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U.S. pledges more aid to poorer countries as Paris climate talks enter delicate stage

The pledge of additional aid came as diplomats reported progress toward a deal that officials believe will minimize future warming and spare the planet from the most calamitous environmental impacts of climate change. Kerry, in a speech here during the U.N. climate conference, said the talks had reached a “critical moment.”

“This conference of parties may be the best chance we have to correct the course of our planet,” said Kerry, speaking to an audience that included U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and officials from many of the 195 countries represented at the talks. “We gather to chart a new path, a sustainable path, to prevent the most devastating consequences of climate change from ever happening.”

Kerry’s promise of additional money came as negotiators struggled to resolve differences over financial assistance to developing economies, one of the thorniest issues to emerge in the talks so far. Poorer countries are demanding that any deal include substantial financial aid to help soften the impact of climate change and facilitate the shift to cleaner forms of energy.

Kerry said U.S. annual spending on climate “adaptation” programs would increase from about $400 million to at least $800 million by the year 2020, with much of the money going to help vulnerable countries improve their infrastructure to help them cope with rising sea level, water shortages and extreme drought. The White House earlier announced plans to double U.S. investment in basic energy research.

“There are countries for which climate change is an existential threat today,” Kerry said. He cited small-island states that hold “legitimate concerns that the sea will swallow their lands.”

Environmental groups welcomed the announcement of additional aid, though some criticized the administration for being bolder with its rhetoric than with its financial pledges. The Republican-led Congress has vowed to used its budget authority to block the Obama administration’s efforts on climate change.

“The force of his words is not matched by the U.S. financial commitments,” Kyle Ash, senior legislative representative for Greenpeace, said of Kerry’s announcement. The new aid “is a positive step, but it’s just a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed.”

Later Wednesday, negotiators released a new draft text of a potential final climate agreement. The president of the proceedings, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, announced that the new text contained significantly fewer brackets — denoting undecided areas — compared with a text released Saturday. The text was also considerably shorter in length, he said.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” Fabius warned, however. He noted that major issues still had to be resolved — including financing of climate adaptation and clean energy transitions for developing nations, as well as just how high its ambition will be — and called for efforts to find common ground in the days ahead.

Observers generally praised the new text as representing substantial progress when compared with prior iterations, but also noted that some of the most difficult and contentious issues in the negotiations remain unresolved.

Notably, when it comes to the text’s key passage regarding the long-term temperature target, it now offers three options — more than before — of holding temperatures “below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels,” “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels,” and “below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” The text suggests that the extraordinarily ambitious 1.5 degree C temperature target, which some scientists have suggested may not even be feasible any longer, remains in the running.

As to how this temperature goal is to be achieved, the text still offered two major options, one involving “peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and eventually reaching “net zero greenhouse gas emissions” later in the century, and another involving “longterm global low emissions” or potential “decarbonization” or “climate neutrality.”

“I’m encouraged,” said Nathaniel Keohane, vice president for international climate at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The negotiators have made progress in slimming down the text, taking away extraneous material and strengthening some areas … while others still need to be resolved.”

The new text certainly suggests that a strong debate is ongoing over the 1.5 degree C global temperature target, which small island nations and an increasingly broad coalition of other nations now support, with even the United States acknowledging that the target could at least serve as an ideal goal or aspiration.

One country that has often been cited as not supportive, however, is Saudi Arabia, whose stance activists have criticized in the talks. In a statement to the Post, the Saudi Arabian delegation explained its thinking, saying that while the country is “confident” that climate and sustainable development goals can be met with a 2 degree Celsius temperature target, it is not so sure of that when it comes to 1.5 degrees C.

“We understand the ambition of a 1.5 C target, however, according to reports published by the [United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], we do not have robust information and the support of science to act practically and meet such criteria,” said the statement. “It will take time for science to mature and implications to become better understood to guide practical action for such an ambition.”

“Moreover, what we want to avoid is a target that puts developing countries at a disadvantage by placing an extra burden on their economies,” the statement added.

In addition to the temperature target, and the means of getting there, another key unresolved area of the new climate text involves finance — in essence, how countries of the world, presumably led by wealthy developed nations but perhaps with considerable contributions from larger or wealthier developing countries (like China), will pay for the gigantic projects that will be needed both to spread clean energy across the world and also to build resilience to the ravages of climate change.

The text proposes several options for financing, ranging from just putting the onus on developed countries to “mobilize” finance to the idea that this will be “a shared effort, led by developed country Parties.” Notably, the text also provides options for scaling up the amount of finance above a target of $100 billion by the year 2020, which may serve as a “floor” for finance levels after that date.

“The chance to set new funding targets from when the Paris deal comes into force in 2020 is still very much on the table and needs to stay there if developing countries are to have any hope of more support in the years ahead,” Heather Coleman, manager of climate change for Oxfam America, said of this part of the text.

© 2015, The Washington Post

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