The US May Have Scored a Climate Victory in Congress, but It Will Be in the Hot Seat With Other Major Emitters at UN Climate Talks

For the first time in 27 years of United Nations-led negotiations on climate change, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter will come to the table next month with a national law in place for reducing its outsize emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

President Joe Biden’s success in gaining passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which will invest $370 billion in curbing emissions and making a transition to clean energy in the United States, is seeding cautious hope for greater global action after years of frustrating impasses at the talks.

But the long-sought U.S. legislative achievement is likely to be overshadowed at the conference, which begins Nov. 6 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Instead, the unfulfilled promises of the United States and other wealthy countries seem certain to dominate COP27, the 27th Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. For one thing, the developed world has fallen behind on a 2009 pledge to mobilize at least $100 billion annually to help poorer nations shift to clean energy and gird themselves against climate change. And nations have yet to agree on a systematic way to address the losses and damages that already have unfolded.

The delegates will convene in Africa toward the end of a year in which climate-driven suffering in the developing world has become all too evident. Floods from record monsoons in Pakistan took 1,500 lives this summer and uprooted 33 million people, wreaking destruction that will take years to mend. Drought has choked off the food supply for 22 million people in the Horn of Africa, and months-long downpours and mudslides have inundated villages in Central America, killing dozens and displacing 560,000.

For many, the devastation dictates an urgent agenda in this round of negotiations. “After decades of insufficient action from big, powerful and wealthy nations,” the “unfortunate reality of today is that loss and damage have become the paramount issue for climate policy,” said Saleemul Huq, an expert adviser to the 55-nation Climate Vulnerable Forum. “Loss and damage punishes above all the poor, the vulnerable and those least responsible for—and least equipped to handle—the severe and mounting catastrophes brought about through the climate crisis.”

It is not lost on advocates for developing nations that the attention of wealthy nations has been consumed by other crises this year, particularly the war in Ukraine being waged by the fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, Russia, and mounting tensions between the two largest, China and the United States. Many observers believe it is possible that the developing countries will make a dramatic stand at the talks over how their plight has perpetually been placed on the back burner by their more powerful treaty partners. COP27 could even end in no agreement, they warn, because of the rift between rich and poor nations. 

Yet those who have been engaged in the process also see the current logjam as a milestone of sorts, a signal that the international community has moved to a crucial stage in grappling with the climate crisis.

Jonathan Pershing, a longtime U.S. climate negotiator who recently returned to his role as director of the environmental program at the Hewlett Foundation, suggests that pressure is finally building to take concrete steps. “We’re not any longer doing a negotiation around an agreement,” he said. “We’re now in a negotiation about how do you implement the agreement? What are the pieces that countries have committed to try to do? And are they succeeding? And if they are not succeeding, what is it that this global community acting collectively can do to facilitate more action?”

Slow Progress on Goal for Nations in Need

How US Leadership Can Make a Difference

Indeed, Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shokry, who will preside at the conference, has declared its goal to be “implementation.” By the end of two weeks of meetings, the parties hope to adopt a “mitigation work program,” a plan for accelerating the reduction of greenhouse gases in this decade rather than wait for the next round of commitments that countries are required to set for 2035 under the COP climate accord negotiated in Paris in 2015.

The focus on putting commitments into force has increased pressure on the United States, which has produced 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution, to come to the meeting with a genuine climate policy in place.

Laurence Tubiana, a French diplomat who was an architect of the legally binding agreement reached in Paris, told Le Monde that it was “essential” for the U.S. both to act and press other nations to act under the treaty. 

“If, despite Joe Biden’s promises when he came to power,” no major climate law had been passed, “it is hard to see how the United States, the second largest emitter in the world, could have retained credibility,” Tubiana said.

In an interview, Elina Bardram, the European Commission’s director for climate action services, said that hopes were pinned on the possibility that the passage of U.S. legislation will spur others to enact stronger climate policies. “This allows the U.S. to come with new confidence to the table and really talk with clear evidence about their resolve and determination,” Bardram said. “Like the EU’s legislative efforts and action over the years, that will be a strong signal for all other countries to really be transparent and open about what progress they have been making at the national level, in view of delivering the ambition that was agreed in Paris.” 

