Handshake sparks climate hope, but officials remain worried

SHARM EL-SHEIKH (AP) — A handshake in lush Bali is being felt at climate talks thousands of miles away in the Egyptian desert, where lack of progress had a top United Nations official worried.

After more than a week of so far fruitless climate talks, negotiators were grasping for something themselves: Hope. It came in the form of a cordial greeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, who met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Indonesia.

Tensions between the world’s two biggest polluters — whose cooperation is essential for any climate deal to work — have cast a shadow over the annual U.N. climate gathering, known as COP27. The Biden-Xi meeting could unfreeze negotiations between the U.S. and China on climate, which Beijing paused in August to protest House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

At Monday’s meeting, Biden and Xi agreed to “empower key senior officials” on areas of potential cooperation, including tackling climate change — though it was not immediately clear whether that meant formal talks would resume. The two nations’ top climate envoys, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, have a long and friendly working relationship that was put on hold by the summer tensions.

Li Shuo, a China expert at Greenpeace, said the news from Bali showed Beijing and Washington had found an “offramp” to avoid geopolitics from polluting climate engagement. “This will help calm down tension at COP27,” he said. “Both sides can talk to each other, now they also need to lead.”

Despite the handshake, United Nations Environment Programme Director Inger Andersen used the word “worried” six times when talking about the state of climate talks in a half-hour interview with The Associated Press late Monday.

“We need to see much, much greater effort now,” Andersen said. “So, yes, I’m worried, concerned, but also absolutely determined that we have to push to get there.”

Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian official chairing the talks, acknowledged that negotiators will need help from ministers now flying to Sharm el-Sheikh in order to get a deal over the line.

“There is still a lot of work ahead of us if we are to achieve meaningful and tangible outcomes of which we can be proud,” said Shoukry, who is also Egypt’s foreign minister. “We must now shift gears and complement the technical discussions with more political, high-level engagement.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, arriving in Bali, said, there was no way to address climate change “without the cooperation of all G-20 members and in particular without the cooperation of the two biggest economies, the United States and China.”

But there was worry that fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ensuing energy and food crises and global inflation, could see the G-20 backtrack on last year’s commitment to addressing climate change, including upholding the 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) warming limit agreed seven years ago in Paris.

“It would clearly be a great disappointment to the majority of countries, the vast majority of countries, to the small island developing states” that insisted on putting the 1.5 goal in the 2015 Paris agreement, Andersen said. “We cannot undo Paris.”

Deep divides remain at COP27, where tens of thousands of attendees from nearly 200 countries returned to the sprawling conference zone in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after a one-day break.

Aside from haggling once again over the 1.5-degree target, delegates remained divided on calls for wealthy nations whose industrialization contributed most to global warming to provide more help for poor countries who’ve contributed little to global emissions.

This was reflected in the first draft of a crucial agreement released Monday on the issue of ‘loss and damage.’ Poor nations are seeking the creation of a new fund “no later” than November 2024 to provide further financial aid to countries hit by extreme weather, sea-level rise and other devastating effects of global warming. Rich nations including the United States have conceded that they need to provide more aid but made clear they don’t want a new fund, instead citing an existing “mosaic of funding arrangements for responding to loss and damage.”

UNEP head Andersen said the talks in Sharm el-Sheikh might clear the path for future pledges, but there still needed to be meaningful and clear progress on a pathway.

Some delegates were already talking about the possibility of a walkout by developing nations unless demands for more aid to poor countries are met.

“Now rich countries need to play their part,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director and lead economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“So this is going to be the litmus test of success at this COP, at COP27, that we get this loss and damage finance facility agreed here and that it’s up and running in two years,” Cleetus said at a press briefing.

Guterres, the U.N. chief, said he was encouraged by some countries’ declarations that they would contribute funds, “but it’s still early to know whether these (loss and damage) objectives will be – or not – reached.”

The Group of Seven leading economies launched a new insurance system Monday to provide swift financial aid when nations are hit by devastating effects of climate change.

The so-called Global Shield is backed by the V20 group of 58 climate-vulnerable nations and will initially receive more than 200 million euros (dollars) in funding, mostly from Germany. Initial recipients include Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Fiji, Ghana, Pakistan, the Philippines and Senegal.

But civil society groups were skeptical, warning that the program should not be used as a way to distract from the much broader effort to get big polluters to pay for the loss and damage they’ve already caused with their greenhouse gases.

India made an unexpected proposal over the weekend for this year’s climate talks to end with a call for a phase down of all fossil fuels.

The idea is likely to get strong pushback from oil and gas-exporting nations, including the United States, which promotes natural gas as a clean ‘bridge fuel’ to renewables.

India was blamed at last year’s climate talks for resisting a call to “phase out” coal. Countries compromised by calling for a vaguer “phase down” instead, which was nevertheless seen as significant because it was the first time a fossil fuel industry was put on notice.

The talks are due to wrap up Friday but could extend into the weekend if negotiators need more time to reach an agreement.

The U.N.’s top climate official appealed for constructive diplomacy to match the high-flying rhetoric heard during the opening days of the talks.

“Let me remind negotiators that people and planet are relying on this process to deliver,” U.N. Climate Secretary Simon Stiell said. “Let’s use our remaining time in Egypt to build the bridges needed to make progress.”

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Follow AP’s climate and environment coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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