The post-pandemic UN climate talks have ended in both cheers and disappointments. Both COP26 and 27 compiled long-desired historic agreements yet it would be too lenient to say that enough commitments are being made. COP26 somewhat materialised the framework agreed at Paris in 2015 by groundbreakingly agreeing to ‘phasedown of unabated coal power’ and ‘keep 1.5℃ alive’. COP27 was historic in recognising Loss and Damage and financing adaptation for adverse effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events. This article will evaluate whether the post-pandemic COPs managed to address challenges caused by the division between the Global North (developed) and Global South (developing) countries.
- Climate inJustice and a brief history
Climate Justice refers to the disproportionate and transitional impacts of climate change, suffered by the most vulnerable and marginalised populations. In other words, it refers to the unfairness of Europe barely suffering consequences despite their immense historical emissions while Pakistan who’s barely contributed to greenhouse gas emissions suffered a nation-wide flood in 2022. For instance, between 1850-2021, the US emitted 20% of global cumulative CO2 emissions while India only emitted 3.4%. The Global North has emitted 92% of the CO2 that led to the world crossing the safe threshold in 1990. Below is a video showing historical CO2 emissions.
Based on this idea, historically, international climate negotiations have struggled to reach an agreement over the responsiblility of causing climate change and whether the vulnerable should in any way be compensated. The first attempt to recognise this was Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), formalised at the 1992 Rio Declaration. It stated the Global North recognises their responsibilities in pursuit of sustainable development, but not necessarily for compensation. However, the Earth Summit was remarkable in founding the UNFCCC, a dedicated UN body to carry out international climate change negotiations. The subsequent 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2007 Bali roadmap were successful in compiling emission targets amongst the developed Global North countries, including the US. Nevertheless, since developing Global South countries were not given targets nor funding, the international integrity of collective climate action was still extremely weak and insufficient.
- COP15 and 21
COP15 Copenhagen in 2009 had high hopes for two main reasons. First was a change in US presidency to a more internationalist Barack Obama, anticipating greater leadership by the largest current and historical emitter. Second was the new quantitative commitments prepared by Global North countries, anticipating to increase their emissions targets from 5.2% agreed at Kyoto, to around 20-30%. Yet, “Hopenhagen” was soon realised to be “Nopenhagen”, with the G77 leader criticising it as ‘anti-democratic, anti-transparent and unacceptable.’
The leakage of ‘The Danish Text’ was significant in losing trust amongst the Global South. This was because it proposed the 2℃ limit for the first time, having not discussed it in the general meeting, nor referencing financial assistance. This loss in trust was further exacerbated by Obama’s Copenhagen Accord. Although Obama took the lead to recognise the science behind keeping warming below 2℃, the Accord was not legally-binded, and he only included the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). Although the BASIC countries represent the Global South, smaller states such as members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) felt excluded. Still, this havoc was partly recovered by adopting the 2010 Cancun Agreements at the subsequent COP16. The Agreements made the Copenhagen Accord legally-binding and created the Green Climate Fund, aiming to finance $100 billion adaptation grants every year.
COP21 Paris in 2015 was a ‘high-stakes game of geopolitical poker’ but resulted in an unprecedented agreement to keep warming ‘well below 2℃’ and ‘pursue efforts to limit’ to 1.5℃’. This was partly enabled by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of small island developing states (SIDS) pressuring the parties to discuss 1.5℃. This manoeuvre highlighted the growing sense of vulnerability felt by SIDS based on the IPCC 1.5℃ report, outlining the stark differences between 2℃ and 1.5℃ and the tipping point concept. Hence, addressing 1.5℃ was important in recovering some trust amongst the Global North and South.
Trust could have been further developed through article 8 recognising ‘loss and damage’ for ‘the adverse effects of climate change’. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage was seen as a key to addressing climate injustice because it would coordinate exchange of knowhow and finance budgets for adaptation. Proposed by AOSIS in 2013, they aimed to extract climate reparations for historical emissions by the Global North. Nonetheless, COP21 explicitly wrote that loss and damage was not ‘liability or compensation’, building the image that the Global North, yet again, have turned a blind eye on their historical responsibilities. This wording also reflected the change of CBDR to common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC). CBDR-RC emphasised that the different responsibilities are determined by the countries’ national state, arguably weakening each of their required commitments.
