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19 November 2021

Why a commitment to justice is not an optional extra in tackling the climate crisis

If rich countries and elites do not recognise and compensate for their historic emissions, their poorer counterparts may justifiably refuse to cooperate.

By James Meadway

As the fallout from Cop26 continues, much of the attention in the UK has focused on the last minute redrafting of the final conference text, which saw a commitment to “phase out” fossil fuel subsidies diluted to “phase down”. Alok Sharma, the UK’s Cop26 president, was quick to blame India and China for the revision. But their actions are best understood in the context of a far bigger failure – that of the richest economies to properly recognise their contribution to the immense costs of climate change.

The distribution of these costs is fast becoming the central issue in climate change politics. Rising global temperatures bring, in train, increased climate instability from more frequent extreme weather events like this year’s worldwide floods and wildfires. Meanwhile, societies adapted to one, relatively stable climate will suddenly find themselves faced with significant new costs as crops can no longer be grown in formerly fertile areas, coastland is eroded by rising seawater, new disease outbreaks affect meat production, and so on.

The costs of this are already very significant. The World Bank estimated in 2016 that $520bn was lost each year as a result of natural disasters, with 26 million people forced into poverty annually. These figures are only forecast to rise. Only some of this expense can be avoided through adaptation – such as building flood defences. Some unavoidable “loss and damage” will still be felt – and unevenly: while it is wealthier countries that have done the most to accelerate climate change through their historic emissions, it is poorer countries who will bear most of the future consequences.

Global justice therefore demands a redistribution from the richer countries to the poorer. ActionAid has calculated that a fair distribution of the future costs of climate change would mean the US and the EU paying 54 per cent of them, on the basis of their historic contributions to emissions.

The G77 group of less developed countries called, before Cop, for a $100bn “loss and damage facility”, to be paid by the historic emitters. The demand was rebuffed by the US and the EU, who removed text from the draft document and instead pushed through a mealy-mouthed commitment to “dialogue” on the issue. This was a critical failing in the negotiations. It is difficult for high-income nations to argue credibly for poorer ones to accelerate their efforts to, for example, wean their economies off fossil fuels while failing to recognise and compensate for their own emissions. Why should poorer nations bear the costs of decarbonisation and the costs of richer countries’ earlier emissions? As Greenpeace International’s head, Jennifer Morgan, has said, meaningful progress on loss and damage was “key” to unlocking Cop26 negotiations. Without clear commitments on financing for losses and recognition of historic contributions, developing countries – especially the larger economies – will have little incentive to support and pursue more ambitious targets for mitigation. India’s objections to the “phase out” fossil fuel text in the main document were couched in precisely these terms.

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But what already applies between countries will increasingly apply within countries, too. As analysis by Oxfam highlighted as early as 2015, the per capita contribution to emissions of the top 10 per cent in the G20 countries far outstrips the contribution of the poorest 50 per cent in each. Even the poorest 50 per cent in the US have per capita emissions closer to those of China’s poorest 50 per cent than to those of their own elite. And just as the devastating consequences of climate change will be inflicted most heavily on the poorer countries, the poorest inside even the richer countries will suffer more too, from worsening health to greater exposure to flooding risks.

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The case for redistribution at the global level therefore applies also within nations too. If there is a route to building an effective, global movement for the planet it will be one that ties its demands for the transformation of our economies directly to the demand for justice, globally and nationally – a demand for a grand redistribution of not only wealth itself, but of what, in the form of environmental damage, we suffer as the costs of that wealth.

[See also: Cop26 was a failure but the shows of solidarity around Glasgow are cause for hope]

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