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Climate talks are wrapping up. The thorniest questions are still unresolved.

A methane flare seen in Texas. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas that is currently released in huge quantities by oil and gas operations, landfills and agriculture.
Bronte Wittpenn
Bloomberg via Getty
A methane flare seen in Texas. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas that is currently released in huge quantities by oil and gas operations, landfills and agriculture.

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – Global climate talks in Egypt are entering their final stretch, and so far, delegates have made little progress on the biggest climate questions facing humanity.

Global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. The Earth is on track to blow past temperature targets that could rein in the most extreme weather events. And the countries most vulnerable to climate-driven disasters are still largely on their own to pay for catastrophic damage.

Now, negotiators are entering the most intense period of the two-week meeting, known as COP27. Talks are supposed to wrap up on Friday. But those who have attended past annual meetings say it's likely that delegates will miss that deadline, given their many areas of disagreement.

"The Parties remain divided on a number of significant issues," said United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in a speech Thursday. "There is clearly a breakdown in trust between North and South, and between developed and emerging economies."

The main sticking point in negotiations centers on the issue of loss and damage – the question of what developed countries, which contributed the most to climate change, owe to smaller, developing countries, which are suffering its effects now. Vulnerable countries have been asking for a fund to be set up that would provide them with money in the wake of a climate-fueled disaster like the flooding in Pakistan earlier this year.

Multiple countries and climate advocates have described the establishment of a fund as being the "litmus test" for a successful climate conference.

"This would be a failed COP if there's no fund," said Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands. "Continuously delaying the process because people can't agree or see the value in it, that's really difficult for us."

The world's largest historic polluter, the United States, has been stalling conversations about loss and damage, climate advocates and negotiators tell NPR. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry seemed to address growing frustrations during a press event about methane reductions on Thursday.

Seventeen of the 20 countries in the world most affected by climate change are in Africa, Kerry said. Collectively, they've contributed roughly 0.55% of all emissions warming the world.

"It's no wonder that there's an increasing anger, an increasing frustration, which we intend to address here while we're in Sharm El-Sheikh," he said.

Vulnerable countries have very little power to affect what rich countries do, shy of walking out on negotiations, which negotiators say is unlikely.

Despite the disagreement on loss and damage, there have been some areas of agreement heading into the final negotiations. One hundred and fifty countries have now signed on to reduce emissions of methane by one third by the end of the decade. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas that is currently released in huge quantities by oil and gas operations, landfills and agriculture.

Kerry said clamping down on methane emissions is key if humans hope to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – the goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement and a level at which some of the worst climate disasters might be avoided. Right now, the Earth is on track to hit nearly 3 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century.

"This is absolutely critical to our ability to keep 1.5 degrees [Celsius] within reach," he said. "As you hear some of the grim predictions about where we are with respect to 1.5 [degrees], methane looms even more and more important."

China has not agreed to reduce its methane emissions, despite being home to some of the largest sources of methane pollution. But on Thursday, Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua made a surprise appearance at Kerry's press conference about methane, and said the Chinese government is working on a plan to address that.

The United Nations also announced a new plan to beef up global weather forecasts to warn people about impending disasters, especially in lower-income countries where early warning systems are often lacking. And there has been some progress toward funding the transition to clean electricity in rapidly developing countries like Indonesia, which is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, overall progress to address global warming and pay for its effects is looking grim. Scientists say greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half this decade to avoid runaway sea level rise, deadly heat waves, mass extinction of animals and plants and a variety of weather disasters. Right now, countries have collectively promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions by only about 3% by 2030.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.