Real progress at the Climate Conferences usually happens on the periphery. But that has grim consequences for the world’s poor.
The world’s poor bear the worst burden of a changing climate—droughts, floods, heat waves, and other climate-related disasters, along with human migration that occurs as a result of these disasters. This situation epitomizes the fundamental justice issue of climate change. On the one hand, the wealthy world is responsible for the lion’s share of emissions in the atmosphere today, and thus the level of climate change happening now. On the other hand, developing nations contributed very little to today’s climate change, and are least able to afford the investments needed to fortify themselves against a changing climate and to deal with today’s climate-related disasters. Dealing with these issues is critical to a just response to climate change, but today’s negotiation mechanisms are a poor fit for dealing with these most difficult challenges.
The United Nation’s annual climate summits (Conference of the Parties meetings, or COPs) are where the world discusses the difficult issues related to mitigating climate change and dealing with the reality of a changing climate. Consensus is required on all official documents, meaning that progress is typically slow and incremental. Overnight negotiating sessions and last-minute changes to key words and phrases are common, and the resulting agreements generally represent the least common denominator. For instance, no COP document has yet stated the need phase out fossil fuels (without greenhouse gas emissions mitigation), the primary driver of global climate change. Instead, the strongest statement to date has called for “phasing down” the use of coal.
Climate justice key theme of negotiations
The twenty-seventh such meeting (COP27) took place in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022. Climate justice was the primary focus of the meeting. Discussions centered around money for the developing world: financing for clean energy projects, funding for adaptation to the level of change that is already inevitable, and payments for loss and damage occurring because of historic greenhouse gas emissions. These issues are among the thorniest in global climate negotiations, but are crucial to developing nations. Negotiations for funding in developing countries faced a particularly uphill battle this year. Tight energy supply since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rising inflation, and fear of economic recession made it a bad time to look for financial commitments.
However, in addition to the difficult official negotiations, COPs have become global gatherings of business leaders, bankers, politicians, civil society representatives, and scientists. More than 35,000 people attended COP27, less than half of whom represented governments taking part in the official negotiations. Some of the most interesting agreements connected to recent COPs have come from side meetings, including the Global Methane Pledge and agreements for funding to eliminate coal in South Africa and Indonesia. Arguably, since the Paris Agreement was completed in 2015, most of the progress at COPs has occurred outside the official process.
These side agreements are successful because they don’t have to achieve the consensus required in the official UN process. Coalitions of the willing can agree to take action without concern about whether recalcitrant countries will get on board. Additionally, business and NGO communities can help broker deals, provide financing support, and add creativity. Smaller, more specific agreements can be proving grounds for new financing and emissions reduction strategies.
Deals on the sidelines leave the poorest behind
Positive developments on the sidelines are encouraging and represent serious commitments to emissions reduction, but they continue to leave the world’s poorest behind. Although climate suffering is most acute among the poor, the financial losses from climate change will be largest in the wealthy world, because there is more there to lose. Thus, deals with the developing world tend to focus on very large developing countries, with significant emissions to mitigate. These markets also offer large business opportunities, and the prospect of positive cash flows from clean energy investments can be attractive to investors if the agreements have components to mitigate risk.
The most important climate justice issues, however, often do not meet the conditions necessary for a successful side deal. The unheralded work of developing low-carbon energy systems in the poorest parts of the world offers neither large cash flows nor significant emissions mitigation. Adaptation projects in developing countries have similar drawbacks, with their returns in avoided damage rather than bankable cash flows. Finally, payments for climate-related loss and damage in countries that contributed very little to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today is a matter of justice and fairness, but also a pure liability that no business deal will ever manage.
These key justice issues are left to the official COP negotiations, where progress is slow, consensus is required, and promises are often not kept. At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, wealthy countries promised to deliver $100 billion per year to developing countries by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.[ii] That commitment is yet to be met.
Some progress on loss and damage
At COP27, countries did make progress on a key climate justice issue: loss and damage. Wealthy countries agreed to set up a fund to compensate developing countries for climate-related losses and disasters. This is an important step. The US and the EU are the two largest cumulative emitters of greenhouse gases over time, but both went into the conference opposed to the measure. Nonetheless, the agreement did not establish any mechanism for deposits to the fund, nor for countries to apply for money from the fund. That issue was left to COP28, scheduled for November 2023 in Dubai. Once again, the developing world must wait for the consensus-based process to play out.
I see no simple solution to this problem. I have often written and spoken that the real action at the COPs is on the sidelines, as a way of expressing optimism in light of the slow action in the negotiating room. But as time goes by, I understand a key limitation of this approach: by its nature it leaves out the poor. Amending the Paris Agreement to require such action is a non-starter, since the voluntary nature of the Paris Agreement is what allowed it to succeed in the first place. Perhaps wealthy countries can consider adding a side dish of funding for the poorest countries as they negotiate their side deals for emissions reduction. The current situation continues the status quo where the poor are continually shortchanged.
Samantha Gross is the director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at Brookings, and Brookings - Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. In her podcast "Climate Sense", Samantha talks to other experts in various climate-related areas and sheds light on the essentials of climate change.
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