COP26 In Glasgow: Developed Countries Should Stop Giving Excuses, Keep Climate Finance Commitments
Elephants in northern Europe roamed around in the Ice Age. They became extinct several thousand years back. In the Roman and the British empires, elephants were imported or gifted from other regions like Asia and Africa.
In the 21st century in Glasgow, Scotland there will be, however, the proverbial elephant in the conference room. That invisible giant will silently loom over the outcomes of COP26 (Oct 31-Nov 12) and dwarf the hyped expectations of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC).
Humanity is presently in the midst of a ‘new normal'. Many call it 'extreme normal'. The nano-metre size new coronavirus stunning human society that boasts of possessing artificial intelligence is nothing short of science fiction.
And the concurrent devastating consequences that include loss of life and property because of the upending of climate is even a ‘new erratic’. Shouts for help and action from small-island countries surrounded by existential threats are getting drowned in the applause after the speeches of powerful world leaders at 76th United Nations General Assembly in New York. Powergames of newly regrouped and realigned countries are spilling the beans of narrow hidden intentions of superpowers.
As the speeches in UNGA continue, concurrent heavy rains have caused inundation in several countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, India, Sudan and China. The devastating wildfires, which started from the beginning of the year, or even earlier, are still ravaging the forests of California (US), Morocco, France, Greece and Spain.
Droughts following water scarcity, extreme storms, the unheard merging of two or more weather systems, melting of glaciers at unprecedented speed and breaking off of massive ice-shelf in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans are all pointing to an all-pervading climate emergency.
Response from UNGA in New York has been stereotypical as if there are no lessons to be learned from Covid-19 and all extreme events are like ‘new normal’. Speeches embellished with lofty promises by world leaders to enhance the emission reduction ambition are mismatched by the ground actions – a three-decade-old story that gets repeated ad nauseum. There was much speculation about whether new alliances like Quad – comprising USA, India, Australia and Japan - would even make any further promises and more ambitious announcements on emission reductions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) over and above what they have already announced.
There have been over the past one year cloud-bursts of promises of carbon neutrality as strongly urged by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) but unfortunately, a drought of political will persists. Those who protest against inaction are themselves not ready to bend the emission curves as exemplified in France when President Emmanuel Macron decided to impose a carbon tax.
Apart from nationalistic considerations and political compulsions, there is one prominent reason that needs immediate attention, without which the world is destined to fall from the so-called towering development that part of the world claims.
Suppose one looks back to when the year 2021 started. US President Joe Biden kept his campaign promise to get back into the Paris Climate Agreement, the largest collective international effort ever to curb global warming, by signing the executive order on 20th January 2021, the day he assumed the top office.
John Kerry, called Climate Czar, given his role in the ‘success’ of the Paris Climate Agreement, was appointed by Biden as his climate envoy. Interestingly, he also heads the National Security Council of the US. Indeed, climate change is considered a threat to national security not only by the USA but by many countries. Economists now put forward the possible links of monstrous climate change to terrorism, illegal migration and even Covid-19.
Over the last 9 months, the US is pushing for a frenzy of demands for enhanced ambitions related to cutting down CO2 emissions by half in this decade and achieving ‘net zero’ by 2050. John Kerry is being dispatched, to prepare for Biden's various summits with world leaders and to extract more ambitious cuts in emissions to achieve carbon neutrality. He has already visited India, China, Russia, Japan, UK, Middle East, Bangladesh, just to name some.
But at no point in time has he assured the developing countries of fulfilling the promise that the US gave in 2009 in COP-15 in Copenhagen. That promise was of developed countries providing climate finance to the developing countries.
Principles not followed
Three seminal principles are followed in negotiating and implementing Multilateral Environmental Agreements. One, early action as a precaution; second, common but differentiated responsibilities as per respective capabilities; and third, polluters pay to help developing countries as part of moral responsibility which is now called part of climate justice under climate agreement.
In the case of climate change, the first principle has been grossly diluted because of inaction and inadequate political will to step up the mitigation of emissions by the developed countries under Kyoto Protocol.
