The UN summit on climate change in Doha this week is entering the end game, amidst increasing frustration from all sides at the glacial pace of negotiations (and this glacier shows no signs of melting).
Amidst the rancour, Professor Nick Stern, perhaps the leading thinker on climate action and negotiations, has thrown a huge challenge into the talks, by explaining the ‘brutal arithmetic’ of our greenhouse gas emissions. To stay below an average global temperature rise of 2C, “stronger action will be required from developing countries, even if developed countries reduce their emissions to zero by 2030”. Stern goes on to say that in the interests both of fairness and getting results, developing countries’ efforts will have to be supported by rich countries’ know-how, technology, and finance.
This really matters: equity (let’s just call it fairness) is not a barrier to ambition in the talks, but rather its enabler. Rich countries’ willingness to support developing countries’ shift to low carbon development, and their adaptation to the climate change that already threatens poor people’s lives and livelihoods, is key to unlocking higher ambition from all countries. Ambition for emission cuts and equity are two sides of the same coin. The failure to grasp this at the talks in Copenhagen in 2009, led to that failure. We cannot let it destroy Doha too.
But the Doha talks look dangerously mired on this. Developing countries are facing their own financial cliff this month, when three years of $30 billion in ‘Fast-Start Financing’ for emissions reduction and adaptation come to an end. This was mostly not ‘new and additional’ money (as was the promise), but mainly diverted from aid funds to ‘climate finance’. But at least it was reasonably predictable. Developing countries now find that rich countries are refusing to recommit to scaling up this funding, preferring broad assurances that bilateral climate finance will ‘continue’ (not necessarily ‘increase’). The UK is an honourable exception to this, pledging £1.8bn over the next two years. This reluctance may be understandable in a recession, but there are innovative sources of finance like the financial transaction tax, a tax on aviation and shipping, or closing tax loopholes and havens, which could raise billions, were they to be implemented.
Despite this lack of finance, developing countries are not standing around waiting for our cash before acting: the Stockholm Environment Institute calculates that the developing countries’ pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are already larger in absolute terms than rich countries’ promises. This extraordinary disparity looks set to be reinforced at Doha as the rich countries refuse to join an extended climate change agreement (USA, Canada, Russia, New Zealand and Japan), or improve on their lowly targets for reducing emissions (the US has said no further action should be expected before 2020) or only promise reductions they have effectively already achieved, partly through the economic recession (EU).
Meanwhile the least developed countries’ main concern is supporting their vulnerable citizens to adapt to climate change that is already wreaking havoc through increased droughts, floods and temperature extremes. This needs finance. As Yvette Abrahams, an Oxfam partner from South Africa, said to rich country negotiators in Doha: “My family is meeting this Christmas to discuss moving (from our ancestral land). We cannot stay, as the heat has stopped the grass growing, and there will be nothing to feed our livestock. So the very little we have managed to preserve through slavery, colonialism and apartheid, we are about to lose to climate change. That is why we do not understand why climate finance is so difficult to deal with (in these talks). What I have paid is all I have. Whatever it is your ancestors have done, I appeal to you to not leave this to your children.”
Stern calls for the principle of ‘equitable access to sustainable development’ to replace the vested interests, zero sum games, and redlines that currently paralyse the negotiations. Every country, and especially the high emitters, will have to take on higher targets if we are to avoid runaway climate change. The question is whether that will be done fairly or not. This is a collective action challenge like no other and we need collective and fair action. We need to hang together or, assuredly, we will hang apart.