UPDATE: Observers called it the most bruising — as well as ineffectual — UN climate summit yet. Even UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was disappointed with the outcome. Countries were supposed to arrive at the annual meeting to discuss plans for dramatically ramping up work to transition to clean energy and bring down emissions, but conversations stalled over creative carbon accounting loopholes and devolved from there.
As the last day of the conference dawned on Sunday, December 15, the United States and a few other countries had succeeded in weakening language on “loss and damage” caused by climate disaster, removing even an unenforceable mention of developed countries’ responsibility to assist poorer countries to cope with climate change. In negotiating sessions that went into the wee hours of the morning, the United States had gotten the changes it wanted, undermining any future effort to assign climate liability or make historic polluters pay more for their role in warming the planet.
At one point in the final two-day marathon negotiations, the representative from Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific, suggested that denying climate change could be interpreted as “a crime against humanity.”
One silver lining: Countries punted on new carbon trading rules, for now.
MADRID — With climate-related disasters happening “at the rate of one a week,” according to the United Nations, more than 150 civil society organizations around the world are using the UN climate negotiations this week to stand with the Global South. They are pushing for demands set out in an open letter to negotiators in November, including a new global climate fund to aid poor countries in the midst of climate catastrophes.
The organizations say it’s about time for a rethink of climate financing as climate-related disasters like extreme storms, droughts, floods and famines take a mounting economic toll on poor countries. Worldwide costs are estimated to grow to between $300 and $700 billion a year by 2030. To cover the costs, poor countries must increasingly borrow from development aid, which is “pushing them into a debt trap,” says Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change with ActionAid International, one of the 150-plus organizations that signed the letter.
The United States and other wealthy countries made a pledge in 2010 to commit $100 billion annually to assist poorer countries, but wealthier countries have consistently failed to pay in. The new proposal calls for a comprehensive and mandatory new fund to help poor countries recover that would make an additional $50 billion available by 2022 and gradually increase the amount to $300 billion a year by 2030.
The money would come from the wealthy countries that are responsible for the vast majority of the emissions behind climate change. Additional funds could be raised from taxes on air travel, fossil fuels and financial transactions. The money would go directly to local organizations working in frontline communities in the Global South to help with rebuilding, recovery and resilience efforts.
However, with negotiations still going on as nighttime fell in Madrid, all suggestion of additional mandatory climate funds have met stiff resistance from wealthy countries. The 47 members of the Least Developed Countries group pushed new “loss and damage” funding commitments, using much of the language culled from the environmental groups’ proposal. But the rich countries that would have to foot the bill, including the United States, Singh says, “would not even engage.”
Earlier in the week, Singh expressed optimism about proposals for beefing up climate recovery funding through something called The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts, or WIM. But by late Thursday, a draft of WIM circulating among negotiators included no mention of additional funding but merely urged developed countries and others to “scale up” their financial commitments. The reality, Singh said, is that a failure to mandate additional funding would merely spread existing funds around more thinly, thus “exposing more people to climate disasters.”
The lack of commitment to countries in the Global South has prompted unprecedented protests this year, both inside of the negotiating halls, led by youth and indigenous activists, and outside on the streets, where an estimated 500,000 people marched with Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg on Friday, December 6. On Thursday more than 300 activists from around the globe protested just outside of the room where climate talks were taking place. Banging on pots and pans in a version of what is known in Latin America as a cacerolazo, they chanted slogans and yelled “Shame!” until security guards rounded them up, snatching conference IDs from around activists’ necks and herding them out of the building.
In response, UN officials threatened to bar all international observers from the talks, saying the protests were “illegal” under the UN’s code of conduct. After tense negotiations, UN officials agreed to let some but not all of the international observers back into the conference after extracting promises not to carry out any more so-called “illegal protests.” The Fridays for Future organization responded by calling an emergency climate strike this afternoon worldwide.
Activists have denounced the UN for allowing oil company executives to roam free while controlling the access of activists. “The UN should be kicking polluters out of the talks, but instead they are kicking people out,” says Sara Shaw, international program coordinator for climate justice and energy at Friends of the Earth International.
