COP26: Climate Justice

By Alberto Parise, MCCJ

The big issue that emerged from COP26 in Glasgow is climate justice. It was not explicitly on the table at the start of the work. Still, it was smoldering under the embers of the demands of the states of the geopolitical South for a rebalancing of the funds allocated for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions-priority for the global North-and those for adaptation to the impacts of the climate crisis, the most urgent problem for the countries of the South. For example, Africa risks losing 15% of its GDP by 2030, causing 100 million Africans to fall below the poverty line.

In Glasgow, diplomatic mediation between the polarized positions of North and South was needed to reach a consensus on a document that is far from resolving the climate crisis but which keeps alive the hope of reaching the goal of limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average.

Northern states are pushing for investments in renewable energy, elimination of coal and fossil fuel subsidies, forest protection and reforestation, transition to electric vehicles and zero-emission freight, and creating the conditions for private investment to mobilize green transition financing. They understand that action is needed and see green transition investments as an opportunity for growth.

On the other hand, states in the geopolitical South expect much more from countries in the North, which have historically been the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Emissions reductions should occur primarily in those countries: first, because they bear the greatest responsibility for emissions; then also to ensure the right to “development” in the countries of the South, which need the energy they have to grow. This is a position that India has not failed to emphasize continuously, almost to the point of wrecking the final agreement that proposed the elimination of coal, claiming its share of the “carbon budget.” Today, India is among the largest emitters in absolute terms. Still, it is also true that if we look at the per capita share or even the historical share, it is still at levels far below the industrialized countries. From the start, Narendra Modi in Glasgow presented India’s intention to reach zero emissions by 2070, and it was the first cold shower for everyone.

In addition, the South called for setting a global target for adaptation funds, which are derisory so far. This is about defining the architecture and interventions of these climate adaptation funds. They believe that it is the responsibility of the North to provide these funds as a historical repair. However, the problem is the quantity of funds and their quality.

At the COP in Copenhagen in 2009, it was agreed that the rich countries would provide 100 billion dollars per year from 2020. This figure is still symbolic: the needs of developing countries are in the order of trillions per year, as shown by national plans for mitigation and adaptation. One hundred billion is not a prohibitive figure. Suffice it to say that it corresponds to only 1/7 of the annual US military budget. It is a matter of making choices, not a lack of funds. The COP26 Presidency has drafted a framework plan for raising these finances, but the 100 billion figure will not be reached until 2023. However, it is optimistic that by 2025 a total of 500 billion will have been made available. Without funding, southern states will not reduce emissions and move towards the green transition.

Then there is the question of financing quality regarding ease of access, flexibility, the share of grants, and soft loans. There is the fear that financing the green transition will lead to further unsustainable indebtedness of developing countries. In addition, planning and implementing national plans requires predictability and continuity of funding, which is still elusive beyond 2025. This is why there was so much insistence on the definition of a global (financial) target for adaptation to climate change in Glasgow. A commitment to double this funding came, but we are still far from the scale of interventions that are needed.

In the end, the issue of climate justice made its way irresistibly through the voices of indigenous peoples, small island states, youth, and civil society organizations. So much so that it was stated, for the first time, in the COP Program Document.

The issue revolves around the fact that the countries that have contributed the least to the climate crisis are most affected. Linked to this issue is also that of equitable transition, i.e., equity in the reduction of emissions, which can be measured starting from 4 principles: equality (per capita emissions), responsibility (total emissions over time), capacity (asking more from those who can do more) and the right to sustainable development. The idea is that no one should be left behind and that there is a common but differentiated responsibility. It is necessary to have transparency mechanisms that nurture mutual trust to operationalize these principles.

But climate justice meant that in Glasgow, they went beyond the adaptation dimension, officially introducing – for the first time in the final document – the notion of compensation for the devastation caused by climate change. On this point, the states of the geopolitical North have always been at loggerheads, but in the end, the pressure was such that a breakthrough was achieved. It’s still an unfunded decision, but at least there is a mechanism in place to follow up on this innovation in practice.

In conclusion, much more is needed. As Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, emphatically said in his opening speech at COP26, it is time to say enough is enough: “stop raping biodiversity, commit suicide with emissions, treat nature as a toilet, burn fossil fuels, and extract more and more minerals. We are digging our graves. (…) We are still going in the direction of climate disaster. Young people know it. Every country sees it. Small island states, developing states, and other vulnerable states are experiencing it.” The cry of the people and the cry of the earth challenge our conscience.