- COP26 Glasgow 2021
COP26 was the first gathering primarily aiming to agree on ‘net zero’, with the UK, EU, Japan, China and the US announcing these commitments prior to the meeting. The resultant Glasgow Climate Pact materialised the framework agreed at Paris 6 years ago addressing ‘the necessity of achieving 1.5℃’. However, there were two main disputes dividing the Global North and South.
First was the recognition over coal power generation and fossil fuel subsidies. Under COP president Alok Sharma’s leadership, the Global North wanted to ‘phase out’ coal and illegalise £1.3 trill spent every year on subsidies. However, the Global South, especially India, insisted that historical emitters should be held accountable rather than current emitters, only agreeing to ‘phase down’ coal in the long-term. Moreover, they argued that the fossil fuel subsidies are crucial in maintaining affordable energy prices, stabilising inflation and the economy as a whole. Hence, they reached a compromise stating ‘the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’.
Second was over climate financing. Despite high hopes, the ‘Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility’ could not be established due to US and EU vetoes. Since this was meant to be a core component to build trust between the Global North and South, it was a notable failure. The inactivity of the Green Climate Fund, established more than a decade ago was also discussed. Considering that Qatar spent $220 billion solely to host the World Cup, the $100 billion budget meant to alleviate the devastating consequences of climate change does not seem like a lot of money. However, it is this inactivity that is frustrating the Global South, increasing their vulnerability. The Fund is also problematic in almost excessively emphasising scientific rigour, with numerous reviewing processes required for the grant to be approved.
- COP27 Egypt 2022
From a Global South perspective, the ‘African COP’ had optimistic hopes, being hosted in a developing country like Egypt. In this sense, COP27 delivered by materialising the establishment of the Loss and Damage fund. Like COP21 and 26, Loss and Damage did not address liability or compensation for historical emissions, but was rephrased ‘rescue and rehabilitation’, ‘refer[ing] to the most devastating ravages of extreme weather, so great that no amount of adaptation can help avoid them’. Still, its significance remains minute because discussions on who will fund and how it will be funded was postponed to COP28 and later. This meant that the Global South received more recognition for Loss and Damage, yet the realistic dynamics of climate financing did not change nearly at all.
Pessimism amongst the Global South grew further as it was reported that only 10% of climate finance provided by the Green Climate Fund actually reaches local communities. Since the Loss and Damage Fund plans to finance broader social and development issues as well, the UNFCCC should work more intensely on clarifying the purpose of each climate fund. It is argued that the combination of all scientific, Indigenous and local knowledge is needed to review fund plans. The IPCC agrees that the current system of ‘insufficient and misaligned finance is holding back progress’.
Considering that no new targets were set, and that the NDC requests were also postponed for COP28, the meeting as a whole was a complete failure. Egypt’s lack of leadership was a primary cause for this, with president Sameh Shoukry stating ‘it is really up to the parties [countries] to find consensus’. This stance was a stark contrast to Glasgow’s Alok Sharma, or the French efforts in 2015. The French were brilliant diplomatic coordinators, even hosting a UNESCO international scientific conference ‘Our Common Future Under Climate Change’ to enhance climate science. Additionally, low public pressure was another factor leading to the failure, especially compared to COP26. The timing being in parallel to the US midterm elections attracted low media attention whilst the world remained intact throughout in 2021. Furthermore, Egypt’s restrictions on free speech and protests virtually excluded non-state actors out of the COP. When compared to the 120,000 Fridays for Future marchers witnessed at Glasgow, COP27 did not provide nearly the same level of passion to pressure action.
- Moving forward
As the latest IPCC urgent report states, “climate justice is crucial because those who have contributed least to climate change are being disproportionately affected”. The 2022 IPCC reports outlines how nearly all solutions to mitigate and adapt are in place, but just needs to be intensified much more.
- Climate resilient development: cheap and clean localised renewable energy production
- Sustainable development through sharing know-how and financial resources
- Realistic geo-engineering such as reforestation and research into carbon capture and storage (CCS)
In order to be on course for the 1.5℃ pathway, emissions should be decreasing now and cut to half by 2030. Both COP26 and 27 made progress in bridging the Global North and South but could not fully solve existing discrepancies. For the international community to take collective action, this division must be overcome. Let us hope that COP28 will make a further step forward in addressing Climate Justice and collective action to protect our precious planet.