The second principle was nearly drowned in the Paris Climate Agreement when both developed and developing countries were needed to give the commitments at the same time, though developed countries are historically responsible for carbon emissions. That was considered Kerry’s success. And the third, about climate financing, though still alive, is the elephant in a COP26 conference room in Glasgow.
These three principles are not quixotic elements for international negotiations. They are tested by the world. The Montreal Protocol, which is another universally ratified multilateral treaty aimed at protecting the Ozone Layer, has been singularly successful because of orderly agreement and implementation of these principles over the last three and half decades.
Strangely, Kerry, while extracting ambitious emission cuts during his rounds of developing countries, does not talk about meeting the financial commitments given by President Barack Obama in Copenhagen in 2009. He talks only about initiating a ‘finance dialogue’ with developing countries.
India’s stand, climate finance
India’s former Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar and his successor, Bhupender Yadav, have, however, been regularly reminding the developed countries and particularly Kerry on the commitment. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, contrary to the US expectations, not announced carbon neutrality during his US visit.
A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in December 2020 recalled that climate finance, as part of the ‘polluter to pay’ principle, was enshrined way back when United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992 at the Earth summit. UNFCCC has now been universally ratified. Since then, climate finance has been on the agenda of every climate conference, starting from COP1.
The commitments in COP15 held in Copenhagen in 2009 included financial support to developing countries for new technologies and technical assistance, starting with a more modest USD 10 billion per year, rising to USD 100 billion per year from 2020 and then rising (the level of rise was not decided) to 2025.
Had the developed countries fulfilled the finance commitment of the Copenhagen COP15 by 2021, the additional and new climate finance would have cumulatively, as per simple calculations, run into USD 700 billion. It is not clear how much more is needed for those developing countries that in 2020 committed to additional emission cuts. It is also not yet known how much more climate finance is needed for achieving 50 percent carbon neutrality by 2030, leave alone the finance needed for net-zero emissions by 2050.
Dilution of commitment
Though it was clear that climate finance committed to developing countries as per COP16 in Cancun would be strictly ‘new’ and ‘additional’, recently there have been messy interpretations and diverse suggestions from developed countries’ negotiators, evidently to dilute the commitment.
They have argued that bilateral and multilateral aids from development banks for climate-related projects (for example bilateral development aid for building hydraulic dams) and private business investments (like renewable energy technology agreements between private business), loans (like from World Bank and Asian Development Bank for clean energy) and concessional finance (for example from regional banks and foundations for electrical vehicles) should also be counted as part of climate finance support to developing countries under the Paris Climate Agreement.
There is yet another fund for ‘adaptation’ (AF) established two decades back. It was especially for protecting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. There is an ongoing discussion and misleading statements (intentional or otherwise) if AF is part of the promise of USD 100 billion per year from 2020.
And the negotiations on finance have got further entangled, for want of financial support required for developing countries from ‘Loss and Damage’ (for example because of loss of revenue/profits when fossil fuel producing developing countries lose the markets).
As per reports from Oxfam and OECD as well as the Independent Expert group, even after counting all the sources of climate finance, annual support to developing countries fluctuates widely from year to year and on average is around USD 20 billion per year till 2020 which is far from USD 100 billion.
If only ‘new and additional’ funding by Green Climate Fund (GCF), which started its operation in 2011, is considered, total cumulative new and additional funding committed by developed countries till now is only USD 10 billion (actual project allotment is less than this) which means USD 1 billion per year from 2011.
Cumulative funds for climate projects under Global Environment Fund, established in 2010, are meager USD 7 Billion along with about USD 60 billion in co-financing from other governments or the private sector, making an annual figure of around just about USD 4 billion. The total of GCF and GEF – new and additional funding - thus comes to about USD 5 billion per year against USD 10 billion in 2010 rising to USD 100 billion per year in 2020.
So the elephant will be very much there in the conference room of COP26 in Glasgow - in the shape of mighty excuses given by the developed countries of economic slowdown following Covid-19 for not meeting their (financial) commitments.
(The writer is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre and former Director, UNEP. The views expressed are personal. Published In Arrangement With South Asia Monitor)