

SIDE DEALS

Last year’s meeting saw a raft of agreements signed which weren’t formally part of the talks. Some have also been unveiled in Egypt, though hopes for a series of announcements on so-called Just Transition Partnerships — where developed countries help poorer nations wean themselves off fossil fuels — aren’t likely to bear fruit until after COP27.

HOPE TILL THE END

Jennifer Morgan, a former head of Greenpeace who recently became Germany’s climate envoy, called the talks this year “challenging.”

“But I can promise you we will be working until the very last second to ensure that we can reach an ambitious and equitable outcome,” she said. “We are reaching for the stars while keeping our feet on the ground.”

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