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‘Everyone has to act,’ Biden tells climate summit

Nov. 11, 2022 Updated Fri., Nov. 11, 2022 at 9:04 p.m.

President Joe Biden delivers a speech during the COP27 summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on Friday.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
President Joe Biden delivers a speech during the COP27 summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on Friday. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Matt Viser, Timothy Puko and Sarah Kaplan Washington Post

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – President Biden sought to assure a global summit Friday that the United States is committed to confronting climate change, but poor nations pushed back against the large U.S. delegation in attendance, demanding that the world’s richest countries pay more to help.

In an address to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt, known as COP27, Biden guaranteed that the United States would hit its climate commitments and said it was willing to share its climate progress with the rest of the world. He framed the $369 billion in spending on clean energy from the Inflation Reduction Act passed this year as an initiative that can help other countries, though it was written primarily to boost the U.S. economy as it transitions to cleaner energy.

“It’s going to shift the paradigm for the United States and the world,” Biden told attendees at the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh.

“Our investments in technology, from electric batteries to hydrogen, are going to spark a cycle of innovation that will reduce the cost and improve the performance of clean energy technology that will be available to nations worldwide, not just the United States,” Biden said, drawing applause from the room full of conference delegates and activists. “We’re going to help make the transition to a low-carbon future more affordable for everyone.”

Biden’s reception at Sharm el-Shiekh was far different than his triumphant visit to Scotland last year for COP26, where world leaders praised him for undoing Trump-era policies and committing the United States to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At this year’s event, in Africa, developing countries have been much more aggressive in demanding financial compensation for climate damage caused by industrialized countries – primarily the United States, European nations and China – and they have been deeply skeptical of financing deals and claims of progress by Biden and other U.S. officials in the first days of the conference.

Biden said he would keep fighting for Congress to approve the $11 billion he has promised to the international community for climate aid. He and other Democrats also emphasized the potential emissions reductions from the climate and tax package they passed this summer, and said they would keep pushing for more, even with the gains Republicans made in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

After their arrival Egypt, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a delegation of congressional Democrats repeatedly touted the new spending law, which Pelosi (D-Calif.) called “so historic” and sure to spread hope beyond U.S. borders. Congressional Republicans also brought a delegation to speak at the U.S. pavilion, saying the world must look beyond wind and solar power and be willing to invest more in nuclear and natural gas to address climate change while ensuring affordable energy for the poor.

In the past year, the United States has made progress in expanding its portfolio of clean solar and wind projects. But the war in Ukraine has strained diplomatic talks between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, the United States and China, while rekindling interest in new natural gas projects across the globe.

New studies released Friday illustrate the urgency of the challenge. Nations are likely to burn through their remaining carbon budget in less than a decade if they do not significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution, one study shows. And another showed that the bevy of new gas projects would consume 10% of that remaining carbon budget, making it all but impossible for nations to meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Biden, who said he is getting beyond political paralysis to expedite progress, touted several other recent moves. They included new administration proposals, announced in the hours before his speech, for requirements for all major federal contractors to set targets for reducing their emissions in line with the 2015 Paris climate accord, and for oil and gas operations to better monitor and fix leaks that cause emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

“The United States is acting,” Biden said. “Everyone has to act.”

The U.S. delegation’s main offering so far in Egypt is a new proposal from major philanthropies and companies that would funnel private money to developing countries for clean-energy development.

The group hopes to lure more than $100 billion by the end of the decade, but its plan, reliant on voluntary participation from private companies, has drawn skepticism.

Poorer countries have been pushing for government money, and Friday one of their top representatives in Egypt suggested that rich nations should pass new taxes to help. Munir Akram, the chief climate negotiator for the largest bloc of developing nations, told The Washington Post that he “wholeheartedly” supports the idea of taxing fossil fuel companies to pay for “loss and damage” – the irreversible harms from climate change that are already bombarding the developing world.

Akram, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations and the lead climate negotiator for a group of developing countries known as the G-77, is one of the most prominent negotiators at COP27 to endorse the idea. Several small island states previously floated the idea, and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has called on countries to tax oil and gas companies’ windfall profits to provide money for developing countries to cope with sea level rise, droughts and other climate impacts. Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told world leaders earlier this week that fossil fuel companies should not be able to profit “at the expense of civilization.”

Biden and other U.S. leaders did not address those demands head-on. Asked about loss and damage at a news conference in Egypt on Friday, White House national climate adviser Ali Zaidi sidestepped the question, saying only that Biden is committed to “partnership and solidarity” with people facing climate impacts around the world.

Biden started his speech by acknowledging drought and extreme heat across Africa, and damage to fishing and farming communities. And he said the work he is doing to move America to clean energy is designed to help not just the United States but also the rest of the world.

“The United States is meeting the climate crisis with urgency and with determination to ensure a cleaner, safer and healthier planet for all of us,” he said.

Biden’s stop here at the seaside resort on the Sinai Peninsula was meant to trumpet how important climate change is to his administration. He had not initially planned to attend, but after a lengthy internal debate he reoriented his schedule on a packed trip to Asia, which will also feature stops in Cambodia and Indonesia for other summits.

Before his speech, Biden met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, who is hosting the conference and has faced criticism for a dismal human rights record.

The Biden administration decided in September to withhold $130 million in security aid for Egypt for the second straight year because of a range of concerns, including arbitrary arrests, excessive pretrial detentions and torture by government jailers. Political and media freedoms have been restricted under Sisi, and constraints and aggressive monitoring of protesters has been a common storyline of the conference’s opening days.

Biden said the United States would be working with European allies to give more than $250 million directly to Egypt to help fund its transition to clean energy and capture natural gas it currently flares instead of using.

Major world leaders, including India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping, did not attend COP27. During his speech, Biden took a glancing shot at China, without naming it, for its history of funding coal projects abroad.

“If countries can finance coal in developing countries, there’s no reason we can’t finance clean energy in developing countries,” Biden said.

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