fb-pixelHere’s what happened at the UN climate talks - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Here’s what happened at the UN climate talks

A sign reading "fossil fuels out" is displayed during a demonstration at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, EgyptPeter Dejong/Associated Press

After two weeks of contentious negotiations, the latest round of United Nations climate talks in Egypt — known as COP27 — came to a close on Sunday morning.

The final agreement, signed by nearly 200 nations, includes a major breakthrough on climate reparations, but made no progress on a pledge to phase out planet-heating fossil fuels.

Here’s what you need to know.

A win on climate reparations

In a historic move on Sunday, negotiators agreed to create a fund that would help poor nations in the global south cope with irreversible climate “loss and damage.”

The idea hinges on an uncomfortable truth: Wealthy nations are responsible for the vast majority of historic greenhouse gas emissions, yet the damage caused by those emissions — including worsening heat waves, droughts, and sea level rise — is taking a greater toll on poorer countries that did little to cause the problem.


Developing nations have, for three decades, been demanding help to cope with loss and damages. Until now, rich nations — including the United States, the largest historical greenhouse gas emitter — resisted.

The fact that negotiators finally agreed to set up a fund is “a victory that we shouldn’t understate,” said Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the think tank Institute for Policy Studies. Yet the actual language, he said, leaves a lot to be desired.

For one, the provision is vague. It doesn’t spell out how much money should be injected into the new fund, or specify which nations must pay and which ones are eligible for compensation.

On the bright side, said Sen, it doesn’t limit recipients to countries that are “most vulnerable” to climate change, as the European Union and other developed nations wanted it to. That means middle-income nations could be eligible for aid when they’re severely harmed by climate disasters.


“It would have been so easy for some nations who believed they’d be classified as ‘most vulnerable’ to accept some sweetness thrown their way in backroom deals by some of the rich countries ... to say, we accept that language,” said Sen. “But very commendably, they stuck together.”

Still, some fear the lack of specificity could allow nations to kick the can down the road even more, delaying any actual funding. And they’ll be able to get away with doing so, because the United Nations has no power to actually enforce the terms of climate agreements, and there are no penalties for breaking pacts.

Rich and highly carbon-polluting nations, like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, have already failed to meet a 2009 commitment to allocate $100 billion per year in climate finance, starting in 2020, to poorer nations.

“Loss and damage could be another instance of broken promises,” said Sen.

No commitment to end oil and gas

At COP27, nations failed to make progress on another key issue: Planning to phase out fossil fuels, which are the leading contributor to the climate emergency.

Leading scientists have long warned that the world must urgently halt fossil fuel production and usage to avert the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Yet the COP27 agreement calls only for “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power,” rather than the outright end of coal, oil, and natural gas — a repeat of last year’s call for a “phase down of unabated coal.”

Excluding a pledge to cut oil and gas is concerning, experts say, since oil and gas are leading contributors to carbon pollution, and gas also emits methane, which is 80 times more planet-warming than carbon in the short term. (The COP27 agreement also endorses the use of “low emissions energy,” which experts fear could open the door to the continued use of gas.)


The language also calls for a “phase down” rather than a “phaseout,” which some say could delay action.

Also of note: the word “unabated,” which could allow nations to burn coal as long as the practice is paired with with carbon capture. Many activists are concerned about reliance on that technology, which aims to trap emissions from polluting plants so that they never reach the atmosphere, but is as yet unproven to work at scale.

At the conference, India led a push to include a pledge to phase down all “unabated fossil fuels,” rather than just coal, and the United States backed the effort. But many say even that language would have left too large a loophole for fossil fuels.

“We need words that reflect the reality that new fossil fuels condemn us to an unlivable planet,” said Jean Su, energy justice director at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

Keeping 1.5 alive

For decades, top scientists have called on world leaders to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, warning that crossing that threshold could mean catastrophic extreme weather becomes common, nearly all coral reefs die, and swaths of the planet become unlivable.


The 2015 Paris Accord includes a pledge to attempt to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, but there was some talk of letting the goal die at COP27. On Saturday, European Union officials even threatened to walk out of summit if the final agreement didn’t endorse the target. Ultimately, nations affirmed the goal by the summit’s end.

Experts are relieved that the goal remains, but warn more must be done to actually meet the target.

“Stating the 1.5 degree goal does not make it so,” Kelly Stone, senior policy analyst at environmental research nonprofit ActionAid USA said in a statement.

Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.