Lucknow: The United Nations climate change conference in Egypt ended with a breakthrough for “loss and damage” assistance of an unspecified amount for developing countries to pay for the adverse effects attributed to climate change, including cyclones, floods, droughts and rising seas.
That is a significant victory for activists like Harjeet Singh, who have campaigned long and hard for a fund to support poor people bearing the brunt of the crisis, 12 years after developed countries committed to mobilizing per year by 2020.
Singh, who has been involved in disaster management and climate change advocacy for the past two decades, is the head of global political strategy at the Climate Action Network International (CAN), a global advocacy network of more than 1,800 civil society organisations in over 130 countries.
In an interview with Article 14 after COP 27—or the 27th meeting over 27 years of what is called the Conference of Parties—concluded in the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh on the shores of the Red Sea, Singh spoke about why the loss and damage fund is integral to climate justice, and how Pakistani negotiators, who chaired the group of 77 and China, helped achieve it months after their country was devastated by heavy rains and floods, which affected around 33 million people, including approximately 16 million children.
“Loss and damage is not charity,” said Pakistan’s chief negotiator Nabeel Munir. It’s about climate justice.” Minister for climate change Sherry Rehman said, “The dystopia has already come to our doorstep…What goes on in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan.”
When the 2010 floods in Pakistan affected 20 million, months before COP 16 was held in Cancun, Mexico, Singh recalled thinking that the devastation should be covered under a loss and damage fund. Eleven years later, the issue made it to the agenda at COP 26 in Glasgow but saw little action. While included in the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan in COP 27, key questions about how the fund will work, who will pay and how much have to be finalised before COP 28 in Dubai next year.
Even with the breakthrough on loss and damage, for many of the over 45,000 attendees and those following from around the world, the conference failed because negotiators could not agree on reducing CO2 emissions and oil-producing nations and large economies blocked phasing out of fossil fuels.
In the interview, Singh responded to questions about the bitter feuding between the global north and south, the corrosive nature of the mistrust at this crucial juncture, as well as the dissonance between the suffering of the people affected by climate change and the glacial pace of the talks.
“COP27, in many ways, was a turning point in dealing with the consequences of climate change but not the cause,” said Singh. “This remains a huge piece of work that we have to do.”
What is climate justice?
For developing countries, it has always been climate justice. We knew from day one that developed countries and a bunch of corporations are responsible for the climate crisis, and they are the ones who have to take the lead in fixing the problem by reducing their emissions as well as helping countries not responsible avert it and deal with the impact. The convention talks about common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities and puts the onus of providing finance on developed countries. It is about applying the polluters pay principle. That is a matter of justice. We have brought the concept onto the streets in the last few years.
What does climate justice mean in a national context?
I would not call it climate justice if you see it in a national context. It is a matter of social, economic, and environmental justice. The term climate comes into play because we are part of the same climate system that emissions from rich countries have disrupted. The application of the concept is more inter-country than intra-country.
We lost the robustness of that principle due to the pressure from developed countries to get large economies to play an important role, moving the firewall between developed and developing countries. They tried to dilute equity across the board at this very COP, be it its mitigation targets, finance, loss and damage—they wanted to refer to all parties. They are trying to increase the contributor base. They would like China and large economies like India, and OPEC (oil-producing) countries, to pay for loss and damage and general climate finance as well. That has been a fight over the past year or two, and it will be a massive fight over the next few years.
But isn’t international action by developing countries voluntary?
We go to these COPs to gain and protect our rights and space. Rich countries have been trying hard to dilute their responsibilities. You can't afford to blink. You blink, and they will get the language in, which becomes the order for the next round of negotiations. It is very vicious what happens in these COPs.
The language that blurs the responsibilities of developed and developing countries?
Yes. It opens the gates. You pick China first, and then they will come after all major developing countries.
How does loss and damage relate to climate justice?
When we look at the climate impacts that cannot be adapted to any longer, including supercharged storms, devastating floods, rising sea levels and the increasing pace of desertification, and people losing their lives, livelihoods, farms, and incomes as a result—this is what we mean by loss and damage. If you look at the Paris Agreement (2015), the three conceptual pillars of climate action are—mitigation, which is about reducing emissions and protecting forests—adaptation, which is about preparing for the climate impacts well in advance by doing things like building dykes, retrofitting infrastructure, and putting in early warning systems—and loss and damage, which is about helping affected recover from those impacts and rebuild their lives.
What is the loss and damage fund agreed to at this COP?
Under the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and the Paris Agreement, when you look at climate finance, it is restricted to mitigation and adaptation. Even the Green Climate Fund has a mandate only to provide funding for mitigation and adaptation. As civil society and developing countries, we have been pushing for loss and damage finance for a long time. The fact is there is no window or financial mechanism to provide funding to people who are already affected. We achieved recognition of the issue last year (COP 26 in Glasgow). What we got at this COP is a loss and damage fund under the UN and looking at sources inside and outside the mechanism. So, for instance, humanitarian aid that exists through bilateral and multilateral funding, the role of multilateral development banks.
It is not a one-line agreement. It runs into several pages about what will happen, how a committee will be formed to look into the governance structure, operational modalities, sources of finance and also the question of who pays. All that will be decided next year with a very clear timeline. So, COP 28 becomes extremely important because the governance structure will be finalised next year.
How did the final breakthrough come about? We have read about the European Union’s turnaround.
In the final hours of the negotiations, the EU agreed with the proposal of establishing the fund at the COP but with conditionalities on private finance or financial flows but without mentioning equity which was pushed back by developing countries. This was when the US felt isolated because they were the only major country not supporting it, but felt pressure to come on board.
This is unlike the Green Climate Fund, where developed countries have an international obligation to pay.
Due to the insistence by rich countries to increase the donor base, we, as a civil society, also said to let the question be discussed next year. Before we talk about how it will be filled, it was really important to fix this massive hole in UN climate finance and secure the fund under the convention.
Loss and damage is also a report card of 30 years of climate inaction. People are suffering because we did not act in time. It is the responsibility of the UN climate system to respond.
We demand that this new fund is alongside these two as an operating entity. When we say operating entity, it is more obligatory, there is a system of replenishment. Things become far more concrete. That decision will be taken next year. I can tell you that it will take a lot of work. It is going to be a massive fight next year.
With warnings of dire consequences and the terrible toll, extreme weather events are taking, this distrust and fighting between the developed and developing world and the slow pace of the talks seem very unreal.
The whole journey of climate justice has been challenging because of a development model which is so extractive that it has not only caused a climate crisis but a biodiversity crisis, economic inequality and social injustice. This is why we have yet to be able to change our systems when it comes to energy sources, consumption, transport, food, etcetera. It is about lifestyle. I always remember senior (George H W) Bush said that the lifestyle of the US citizen is not up for negotiation. We in the developing world either sleepwalked into following that model blindly or were arm twisted. We have seen how the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) pushed developing countries into following that same extractive model responsible for multiple crises. Now that impacts are increasing, we need to change the development model and consumption pattern. Unfortunately, we only realised that after the impacts hit us harder.
Countries failed to meet the deadline for providing $100 billion annually for the Green Climate Fund by 2020. Can you expect money for a new fund?
There are still many unknowns, but one thing is clear: we are setting up this fund to respond to climate impacts not only in the present but also in the future. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events are going to drive the displacement of millions, and our current system for responding to climate impacts is not fit for purpose. You will see us fighting hard to make it work for the purpose. From that perspective, it was essential to set it up.
If the Green Climate Fund is not getting enough money, will countries give money to a second fund?
They will have to. A few days ago, John Kerry (special presidential envoy for climate) said we don't have trillions…we can't set up the facility in six weeks…politically we don't have a situation (Republicans control the House of Representatives).
We don't care about your domestic political situation. The amount of pressure we have been able to pile on them now. They have to respond. They don't put much money into the Green Climate Fund because they have no control over it. It has a balanced government system with board members from developed and developing countries.
We need to change the international institutional architecture, which is a time taking process because of the power of rich countries. They don't want to give away their power. They want to keep control, but we will make them pay. We have been talking about many sources, and we will take the fight beyond UNFCCC to raise money for this. I’m confident it will not see the same fate as the Green Climate Fund, mainly because it will be far more measurable. When people suffer, you need to transfer money.
But John Kerry has a point. US domestic politics is not irrelevant. Donald Trump may return as president and withdraw from the Paris Agreement again.
I was responding to what he was saying about what will happen in the midterm elections. We have been watching them for the past 30 years. When you had full power, what were you doing when you knew half of your population did not believe in climate change? What did you do to kill the disinformation campaign? Did you put your weight behind changing the narrative around climate change? For thirty years, irrespective of the government, they have been obstructing negotiations. I've seen their arm-twisting. Unlike India, their diplomats and technical experts don’t change, regardless of the administration.
What if Trump wins?
If Trump comes, he will again withdraw from the Paris agreement. They will be hanging around as part of the convention and obstructing indirectly. Their obstruction will continue because they want to be in this space to guard their interest. That is what they want to do all the time, whatever little money comes from the US will be off the table.
This conference is supposed to be about negotiation and building consensus. Is this getting too combative to be productive?