Soon after Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act in August, Biden’s special climate envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry, traveled to Bali and then had follow-up talks in New York with negotiators for Indonesia, which is one of the world’s Top 10 greenhouse gas polluters and heavily reliant on coal as its biggest export product. At a New York Times forum on climate in September, Kerry said the deal being discussed for the country was to set a higher renewable energy target and shutter some of its coal plants, with the United States providing technology and financing.

“We’re this close to getting an agreement,” Kerry said, holding up his thumb and forefinger. “This is the challenge. How do we bring countries to the table?”

The U.S. and Indonesia have agreed on a framework for cooperation but are still working on a final agreement. Other major diplomatic deals have faltered. One of Kerry’s most ambitious and potentially consequential efforts was derailed, at least temporarily, this summer: In August, China’s president, Xi Jinping, suspended climate negotiations with the United States in response to a controversial visit to Taiwan by the U.S. House of Representatives speaker, Nancy Pelosi. 

Early on in the Biden administration, Kerry expressed confidence that the United States and China, which together account for 40 percent of current greenhouse gas emissions, could work together on climate as a “standalone issue” separate from their disputes over trade and human rights. But this year it became more obvious how other points of contention can get in the way when the Biden administration banned imports of solar panels from a Chinese company accused of using forced labor in Xinjiang province.

“It’s never possible to fully separate things,” said Deborah Seligsohn, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and former State Department official who served in Beijing. She said circumstances were different when Kerry, then the secretary of state in the Obama administration, helped broker an agreement with China in 2014 that is now widely seen as having paved the way for the Paris accord and that he hoped to enhance in bilateral talks that continued this year.

“When both countries want to reduce the heat, they tend to look for areas where there’s more agreement to try to keep the relationship pretty good,” Seligsohn said. “Climate was seen as a good area for cooperation. The problem is at this point, the Chinese do not believe that the U.S. wants a good relationship.”

And although Kerry has voiced hope for a restart in climate talks with China, Seligsohn considers that unlikely after the Biden administration’s move on Oct. 7 to enact sweeping new restrictions on China’s access to U.S. semiconductor technology. 

The conflict with China illuminates the limits of the goodwill the U.S. can expect to sow with its new climate law. “The Inflation Reduction Act will be a helpful dose of credibility for the U.S. in its relations with other countries with which the U.S. already has good relations,” said David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the University of California, San Diego.

Like many other experts, Victor believes the biggest challenge at COP27 will be how the United States and other wealthy nations engage with developing countries.

Patience Wears Thin in Developing World

In a report in June, analysts for the Climate Vulnerable Forum calculated that climate change had wiped out $525 billion, or one-fifth, of the wealth of the 55 countries in its coalition over the last two decades. In other words, those vulnerable nations would have been 20 percent wealthier today if not for the losses incurred from climate change.

The group launched a #PaymentOverdue social media campaign to draw attention to the failure of wealthy nations to meet a pledge made at the 2009 COP talks in Copenhagen to mobilize $100 billion in annual financing for the clean energy transition and adaptation in the developing world. Analysts do say the developed world will meet the target by next year, but it is widely accepted that a more ambitious goal must be set.

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The breakdown of the financing has been a source of contention. Government funding is vastly inadequate, and the private sector in particular has been much more willing to invest in “mitigation” efforts like clean energy projects, on which they can reap a return, than on the much-needed “adaptation” projects that help poor nations protect themselves against drought, the rise in sea levels and more.

Last year, at COP26 in Scotland, delegates agreed on a goal of nearly doubling adaptation funding to 40 percent of the total. Adaptation made up only 24 percent of overall climate financing from 2016 to 2020, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which represents developed nations.

At the New York Times forum in September, Kerry stressed the danger of allocating too much of limited resources to helping nations cope with future climate change and not enough money to keeping catastrophe at bay.

