The world’s nations met for the 23rd “Conference of the Parties”, or COP23, in Bonn, Germany from 6th-17th November. The conference occurs annually under the UN Framework of Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and creates a much-needed platform for international discussions regarding global warming and sustainability.
The Paris climate agreement saw only voluntary pledges by nations to cut emissions, and was further undermined when the USA, which is the second largest producer of carbon emissions, pulled out of the agreement earlier this year. Climate talks have been on shaky grounds ever since. The conference in Bonn was necessary to set out more concrete emission targets and address various issues of contention between categories of countries. One of the most relevant but divisive debates concerns the issue of “loss and damages”. This refers to the claim that poorer countries should be paid ‘compensation’ for the costs incurred by climate change - a phenomenon to which they have contributed very little to. Significantly, this year’s conference was run by Fiji- the first time the presidency has been held by one of the small island nations most at risk from climate shocks and rising sea levels.
Climate talks at COP23 inevitably expanded to include a focus on adapting to the damaging consequences of climate change after the world experienced natural disasters on an unprecedented scale over the last year. The large frequency and intensity of these disasters is due to global warming, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Northern Atlantic high-impact hurricanes included the well-publicised Harvey and Irma in the USA and Maria in the Caribbean. Serious flooding occurred in parts of Nepal, Bangladesh and India resulting in more than 1200 deaths with around 40 million people displaced or affected. Flooding caused widespread damage in Sierra Leone, China, Peru and the United States. On the other hand, many African countries faced droughts, with Kenya declaring it a “national disaster”. There were also wildfires, heatwaves and an overall rising global temperatures. Fiji itself suffered great damages after Cyclone Winston in 2016 and is extremely vulnerable to the repercussions of rising sea levels. The controversy, however, lies in the role of developed countries in this process of adaptation.
The IPCC has shown that climate change will hit poorer countries the hardest, both due to their geographical characteristics and the capacity of their populations to adapt.
It is further acknowledged that rich countries have contributed more significantly to carbon emissions, resource depletion and pollution at the expense of developing nations.
These facts underpin the debate surrounding the financing of “action and support” in response to climate change. Developing countries believe that direct responsibility lies on developed ones, and it is clear that their demands are justified. While rich nations pledged minimal but continued funding to help poorer countries adapt to climate change in 2009, COP23 saw African officials claiming that they have received much less than what was promised. Unfortunately, the discussion regarding financing for loss and damages was deferred to 2018, with negotiators from rich countries rejecting any claims for compensation. Australia and the EU claimed that “not every disaster is caused by climate change”. While there were contributions in funding for causes such as reforestation, there was no significant development for the cause overall. A compromise that is being promoted by western nations is supplying widespread and cheap insurance to vulnerable populations. However, this ‘solution’ glosses over damages that occur slowly, such as the depletion of common access resources, rising sea levels, ocean acidification or loss in productivity due to rising temperatures. The discussions failed to such an extent that, reportedly, NGO’s are thinking of suing the governments of rich nations over their inaction.
The flooded apron of an airport near Kathmandu, Nepal (August 2017, The Guardian)
Climate justice should be an important factor in the global discourse surrounding climate change. Competitive and antagonistic outlooks prevent developed countries from acknowledging the role that they have played in contributing to global warming. This, in turn, prevents fair solutions. It is imperative that there is a universal consensus on the urgency required to prevent the further deterioration of the planet’s ecosystems. In order to face the looming crisis that is threatening every single nation, countries need to stop acting out of self-interest and try to work constructively towards solutions which are practical, fair and enforced properly.
N.B. This article reflects the author’s opinions only.
“I think it's important that developed countries address the root of the problem first by reducing emissions and increasing their investments in sustainable technologies. This could be more effective than providing compensation to poorer countries.” - Konnor, MORSE, 1st year
“COP23 discussions resulted in some key successes which I think are important to recognise in areas such as gender equality, agriculture, health and the oceans. However, I strongly agree that there is still a lot of work to be done by the richer nations in recognising that they are at least partly at fault and that more must be done.” - Ellie, Economics and GSD, 1st year