At the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris in December 2015 (COP21), 195 countries adopted the Paris Agreement – the first universal and legally binding global climate agreement.
Its main aim is to limit the increase in global warming to within 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to continue the drive to reduce the threshold further to 1.5°C. The agreement entails specific commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on the commitments made by individual signatory countries (Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs). This marks a paradigm shift from the previous climate agreement – the Kyoto Protocol – and replaces a top-down approach, based on binding targets shared between the parties to the agreement (burden-sharing), with a bottom-up approach based on the will of the individual signatories. The rationale for this change is that the only way to tackle the problem of greenhouse gas emissions – bearing in mind that the harm done by inaction is widespread and slow to materialise, the cost of action is concentrated and immediately payable and there is no institution with governmental or semi-governmental power in the international arena – is to leave each state entity free to choose its own course of action, and to rely on the dynamics of reputation to act as a deterrent. In Paris, that choice appears to have been successful. The bigger challenge, however, lies in fulfilling the promises made.
Between mitigation and adaptation
The fight against climate change, as embodied in the Paris Agreement, takes two main forms: mitigation and adaptation. “Mitigation” includes human interventions aimed at reducing the production of greenhouse gases or increasing their absorption, making more use of renewables, enhancing energy efficiency and stepping up reforestation programmes to absorb harmful emissions. “Adaptation” refers to human adjustments to ecological, social and economic systems in response to actual or predicted climate stimuli and their impacts. As well as formalizing these two level of actions, the Paris conference also formulated the methods for achieving these goals: transparency, to help monitor progress and the action taken to achieve the targets; technology transfer and capacity building aimed at spreading the means of combating climate change; and climate finance, i.e. the mobilisation of resources to support climate action,to be divided between mitigation and adaptation purposes, which in practice means the provision of financial support by advanced countries for the most vulnerable economies, in accordance with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” In line with the golden rule of “following the money,” focusing on climate finance enables us to make an initial assessment of the extent to which promises are being translated into action. And this is not just because it is easy and straightforward to examine the gap between what is promised and what is actually done. It is also because the real chance of limiting the scale and effects of climate change lies in this interaction between the developed world and the Global South. The reason for this is that the relative significance of the Global South in terms of population, economy and emissions is growing, with the result that if these regions were to follow a similar development path to that of the developed world, there would be no chance of limiting climatic and environmental deterioration.
Unmet financial commitments
The first benchmark against which to assess climate finance is the target, set at COP15 in Copenhagen, of mobilising $100 billion per year by 2020, both in form of public resources (either bilateral or multilateral fundings), export credits and private resources. These resources were intended to supplement and not replace existing development cooperation funds. This target was then reiterated in Paris in 2015, when the deadline for attaining it was extended to 2025, the year in which new targets are to be presented. The reality of the situation, however, is in stark contrast with the announcements made. In a report published in July 2022, the OECD, the club of developed donor countries, stated that the resources mobilised in 2020 were actually much lower, amounting to just over $80 billion. That is 20% below the very emphatically proclaimed targets, which, according to OECD forecasts, will not be achieved until 2023. Furthermore, most of these funds (over 70%) are provided in the form of loans rather than grants, thus exacerbating the already very severe debt situation for many recipients. If that was not enough, the funds are also seriously skewed in favour of measures aimed at mitigating the causes of climate change (about two thirds of the total) rather than adapting to its consequences. Although treating the causes rather than the symptoms may appear to be the most logical course of action, from the viewpoint of the Global South, which is responsible for a minimal share of emissions – especially on a per capita or historical basis – and is also the part of the world worst affected by the consequences of climate change, this distribution of funds looks designed to neglect their real needs.
Loss and damage: how to compensate vulnerable countries?
