Crucial climate talks are in disarray after a feverish night of “chaos”, hurried meetings and disinformation, with a stark warning that the vital goal of limiting global heating to 1.5C was in danger of being lost.
Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister who is president of the Cop27 UN climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, called on countries to make progress as the talks ran on well into Saturday afternoon, nearly a day after their scheduled close on Friday evening, with no end in sight.
“It is the parties that must rise to the occasion,” said Shoukry. “The world is watching, time is not on our side, and all must show flexibility. What we’re doing is providing the environment that can accommodate the position of various parties.”
Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European Commission, vowed: “We will stay as long as it takes.”
He said the EU would not accept the watering down of previous commitments. “The European Union wants a positive result, but we don’t want a result at any price. We will not accept the result if it takes us back. We need to move forward. All ministers, as they have told me, like myself, are prepared to walk away if we do not have a result that does justice to what the world is waiting for.”
However, privately many delegates told the Guardian the talks were in danger of collapse. They described:
Countries rowing back on the global goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, agreed at last year’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow.
Text that abandoned the key commitment for countries to improve their national plans on emissions cuts each year, also agreed in Glasgow.
“Highly unusual” conduct of the negotiations by the Egyptian hosts, which meant countries were not jointly consulted on draft text that involved changes to key decisions.
“Disinformation” when a key document was doctored and disseminated so as to appear to come from several countries that were not involved in it.
An atmosphere of chaos and suspicion, in which some countries were accused of putting pressure on poorer and more vulnerable nations to act against their own best interests.
A blame game in which countries were preparing to blame any collapse on rivals.
Delegations phoning their capitals for fresh instructions on how to proceed.
Wording in an unpublished draft text seen by delegations removed the need for countries to ratchet up their commitments on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, a key commitment made at the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow last year.
These rollbacks are unacceptable to the UK and the EU, as well as many other developed and developing countries. People inside the talks attributed the weakening to the influence of Saudi Arabia and the Arab group of countries, China and Brazil.
Egypt, the host nation charged with brokering a deal, fell under suspicion for siding with some of these countries. The like-minded developing countries, a loose grouping of nations that often seeks to delay or derail climate action, includes Saudi Arabia, Bolivia and Venezuela, and in the past has included China and Egypt.
John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, was reduced to negotiating from his hotel room, after testing positive for Covid on Friday night. A state department spokesperson said: “Secretary Kerry is self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 in Sharm el-Sheikh. He is fully vaccinated and boosted and experiencing mild symptoms. He is working with his negotiations team and foreign counterparts by phone to ensure a successful outcome of Cop27.”
Several people told the Guardian it was the worst climate talks they had been involved in. One described them as “untransparent, unpredictable and chaotic”.
Egypt, the host nation, took a “highly unusual” approach, said another. Instead of sharing a text with all countries for consultation, they took individual states and negotiating blocs one by one into a room for about 20 minutes at a time in the early hours of Saturday morning, to show them sections of a text and make comments.
Delegates were unsure whether the text they were seeing was the same as that shown to other countries. They were also unclear on whether the comments they made were relayed to other negotiators, or what the outcome of this unusual process of consultation would be.
On Friday evening, a text was disseminated to delegates and journalists purporting to be from the EU, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The text dealt with a proposal on loss and damage. But none of these countries publicly admitted authorship, and the EU in particular disowned the text, which differed from its own proposal of a loss and damage fund in several respects.
Loss and damage, which refers to financial assistance to rescue and rebuild poor countries suffering climate disaster, is a vexed issue at these talks. The EU made a proposal on Friday for a new fund to pay out to afflicted countries, but it insisted that the donor base for such a fund should be broadened beyond the group of countries classed as developed under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.
The EU argues that contributions should be sought from countries with economic substantial resources, many of which have high greenhouse gas emissions. They were not named, but could include China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and emerging economies such as South Korea and Singapore.
The EU also wants to limit the countries that can be aided by such a fund, to those which are economically and physically vulnerable to the ravages of extreme weather.
However, there is an effort to change any draft text to prevent the broadening of the donor base, and to make the fund open to any countries classed in 1992 as developing. This could include countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, with vast oil wealth.
By Saturday afternoon in Egypt, governments seemed even further apart than they had at the start of the two weeks of intense negotiations, when world leaders arrived at Sharm el-Sheikh in a show of unity.
One delegate said delegations were now phoning their governments for instruction on how to proceed, a serious step usually only taken when negotiations have reached a potential breaking point.
David Tong, a New Zealand-based campaigner with Oil Change International, said he had been to eight Cops, including Durban in 2011, which did not finish until Sunday morning. He said he had never seen a situation like the one playing out on Saturday morning, where a major player in the talks, the EU, and the Cop27 president had given such back-to-back press conferences long after the conference was supposed to be finished that were so at odds beyond both indicating there was no agreement in sight.
“Every Cop reaches a strange challenging endgame and every Cop I’ve seen we reach a point where it looks like negotiations might collapse, but this looks like something else,” he said. “Negotiations are on the verge of a breakdown even more so than in other years. We’re hearing conflicting things about what the text is saying, but what we’re hearing is deeply worrying.”
Harjeet Singh, the India-based head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network, a coalition of 1,900 civil society groups in 150 countries, said the 1.5C commitment being stressed by the EU and other was meaningless if rich polluting nations don’t stop enabling new fossil fuel exploration and pay up on climate finance: “How can we stay below 1.5C when rich countries continue to invest in fossil fuels and refuse to do their fair share of climate action, while failing to provide adequate climate finance to developing countries to support the just energy transition?”
Mary Robinson, chair of the Elders group of statespeople, said: “At Cop27 there must be no backtracking on what was agreed in Glasgow last year. Countries must take clear steps forward, agree to phase down all fossil fuels, and put in place accountability mechanisms for commitments in the Glasgow climate pact – anything less will make a mockery of what is supposed to be the implementation Cop.”