“I have news for people who are putting all their hopes in adaptation,” Kerry said at the forum. “If we don’t mitigate enough, if we don’t cut emissions, it will be beyond the capacity of any country to be able to adapt to what is coming at us.”

There is even more disagreement about addressing “loss and damage,” which parties to the 2015 Paris climate accord recognized as a third category of needed climate action after mitigation and adaptation. Developing nations have coalesced around the idea of a new program to pay for the losses already sustained by vulnerable nations.

“While the world fiddles, climate change marches on unabated, and the hits keep on coming,” said Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, which has been a leader in the drive for addressing damages. “We must redouble our efforts and ensure the third pillar of the Paris agreement is finally given its due in Sharm El-Sheikh.”

But donor nations have argued that the establishment of a new fund for loss and damage could slow efforts to aid those in need as nations debate the structure, representation and method for funding. “We really need to work first and foremost within the structures that we have, and we have quite a lot in terms of humanitarian relief, early warning mechanisms, and faster access to finance for those in need,” Bardram said. “We are also looking into doing more in terms of insurance.”

One proposal advanced by Germany in its current role as president of the G7 group of advanced economies is Global Shield, a climate risk insurance program for developing nations. Last week, it reached an agreement with a group of 20 vulnerable countries to launch the program, with details to be unveiled at COP27.

But some climate justice activists have voiced skepticism about the German initiative, the potential rising costs of insurance premiums and whether an insurance-style program will address the needs of the poorest of the poor.

Victor, the policy expert at the University of California, San Diego, echoed concerns that COP27 will end without a formal agreement, just as climate talks sputtered in 2009 in Copenhagen when developing nations felt they were cut out of negotiations.

“I think that there’s a kind of seething disappointment and anger,” Victor said. “Countries feel like they were promised a bunch of stuff that they’re not getting. Those irredentist promises can create a real toxicity that is hard to overcome.”

A preview of how bitter the dispute has become surfaced in an exchange between Kerry and the British lawyer and environmentalist Fahrana Yamin at the Times forum. Yamin was an adviser to the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum, who died in 2017 and was one of the architects of the Paris accord’s loss and damage language.

“I think he would be turning in his grave at the lack of action, including by the U.S., on that article, which was negotiated in extreme good faith,” Yamin said. Referring to the new U.S. climate law, she added: “You’re bringing a lot to the table, and we really applaud that. But the most important thing that the U.S. can bring right now is honesty to COP27.”

Kerry responded, “Well, in all honesty, the most important thing that we can do is mitigate enough that we prevent loss and damage. And the next most important thing we can do is help people adapt to the damage that’s already there.” As for losses and damages, he said, “You tell me a government in the world that has trillions of dollars, because that’s what it costs.

“How do you measure it? How do you allocate? Where’s the money coming from?” Kerry said.

Biden has requested $11 billion in funds to address global climate change in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2023, a sum that would allow him to meet his pledge of quadrupling such financing a year ahead of schedule. But it’s not clear how much of that package he can get through Congress; his request of $2.5 billion in the previous year’s budget was whittled back to $1 billion.

Talk about the arduous U.S. budget process is not likely to satisfy countries that are reeling from the effects of climate change, especially after seeing how quickly wealthy nations poured money into their own economies during the Covid-19 pandemic or funneled arms and other assistance into Ukraine to help defend it against Russia’s invasion.

“Over time, yes, we are talking about money in the trillions,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at the climate-oriented think tank E3G and a longtime participant in the COP talks on behalf of the environmental community. “The island states would say, ‘You are already raising it for other purposes, like military spending, stabilizing your economy, helping Ukraine and other things. They say it’s not a question of the money not being there. It’s a question of political will and priorities.”

It just so happens that Pakistan, still grappling with the multibillion-dollar impact of this year’s floods, holds the current chair of the U.N.’s G77 coalition of developing nations and will speak for those countries at Sharm El-Sheikh.

“This just adds real passion to the demand for climate justice—the demand for the countries that caused this problem to just step up and help those countries who had very little to do with causing the problem and are suffering disproportionately,” Meyer said. 

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