Indeed, if we focus our attention on the damages, we open a whole new chapter, a chapter that is normally grouped under the heading ‘loss and damage’. Although there is no universally accepted, formal definition of “loss and damage”, the term is used in climate jargon to describe all the residual impacts of climate change. In other words, the potential negative impacts, mainly stemming from extreme events, such as droughts, heat waves, tropical cyclones and floods, and slow-onset events, including rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans, rising temperatures, desertification, loss of biodiversity, degradation of forests and soil, shrinking glaciers and salinisation, which materialise after all possible mitigation and adaptation measures have been put in place. The core issue is that climate change has already caused permanent, irreversible losses to many countries in the Global South. For example, the inhabitants of many island states need to be relocated because rising sea-levels will swallow their land, and they are therefore well beyond the reach of straightforward funding to help them adapt to the changes taking place. What they are asking for, by contrast, is compensation for the damage done. It is immediately clear how this can be politically divisive, well beyond the various frequently cited technicalities regarding, for example, how to identify this damage. Indeed, the issue of “loss and damage” was not included in the Paris Agreement and was a major cause of friction at the COP in Glasgow. This friction was then channelled into the “Glasgow Climate pact”. This pact noted the failure to reach $100 billion by 2020, announced the start of work on setting a new financial target for the post-2025 period and reminded developed countries to double their funding (compared with 2019 levels) for adaptation by 2025 to achieve a better balance between mitigation and adaptation. It also recognised climate-driven loss and damage sustained by the most vulnerable countries and marked the start of negotiations on setting up a specific fund dedicated to it. Up until today this fund still does not exist and we are seeing it is a growing cause of division.
A question of distribution
A quick glance at trends in climate finance immediately reveals that the rhetoric about combating climate change is not backed up by adequate action. This is inherent in the nature of the problem that is being addressed and which involves, among other things, actions designed to redistribute resources in a context where there is little perception of ‘shared destinies’, an element that is a must for any distributive policy. Russia’s war on Ukraine, the headwinds of confrontation gathering pace in the Indopacific and the growing split between the United States and China will only deepen this general feeling of mutual mistrust. It is already visible now, for example, in the way that narratives are being manipulated to suggest that Western sanctions against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (rather than the invasion itself) are the cause of the food shortages and economic crises that are piling more and more pressure on the countries of the Global South, which are already severely debilitated by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. The fact that the next COP is to be held on African soil, in Sharm El-Sheikh, under an Egyptian Presidency firmly committed to focusing the negotiations on the issue of finance and climate justice between the Global North and South heightens the risk that the talks will act as a detonator and drive the parties even further apart.
Western diplomacy will thus have the difficult task of keeping a united front on the fight against climate change, and avoiding its weaponisation in relation to other geopolitical issues and narratives. The needs of emerging economies cannot and must not be ignored, and positive signs are already visible in this respect. One example is Denmark, which has become the first country to allocate funds specifically to “loss and damage” (Scotland and Wallonia did this before Denmark, but neither country is recognised by the United Nations). At the same time, however, there must be no easing of efforts to mitigate climate change, which is the only real solution to the problem. This also implies for western diplomacies to immediately counters those narratives that accuse the West of double standards when it turns to African hydrocarbons to replace Russian ones, while at the same time seeking to prevent Africans from using those same hydrocarbons for their development and calling upon them to use renewables instead.
The other ‘COPs’: biodiversity and desertification
Lastly, the related COP events on biodiversity and desertification also warrant close attention. At the pre-COP in Kinshasa in early October, the proposal for “tropical” coordination between Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo has been put forward among the general indifference of the media and policy makers. Most of the world’s rainforests, which act as the world’s lungs, are located on the territory of these three countries, which have decided to act together to deal more effectively with issues such as the funding of forest conservation and biodiversity that they see as a service they are providing for the world. This will prompt them to act in concert throughout the forthcoming rounds of negotiations, including COP27 on climate in Sharm El-Sheikh in November and COP15 on biodiversity in Montreal in December. This is another clear indicator that our own policy should also start treating these issues in a more integrated way.