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NC experts don't see much progress at U.N. climate talks

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres speaks during a Nov. 18 session at the climate summit in Egypt.
United Nations Secretariat
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres speaks during a Nov. 18 session at the climate summit in Egypt.

The United Nations climate summit in Egypt closed last weekend with an agreement to create a fund for developing nations dealing with the effects of climate change caused mainly by carbon emissions in rich nations. But there was no movement on efforts to cut heat-trapping pollution that causes global warming — and North Carolina climate experts said this week there's lots more to be done.

Paul Weisenfeld
RTI International
Paul Weisenfeld

“The impacts of climate change do not stop at national or state borders. North Carolina will continue to be impacted by climate change with more intense heat, more severe weather, coastal erosion, etc.," said Paul Weisenfeld of RTI International in Research Triangle Park, who traveled to Egypt as an observer. "These changes will impact the state economy and especially the state’s most vulnerable populations."

Susan Joy Hassol, an Asheville-based climate communicator, watched the proceedings from home with disappointment. She said she was looking for three things to come out of Egypt: the so-called "loss and damage" fund; new language on phasing out fossil fuels; and more ambitious policies to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. There was some progress on the loss and damage fund, but not much on the other two, she said.

World leaders agreed in principle that some kind of fund is warranted for countries suffering the worst effects of the changing climate, for which they’re not responsible. This includes Pacific islands that are being swallowed by rising sea levels and Pakistan, where one-third of the country was flooded this summer.

Susan Joy Hassol
Susan Joy Hassol

"But it (the agreement) avoided terms like liability and compensation. And it didn't pin down which countries have to contribute how much or by when, nor who can receive support from it," Hassol said.

She said the agreement is yet another promise, like the Paris agreement in 2015. There, wealthy countries promised $100 billion a year to countries in the "global south," which has yet to be delivered.

"Will the promise be kept? That remains to be seen," Hassol said.

At last year's climate summit in Scotland, delegates adopted a watered-down statement agreeing to "phase down" fossil fuels, instead of "phase out," as some had urged. They took that no further this year, and didn't agree on any steps to implement even a phased retreat, Hassol said.

"The first step is no new exploration, no new wells, no new pipelines," Hassol said. "I was hoping to see something along those lines, and we really didn't get anything."

Pursuing a 1.5-degree target

Scientists say the planet needs to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst effects of climate change. We're currently at 1.1 degrees. Hassol said we need to "ramp up our ambitions" for staying within that threshold.

Yet, she said, "The world is on track to produce twice the fossil fuels in 2030 as would be compatible with a 1.5-degree warming. So this has to change. If we don't change the path we're on, we're likely to end up where we're headed. Sounds like an old proverb, right?"

The effects of global warming include more intense storms, extreme heat, drought and wildfires. And that can lead to "climate migration," the topic of an ongoing NPR series.

The summit, COP27, is known formally as the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Weisenfeld, who is RTI's executive vice president and a former officer with the United States Agency for International Development, described the scene in Egypt as a giant wave of people ebbing and flowing.

"It's a massive amount of people kind of moving in multiple directions all at once, multiple dialogues going on with civil society, private sector, organizations working in development with governments. It's almost like a sea of people moving and having a dialogue that really is high-energy," he said.

Helping, not hurting communities

Weisenfeld was involved in one session that looked at the unintended consequences of climate mitigation.

"As we take actions to reduce the effects of climate change, or help communities adapt, are we really taking a holistic approach? For instance, do we understand the impact, in terms of equity, on communities?" he asked.

Ensuring that our response to climate change reaches all was central to the discussions in Egypt and to the final agreement on a loss and damage fund, he said.

"It's important to set up structures so that countries can actually have the funding and ability to respond," he said.

"My personal view is I think it's a great idea that the loss and damage conversation happened. I do think at the same time it's a little bit of a distraction because more resources on prevention and adaptation up front are going to be better spent," he added.

For example, many places are dealing with extreme heat. "If you're in a place like Sudan, it's much more severe. The answer to that isn't necessarily to build more air-conditioning systems from unsustainable energy resources. So we have to kind of be innovative and think about how do we solve both problems at once?" he said.

While this COP didn't bring any major new steps toward meeting the 1.5-degree goal, at least we are meeting.

"It's the only forum where there's a large, robust dialogue at a global level for everyone. And if you look over the last 10 years, we, as a global community, have made substantial progress. Not sufficient progress, but in the absence of COP, I think it's hard to imagine how bad the situation would be."

This story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly Climate newsletter.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.