By Lisa Friedman
The New York Times
WASHINGTON>> World leaderswill gather in Egypt next week to confront climate change at a moment of colliding crises: a war in Europe that has upended energy markets, rising global inflation, deep political divisions in many countries and tension between the world’s two greatest polluters, China and the United States.
The conditions don’t bode well for a mission that demands cooperation among nations to bring down the pollution from burning oil, gas and coal that is warming the planet.
The United States, which for the first time will be attending United Nations negotiations with a climate plan that is backed by the force of law, will try to reassert itself as a leader in the fight to keep temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels.
The new law, which provides a record $370 billion to speed up the country’s transition away from fossil fuels, “absolutely” strengthens the standing of the United States and its ability to urge other countries to follow suit, said John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate change. “We were at a crucible with respect to our credibility, and if we hadn’t delivered there I think we would have had serious challenges.”
But although the legislation may mend America’s tattered reputation after President Donald Trump halted climate action for years, more is needed to meet its commitments under the 2015 Paris agreement to constrain global warming.
As the climate summit known as COP27 convenes in the Red Sea resort city of Sharmel-Sheikh, the consequences of climate change are painfully obvious.
In Pakistan, more than 1,500 people died in catastrophic floods this summer, and another 5 million people now face a severe food shortage there. The worst drought in 40 years has left 22 million people in the Horn of Africa on the brink of famine. In the United States, Hurricane Ian is estimated to have caused more than $60 billion in insured losses when it slammed into Florida last month, making it one of the most expensive storms on record. Scientists have linked climate change to each of these devastating events.
At last year’s climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, when world leaders were arguably less distracted by other crises, countries pledged to strengthen the Paris Agreement and to keep global temperatures from rising no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic climate effects significantly increases. Nearly 200 countries agreed to intensify their efforts before the start of COP27 next week.
But only a handful ofmajor polluters have stepped up and promised more ambitious action, with China, Russia and Saudi Arabia among the major holdouts. The planet has already warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius and is on a trajectory to heat up by 2.5 degrees Celsius, or 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of this century, according to a new U.N. report.
At the same time, the war in Ukraine and the subsequent boycott of Russian gas has complicated immediate transitions away from fossil fuels. Demand for coal is increasing inmany countries, with some reopening dormant coal-fired plants. The British government has issued new licenses for oil drilling in the North Sea, while China and India continue to burn coal. In the United States, where high gas prices have caused a political problemfor Democrats, Biden unsuccessfully tried to get Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to ease pain at the pump.
“It’s a very challenging year,” said Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s climate envoy. “The impacts are hitting so hard and so fast, and it’s clear that emissions are not going in the right direction, and no one is ready for the impacts.”
The International Energy Agency offered a glimmer of hope recently when it predicted for the first time that worldwide demand for every type of fossil fuel would peak in the near future. One key reason is that many countries have responded to soaring prices for fossil fuels this year by embracing wind, solar and nuclear energy, the agency said.
Still, much of climate progress hinges on China, which now pumps the most greenhouse gases of any country into the atmosphere — an output that is not expected to peak for several years.
Kerry emerged from the Glasgow summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, to announce the two countries would work together to cut fossil fuel pollution this decade. Kerry and Xie have known each other more than 20 years and in Glasgow prefaced talks on methane and coal by catching up about their gardens and grandchildren.
A year later, there’s distance between the two men as relations between the United States and China have sunk to their lowest point in decades amid economic competition, tensions over Taiwan and differences over Russia’s war in Ukraine. China suspended climate talks with the Biden administration after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan in early August, over the objections of China.
“We’ve sent each other a few messages trying to figure out how to resume,” Kerry said, referring to Xie. But the decision to do so will be made by one person, President Xi Jinping, he said.
Kerry said he was hoping to restart discussions once he and Xie reconnect in person in Sharm el-Sheikh, noting that the stakes are enormous. “We can’t solve this problem unless all of the major economies align with Paris, particularly the largest emitters,” he said.
But domestic politics in the United States may hamper Biden’s climate leadership abroad. If Republicans win control of one or both chambers of Congress, they are unlikely to overturn the new climate law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act. But there already are efforts underway, backed by fossil fuel industry associations, to undercut the legislation. And Republicans are promising to block new environmental regulations and investigate the administration’s climate policies.
Biden has promised to cut U.S. emissions at least 50% below 2005 levels by the end of this decade and that the country will stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050. The new climate law is projected to help cut U.S. emissions by 40%, according to several analyses.
“It’s all pretty important to acknowledge that we have an enormous amount of work left to do, so countries that are already bedeviled by climate change don’t see us running around giving ourselves an undeserved pat on the back,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who plans to attend COP27.
Another area in which the U.S. is lagging is financial aid to the developing nations suffering the effects of climate change.
Wealthy nations have failed to deliver on a decade-old promise to give $100 billion annually by 2020 to help developing nations transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change.