Oil companies and the U.S. government have emerged as the biggest villains of this year’s conference. Increasingly, companies are looking to profitable approaches like trading in carbon offset projects. While wining and dining negotiators over drinks and canapes, industry experts, corporate friendly environmental groups and corporate executives have outlined an array of “market-based solutions” to the climate crisis — despite warnings from scientific experts that it’s magical thinking to assume the world can trade its way out of more than a fraction of the necessary emissions reductions. This week’s industry proposals include plans to launch broad new markets in “natural climate solutions” that will involve investing in everything from mangrove preservation to sustainable farming and more.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration, which is in the process of withdrawing from the UN Paris climate agreement, has taken advantage of its waning negotiating power to push for renewed assurances that the United States and other big polluters can’t be held accountable for historic pollution. This “liability” issue — the same one assailing the world’s fossil fuel companies — have been among the most contentious issues in past climate negotiations, which is what led to the “loss and damage” provision being included to help poor countries, in the first place. As negotiations continued Friday, U.S. delegates kept pushing for a liability and compensation waiver included in the final WIM document, a move that Taylor Billings of Corporate Accountability International referred to in Buzzfeed as “an ass-covering maneuver.”
“With this waiver, the U.S. is trying to torch critical elements of climate action on its way out of the Paris Agreement — and create an escape hatch for polluting countries and potentially corporations,” Billings told In These Times. “Across the negotiations, it’s obvious that the U.S. is attempting to gut the Paris Agreement of any promise and potential. That’s what they’ve always done in these talks. Shamefully, it’s not just the U.S. — the EU, Australia and Canada are helping the U.S. do its dirty work and cowering in Trump’s shadow when questioned about it.”
“The U.S. is lighting the house in fire as it’s on its way out the door and Global North governments like the EU, Australia and Canada are backing it every step of the way,” said Billings’ colleague Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director of Corporate Accountability, at an ActionAid press conference on the final day of the climate talks Friday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record, one person involved in negotiations told In These Times that the United States and other developed countries have been unwilling to discuss additional funding beyond the existing commitments for climate adaptation and resilience, in part because they don’t want to open the door to further discussion about climate blame. It remains a thorny issue whether wealthy industrialized countries should pay more to mitigate the impacts of climate change since they are responsible for the bulk of fossil fuel emissions, dating back to the bringing of the Industrial Revolution.
“The U.S. has been very clear that it doesn’t want anything more beyond adaption funding, because if you start talking about ‘loss and damage’ it gets into the issue of who is responsible for the fossil fuel emissions that have created the climate crisis,” the negotiator says.
“It is the U.S., EU, Canada, Japan and Australia that are not allowing any progress,” concurs Singh.
With poor and rich countries still far apart, there’s speculation that the negotiations may end without agreement on key issues. Some of the less costly ideas outlined in the open letter have found their way into the latest draft agreement. They include language stipulating a new “expert group” by 2020 to help poor countries grappling with climate damages and the creation of a “Santiago Network” for technical assistance, but without additional funding, those measures are expected to have limited effect.
Organizations that penned the open letter, which included 350.org, Friends of the Earth International and WWF International, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Climate Justice Project, say they are not giving up and will continue to push a comprehensive new approach to climate finance even after this year’s negotiation’s wrap up. The proposal by ActionAid and the other 150-plus groups also backs a temporary interest-free moratorium on foreign debt payments of poor countries in the throes of climate disasters. But that idea didn’t even get discussed by negotiators this year.
Dylan Hamilton, a Fridays for Future activist from Scotland, said in a press conference in Madrid today that the UN process “has failed us again” and promising to bring an even bigger fight next year at the 26th annual conference in Glasgow, Scotland, a half hour from where Hamilton lives.
“Get ready,” she said. “We’re going to be even bigger next year.”
Christine MacDonald is an investigative reporter and author, whose work focuses climate change, environmental sustainability and greenwashing. She was a 2019-2020 fellow with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.