By Mihir Sharma
At their heart, climate negotiations are about one thing: Who pays? Usually, the fight is over who will pay to save the world — by financing projects, such as solar farms, that would help reduce carbon emissions in the future.
Disagreements on such questions go deep enough. But the deepest anger is reserved for another issue: Who will pay for the damage already done by climate change?
Last year, global leaders accepted the principle that the “loss and damage” caused by climate change deserves attention. They did this partly to take the edge off the developing world’s resentments and make broader climate action possible again. Early this month in Abu Dhabi, countries seemed to agree on a new “loss and damage” fund, to be hosted initially at the World Bank, that would compensate those suffering from the worst consequences of climate change.
But political battles over who pays and who receives may give rise to even deeper resentments. Climate change spans the world and affects everything from people’s livelihoods to public infrastructure to health outcomes. Who will decide which of these costs is the most deserving of compensation? How can anyone be trusted to measure and make up for all the damage climate change has already done? Recognizing injustice is easy. Reparative justice is hard.
In reality, the Abu Dhabi agreement exposes the three basic problems that prevent us from taking real climate action as a global community.
First, relations between the developed and developing world have broken down. Poorer countries, in particular, suspect they concede too much without getting anything substantive in return. Many developing nations, for example, wanted any new fund to be set up free of the institutional biases they claim pervade the current international financial system.
In response to sustained pressure from Europe and the US, they caved and agreed that the new fund would be housed at the World Bank, at least initially. In return, they didn’t get firm commitments on anything — whether the amount that would be paid in, when the disbursements would start, or how payments would be made. Mistrust between the developed and the developing world has hit new lows.
Second, emerging nations are themselves trying to pull off a giant con job by pretending that they have shared concerns. The “Global South” is hardly a monolith; its internal divisions can run deeper than those between some of its members and the rich world.
Even a well-funded loss-and-damage fund would struggle to decide who should get compensation at all. The idea has been spearheaded by the leaders of small island states, for whom global warming is genuinely an existential threat. The West agrees and would like transfers focused on vulnerable islands and the poorest countries.
But middle-income nations such as Pakistan — which suffered a $30 billion loss when floods swept through its heavily populated plains last year — aren’t OK with giving their share to those even poorer. Global warming has forced them to the brink of a humanitarian crisis as well, they say, so why should they be excluded from payouts? In their rhetoric, the representatives of the developing world take aim at the West; their actions are those of people trying to elbow each other to the front of the queue.
And finally, there’s a US-shaped hole in every feasible climate solution. Everyone outside the US agrees that, as America has contributed the most carbon to the atmosphere, by far, it should pay out the most.
But no US administration is capable of committing even a single taxpayer dollar to global climate justice. This consistently undermines any chance of global agreement. At the last minute in Abu Dhabi, after everyone thought some sort of consensus had been achieved, the US representative objected that the voluntary nature of the fund had not been made sufficiently explicit.
The rest of the world, including other rich countries, saw this as a betrayal of a hard-won victory. It also seems that the US doesn’t intend its own contribution to be grants of public money, but philanthropic funds and concessional loans, among others. That money would have been available for humanitarian work anyway. With the US unable or unwilling to make any credible commitments, the rest of the world is floundering around trying to compensate for its lack of leadership.
Loss-and-damage is the hardest part of climate justice. But even easier tasks — getting the finance for new solar plants right, for example — looks impossible at the moment. Unless trust is rebuilt, the developing world recognizes that some of us need more help than others, and the US manages to live up to its position as a global leader, the upcoming COP28 climate change conference will achieve even less than its predecessors did.
(Published 13 November 2023, 03:15 IST)