U.N. Climate Chief Warns Countries Against ‘Hiding Behind Loopholes’

In a speech on Friday, the United Nations climate chief painted an optimistic picture of the fight against global warming while taking a jab at countries that avoid meeting their obligations by “hiding behind loopholes” in global agreements.

The comments delivered by Simon Stiell amounted to an early attempt to set expectations for the next round of United Nations climate talks, scheduled for November in Azerbaijan. It will be the second year running that a major exporter of fossil fuels hosts the talks (the last round was in the United Arab Emirates), a fact that has drawn sharp criticism given the central role of fossil fuels in producing the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.

The speech, in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, came on the heels of recent comments by the oil minister of Saudi Arabia that global agreements to fight climate change amounted to an à la carte arrangement in which countries could selectively decide what to do about fossil fuel use.

“Dodging the hard work ahead through selective interpretation would be entirely self-defeating for any government,” given that climate change affects all nations, Mr. Stiell said, according to a transcript of his prepared remarks.

Mr. Stiell’s U.N. agency convenes the summit, but the responsibility for shepherding the negotiations falls primarily on the host country and the conference president it appoints.

Azerbaijan, a major fossil fuel producer, named its environment minister, Mukhtar Babayev, as president of this year’s negotiations. Mr. Babayev spent more than a quarter century working at Azerbaijan’s state oil and gas company and his selection made some climate advocates uneasy, in part because it echoed the appointment of his predecessor, Sultan Al Jaber, who presided over last year’s summit in Dubai.

Mr. Al Jaber, who runs the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, was initially pilloried but ultimately praised for being able to corral negotiators into an agreement that, for the first time in nearly three decades of summits, called for “transitioning away” from fossil fuels by midcentury.

Mr. Babayev will have significantly more sway over this year’s summit, known as COP29, than Mr. Stiell, who is a former politician from the Caribbean island of Grenada. Mr. Babayev is “ultimately who we want to hear from,” said Tom Evans, who monitors climate negotiations for E3G, a European research organization.

Mr. Stiell’s speech is “useful insofar as reminding people of what’s at stake” and why, no matter what may be driving wedges between major powers now, they need to come together to solve the collective threat of climate change, Mr. Evans said. “With multiple wars ongoing it is useful to remind people of the long-term vision not just now, or tomorrow, but decades from now,” he said.

This year’s summit is meant to focus on the thorny issue of what the world’s richer countries, which are responsible for most of the emissions that have caused climate change, owe to poorer ones, which are disproportionately suffering from its effects.

Money has long been both the most important and intractable issue in climate negotiations. Many developing countries look at the prosperity industrialized ones have achieved through producing and burning fossil fuels and feel justified in asking for compensation if they are to be expected to forgo a similar development trajectory.

At the 2022 climate summit in Egypt, nations agreed to create a fund that rich countries would pay into and that developing ones could draw on the pay for costly changes to their environments and economies that would make them more resilient and adaptable to climate change.

But the particulars of who pays and how much have been mired in rancorous debate.

And as renewable energy gets cheaper to build in richer countries, that transition is happening far more slowly in poorer ones which have less access to the kinds of credits and loans needed to financing their rollout.

“Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that to achieve this transition, we need money, and lots of it,” Mr. Stiell said. “$2.4 trillion, if not more.”