We have no other option. We have to connect the negotiations to the real world. To get global justice, this is the only place. We have no other institution to go to. We have to reform the institution and change the narrative. With loss and damage, we have broken the wall between the real world and the conference centres. Look outside and see what is happening. The UN Secretary-General calling out the fossil fuel industry and rich countries has been helpful.
What role did India play at COP 27?
India has been very engaged. Their demand for climate finance and equity has been for decades. They have pressured developed countries to do more on mitigation based on their fair share. India is in the top ten vulnerable countries of the world. We are the third largest emitter, but we also see impacts. We are still a developing country, millions still need to be taken out of poverty, and they don't have access to energy. Before the Glasgow climate conference, India said they would push for loss and damage finance.
How did Pakistan’s devastating floods and Pakistan chairing G77 and China help achieve loss and damage?
Pakistan floods were a turning point when Pakistan was the chair of G77 and China. They had the mandate to reach out to countries and look at the reality of climate change. They made it clear: you will have to support this issue, which we will now champion. It was also a national issue for them. They pushed for it and put their entire political capital behind it.
What we have seen in the past is the G77 struggling to stay united. There have been times when the small island states (AOSIS) and the least developed countries speak with the US and EU for more obligations on emerging economies. How was unity maintained?
Developed countries tried their best to divide and conquer. Still, because of the success, they tasted in Glasgow, when the whole G77 and China came together and said they wanted a loss and damage finance facility, the group realised they had power in unity. Pakistan, the chair of G77 and China, played a significant role in keeping the group united. I'm friends with some of them, so I know how hard it was and their pivotal role in keeping the unity.
What was the role of the Egyptian presidency?
I must acknowledge their support for loss and damage finance. When the executive secretary of the UNFCCC asked to put it on the provisional agenda, they took it very seriously. They started consulting with parties. They held a special meeting on loss and damage with heads of delegation and a couple more parties in Cairo in September, and they invited civil society. It has never happened that heads of delegation from key countries fly to the capital city of the presidency and discuss loss and damage.
There were concerns about them shutting down civil society.
As the international civil society, we had much more space than the local civil society. But the whole issue of human rights became prominent. We organised a press conference and stood behind the call for releasing Alaa (Abd El-Fatta). The issue was the lack of civic space in Egypt, in general, for years and decades.
China is part of G77 and China, and it negotiates as a developing country. At the same time, the targets China has set are better than many developing countries—they will peak before 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060. In the coming years, China will have to take up many more responsibilities of climate change than it is taking now. For now, China has been trying not to break the unity of developing countries. One thing we need to understand—when China was targeted in the first week, they could have said we’ll pay, we’ll pay less. That would have opened the floodgates. Developed countries would have said there is no longer a firewall between developed and developing countries, and anyone with a large economy has to pay. All the pressure would have shifted from G7 to G20.
While loss and damage were hailed as a massive victory by the developing world, others feel COP 27 failed because countries could not agree on how to reduce CO2 emissions and phase out fossil fuels.
Rich countries are now becoming climate champions. They wanted more vital mitigation targets. It is a bluff. The UK was in the process of issuing 100 gas exploration licenses in the North Sea. Europe is expanding coal consumption because of energy insecurity. Europe was passing a resolution saying gas is a green fuel. They also have a deal with Egypt. The US remains the biggest investor in gas in 2022, and it will remain the biggest in 2023. This is just hypocrisy and grandstanding. OPEC countries, which depend on fossil fuels, have been resisting and will continue to resist. But the writing is on the wall. They can delay but cannot deny that the era of fossil fuels will be over soon.
Saudi Arabia and Iran were very vocal in reducing their ambition on mitigation to the extent they have inserted language on low-emission energy sources, which means gas. But the fact is that everyone is going to benefit from this, especially Europe, which tried to claim that gas is a clean fuel. There is a lot of hypocrisy.
This level of animosity between negotiating parties may not bode well for the negotiations.
COP27, in many ways, was a turning point in dealing with the consequences of climate change but not the cause. This remains a huge piece of work that we have to do. We could have done better in tackling fossil fuels directly, although the outcome is very strong in promoting renewables. If you read the section on finance, there is a recognition now about how we need trillions of investments in renewable energy. We know that we have to transition to renewable energy, but we also have to make it very clear that we have to transition away from fossil fuels. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative puts the fossil fuel industry on notice and helps dependent countries. Millions of people in India depend on coal directly and indirectly. Forty percent of districts have some form of coal dependency. The same is the case for Nigeria, Angola, and Azerbaijan. So we have to move away from fossil fuels in a just transition. As we deal with the consequences, we must focus on the cause.
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(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14.)