Will this be a true landmark moment?
COP 26, the next Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been billed as a landmark moment in humanity’s struggle against the impending climate disaster. The disaster is at our doorstep, and this year it has been inside the flooded homes of hundreds of people in Germany and the United Kingdom, inside the burnt houses in Australia’s Blue Mountains, deep into the Californian sequoia forests that succumbed to flames, and has swept across the villages and farms devastated by fire in many countries of southern Europe. For small islands, the disasters have become far too common, with stronger hurricanes, floods, unusually long and extreme droughts, and sea-level rise threatening shorelines.
For the powerful countries in the Global North, those that have the largest carbon footprint, the climate disaster is no longer the reality of distant islands and continents or that of a distant future. It is real, and it is now. It would be a shame if the G20 and the COP26 do not reaffirm the fundamental commitments of achieving a carbon-neutral world by mid-century and ensure that temperature increase is capped at a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. As stated by Prof. Michael Taylor of the University of the West Indies, “heading to 2°C is too much for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Even at 1.5°C, we are only guaranteed half a chance of a liveable future”.
Climate justice? Should we fight the injustice?
It is largely thanks to Mary Robinson and a few other visionaries around the world, including the Caribbean’s own Dessima Williams, that the linkages between social justice and climate change were first articulated. But nowadays it seems that almost every action, every position, every statement must come under the label of “climate justice”. This is potentially dangerous. It is potentially dangerous because we run the risk of losing the focus on social justice and of diluting the meaning of climate justice. Of course, it always sounds good to talk about justice, it sounds right and progressive; but one cannot fight for justice without fighting against injustice, and we can see many climate-related policies, programmes, projects and investments in the region that do little, if anything, for social justice.
So, where is the injustice? It is, first of all, in the fact that it is the poorest and the most vulnerable in our societies who are the most directly and severely affected by climate change. It is in the injustice of poverty and exclusion, including the exclusion of large sectors of society from decision-making. It is in the disproportionate impact of climate change, especially extreme climate events, on women and girls. It is in histories of neglect and racism that have marginalised communities and made them more vulnerable. It is also in the unequal power relations between large and rich countries and those in the Global South that suffer the most from climate change.
As we approach COP 26, and in the coming years, we should perhaps be a little more rigorous in our use and understanding of the concept of climate justice, and spend more time and more energy in understanding, denouncing and fighting climate-related injustice. We should avoid sticking the “climate justice” label on any statement, action or project, as if this were enough to give us good conscience and secure funding.
Climate finance, how much and for who?
Late into the night on the final day of COP 15 in Copenhagen, in 2009, 30 countries signed an agreement to provide developing countries USD 100 billion a year by 2020. This commitment was reaffirmed the following year at COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, through decision 1/CP.16. This decision stated that developed country Parties committed to a goal of jointly mobilising USD 100 billion per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. It further stated that the USD 100 billion might come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources, and that a significant share of new multilateral funding for adaptation should flow through the Green Climate Fund. This commitment was renewed in the Paris Agreement of 2015, but we are now in 2021, and the financing target has not been reached, amid a growing consensus that the proposed amount would in any case be insufficient to support developing countries in meeting their mitigation and adaptation commitments and needs.
In recent weeks, many Caribbean and other SIDS voices have therefore reminded the richer countries of these commitments, including a call by CARICOM Ministers for “drastically scaling up and targeting climate finance beyond the 100 billion agreed to in the Paris Agreement to mitigate against and adapt to the impacts of climate change”. For countries and regions that have contributed and are contributing so little to climate change, but are among the main victims of its impact, it is entirely legitimate to claim financing, but some questions remain.
How can finance really achieve its purpose? As several organisations, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI), have argued and demonstrated with concrete actions and innovative partnerships, finance must reach the local level, as this is how it can have a tangible impact on people's lives. This means that community organisations, national civil society organisations and other non-State actors must be directly involved in defining the financing needs and priorities, in managing funds and in implementing actions.
For the Caribbean, this means that the target for climate finance is not simply a question of numbers. It is, perhaps more importantly, a qualitative question, because if finance does not bring tangible benefits to the poorest and the most vulnerable and if it does not empower those who are in the position to facilitate a fair transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient and sustainable economy, we can forget about climate justice.
Financing adaptation, why and what?
The region certainly needs support to assist vulnerable communities and groups in building their resilience to and adapting to climate change, and it deserves compensation for the burden and additional costs accrued from the loss and damage due to the activities of other countries. This means that there is a need for new and dedicated finance to address Loss and Damage, in addition to financing for adaptation.
With respect to adaptation, if the objective is to reduce and, if possible, eliminate vulnerabilities, we must ask ourselves what the origins of those vulnerabilities are. Again, it is certainly legitimate for us to claim funding to manage and repair impacts that we are not responsible for, but are we certain that our vulnerabilities only come from the climate change caused by global emissions? Do we have land-use policies and plans that protect our watersheds? And when we have such policies, do we implement them? Do we effectively control the erosion that brings sediments on to our coral reefs and make coastal settlements more vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather events? Do we manage and treat wastewater and avoid the pollution of our coastal waters? Do we have and do we apply adequate building codes and practices, especially in our tourism infrastructure? Do we effectively clamp down on and stop sand mining on our beaches and in our rivers?
In our fight for climate justice and in our claims for climate finance, we must demonstrate our own commitments and accept our own responsibilities for the impacts that we now need to cope with. As we approach Glasgow, our messages should not all be outward looking: we must also look at ourselves, and bring the fight for climate justice in our own policies, behaviours, attitudes and actions.
If we seriously want to bring the fight for climate justice where it really matters, we must place it at the core of two essential struggles. One is a sustained campaign for international climate justice, recognising that the causes of climate change are global, that only global action can eliminate the causes of that impact, that the special conditions and needs of SIDS must be considered in negotiations, in agreements and commitments, and that all countries must honour the commitments they made, including with respect to financing. The second struggle is the fight for social justice, against poverty and social exclusion; it includes the demand for the recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right, and concerted efforts at national and community levels, in all our countries, to ensure that development policies, programmes, investments and actions do not exacerbate our vulnerability to climate change, and empower us to adapt to and cope with change.
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Panos Caribbean, 25 October 2021