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17 November 2021

Leader: A failure of climate justice

The West’s broken promises to developing countries have hindered global action on climate change.

By New Statesman

Cop26 was routinely billed as humanity’s last chance to save the planet. Burdened by such expectations, the UN climate change ­conference in Glasgow, which ended on 12 November, was always likely to disappoint.

The impression of failure was enhanced by Cop26 president Alok Sharma’s emotional apology to small ­island nations and others for the final agreement, which promised only to “phase down”, rather than “phase out”, coal power. To avoid the risk of ­irreversible and ­catastrophic climate change, the world has pledged to try to hold the temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But based on the pledges made at Cop26, it will increase by 2.4°C by 2100.

Behind these abstract figures are human lives. Two degrees of warming would expose hundreds of millions more people to famine, drought, flooding and wildfires. Food shortages and uninhabitable land would create a new era of mass climate migration and geopolitical resource conflicts. Coral reefs, meanwhile, would decline by as much as 99 per cent and animals, plants and insects would lose more than half their habitats.

The world was failing on climate action before Cop26 and it is still failing now. All that can perhaps be said is that it is failing better. When the UK assumed the Cop26 presidency two years ago, only 30 per cent of the world was covered by net zero targets. But this figure now stands at 90 per cent, including the US, China, the EU, Japan, Russia and Saudi Arabia. These targets are too focused on the long term, but the principle of net zero has been conceded.

As well as the inadequate vow to phase out coal ­power, commitments were made at Cop26 to end deforestation, slash methane emissions, end the licensing of new oil and gas fields and phase out sales of new petrol and diesel cars. South Africa will be provided with $8.5bn – from the US, UK, France, Germany and the EU – to close coal plants faster and decarbonise its economy. It is easier, however, to make promises than to keep them.

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This much has been proved by the West’s betrayal of developing countries. In 2009, the developed world ­promised to provide $100bn a year by 2020 to help ­poorer countries adapt to the impact of climate change. But not only has this deadline been missed, the full sum will now not be provided until 2023.

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And the $100bn figure – which represents just $13 per person in the Global South – falls far short of what is required. As Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s permanent ambassador to the UN, observed at Cop26: “One event alone, Cyclone Winston, wiped out 30 per cent of the Fijian economy. If this were transposed on to the UK economy, it would be worth £900bn. And we are supposed to be able to withstand that type of shock?”

Climate justice is both a moral obligation and an act of self-interest. Global GDP is forecast to fall by as much as 14 per cent if temperatures rise by 2.0 to 2.6°C.

At Cop26, the previously obscure Mr Sharma emerged with honour. But his credibility was undermined by the UK’s decision in 2020 to cut foreign aid spending from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income (a ­shamelessly populist move that will not be reversed until 2024-25). By halving air passenger duty on domestic flights, which are already far cheaper and more polluting than train journeys, the British government further weakened its own negotiating position.

There is no issue that necessitates global cooperation more than the climate crisis. But it remains in ­desperately short supply. As Bruno Maçães, the author and former Portuguese minister, writes in his column on page 19, it is raw national self-interest that is most likely to deliver the transformation required: “countries and ­governments are destined to become more serious once they ­understand that a deadly race for power is about to begin”.

For now, the climate crisis is only accelerating. After falling by a record 7 per cent in 2020 during the worldwide shutdown, carbon emissions are forecast to rise this year at the second fastest rate in history.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed five million lives and is resurging in Europe, offers a preview of the cost of global fragmentation. If the world is to avert a yet worse fate, it must do more than fail better at Cop27.

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This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand