The 27th meeting of the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, popularly called COP 27, concluded on November 20 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt. A United Nations press note on the decisions of the conference stated that COP27 concluded with a “historic decision to establish and operationalise a loss and damage fund”. Such enthusiastic words about any aspect of the international community’s decisions on climate change cannot but evoke cynicism. This is because the developed world, which has been responsible for climate change in the first place, has reneged on all its solemn promises since the time the world began to take serious note of the adverse impact of anthropogenic climate change. That was three decades ago. Despite all the fine words used by the leaders of the developed world during COP27 there is simply no evidence of seriousness on their part to take up the challenge of climate change which requires unpopular political and economic decisions in their individual countries.
The enormous devastation impact of climate change was witnessed earlier this year in Pakistan. Unprecedented floods, caused by a wayward monsoon, inundated around 10% of the country’s area. More than 1700 people lost their lives, crops were destroyed and a financial loss of around US $ 40 billion was sustained by Pakistan. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif lamented that Pakistan did not contribute to climate change but had to bear its brunt. He sought compensation. Other leaders did so too, including those of small island developing countries. These leaders, in the words of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, sought “Justice for those on the frontlines who did so little to cause the crisis…”.
The problem is that the developed world, notwithstanding all its grandstanding, is simply not willing to look at climate change from the angle of justice. It does so from the narrow perspectives of global power politics and the financial and economic welfare of its people even if that conflicts with the welfare of planet. Some of the leaders of the developed world—notable among them being former US President Donald Trump— are simply unwilling to see what Guterres does “Climate crisis is a crisis of biblical proportions. The signs are everywhere. Instead of a burning bush, we face a burning planet”.
The real difficulties regarding a loss and damage fund will lie in its operationalisation. It is always easy to take decisions in principle. That applies to nation states as it does to the international community. The devil lies in their implementation, especially those relating to their details. A decision has been taken to set up a ‘transitional committee’. Its task will be, according to a UN media release, to ‘operationalise both the new funding arrangements and the fund’. In other words it will have to recommend inter alia the size of the fund, who will contribute to it, mechanisms for evaluating ‘loss and damage’ and the bureaucracy for such evaluations. The first meeting of the ‘transitional committee’ is to be held by March 2023 and the committee’s recommendations are to be submitted to COP 28 which is scheduled to be held from November 30 to December 12 in the United Arab Emirates next year.
It is quite possible that the transitional committee is unable to meet its deadline but, even if it does, a loss and damage fund should not become a way out for the developed world to spread some largesse to the difficulties suffered by smaller states and thereby avoid taking the necessary steps to adapt their economies to climate change or avoid giving them new adaptive or mitigating technologies as they develop. Naturally such technologies should be supplied free and without strings attached. This the developed world has refused to do till now. It has effectively abandoned the basic principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’. The essence of that principle was to acknowledge that the developed world was historically responsible for beginning the process of anthropogenic climate change and therefore also had the responsibility to eliminate the emission of green house gases and help the developing countries to build their economies without carbon intensive energy.
Over the past three decades the developed countries effectively moved away from the basic principles on which the entire global effort to ensure that the global temperatures did not go above 1.5% Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Instead of changing life styles but ensuring that the global engine of growth did not slow down some leaders of the developed world continued to deny even the fact that anthropogenic climate change was taking place. This was much like the tobacco industry which used every legal stratagem, and some outside the law, to deny for decades that tobacco was carcinogenic and its use should be eliminated. Indeed till now all countries discourage the use of tobacco but no country, including India, has taken steps to treat as a substance whose cultivation should be made illegal. Hypocrisy abounds when economic and financial interests are at stake.
Guterres said at the conclusion of COP27 “Our planet is still in the emergency room. We need to drastically reduce emissions now—and this is an issue which this COP did not address”. He went on to add “The world still needs a giant leap on climate ambition”. These words sum up the great challenge on climate change. Despite the evidence of loss and damage everywhere, including on its own territories the developed world is simply not showing the will needed to confront what is truly the existential issue of our times.