The Global South Is Done Playing Mr. Nice Guy

Developing countries are finally ready to play hard ball over climate reparations.

By , a Berlin-based journalist.
A protestor wears a sticker on his mouth reading "Climate Justice Now" in front of a demonstration against climate change in central Poznan during the UN Climate Change Conference on December 6, 2008.
A protestor wears a sticker on his mouth reading "Climate Justice Now" in front of a demonstration against climate change in central Poznan during the UN Climate Change Conference on December 6, 2008.
A protestor wears a sticker on his mouth reading "Climate Justice Now" in front of a demonstration against climate change in central Poznan during the UN Climate Change Conference on December 6, 2008. WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The countries of the Global South are furious, and they’re heading to Egypt to vent their ire. From Nov. 6 to 18, representatives from the world’s developing countries will be at the seaside town of Sharm El Sheikh for the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP27, with one central goal on their collective agenda: to make rich countries finally own up to the harms that the climate change they are responsible for causing is inflicting itself in the form of floods and rising seas, wildfires and droughts on their populations. The issue is not new—it reverberated through the COP26 in Glasgow last year—but in the aftermath of flooding that submerged a third of Pakistan, as well as droughts across much of Africa and Asia, and disappearing island nations in Oceania, there is a fierce determination that won’t be deflected so easily this time around.

“We have failed to avert climate change, we’ve failed to minimize it, now we have to deal with it,” Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, told Foreign Policy. Huq has advised the poorer countries, including his native land, at all 26 previous climate summits. “If this doesn’t happen in Egypt, the whole COP process will become irrelevant, unfit for its stated purpose,” he argues.

Indeed, there is every indication that the gulf between the rich and poor countries is so great that a bitter standoff could upend the climate talks, just when substantial progress on mitigation and adaption, the COP’s main focus, is so urgently required.

The countries of the Global South are furious, and they’re heading to Egypt to vent their ire. From Nov. 6 to 18, representatives from the world’s developing countries will be at the seaside town of Sharm El Sheikh for the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP27, with one central goal on their collective agenda: to make rich countries finally own up to the harms that the climate change they are responsible for causing is inflicting itself in the form of floods and rising seas, wildfires and droughts on their populations. The issue is not new—it reverberated through the COP26 in Glasgow last year—but in the aftermath of flooding that submerged a third of Pakistan, as well as droughts across much of Africa and Asia, and disappearing island nations in Oceania, there is a fierce determination that won’t be deflected so easily this time around.

“We have failed to avert climate change, we’ve failed to minimize it, now we have to deal with it,” Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, told Foreign Policy. Huq has advised the poorer countries, including his native land, at all 26 previous climate summits. “If this doesn’t happen in Egypt, the whole COP process will become irrelevant, unfit for its stated purpose,” he argues.

Indeed, there is every indication that the gulf between the rich and poor countries is so great that a bitter standoff could upend the climate talks, just when substantial progress on mitigation and adaption, the COP’s main focus, is so urgently required.

For years now, the poor countries of the Global South have sought compensation, sometimes referred to as reparations or  “losses and damages,” for the humanitarian and physical fallout of climate change. They have labored to have redress recognized as a third pillar of the negotiations next to mitigation and adaption, but thus far, to naught. In moral terms, their logic is airtight: They have contributed minimally to the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming, yet they are bearing the brunt of its wrath. Climate justice dictates that the historical emitters should be liable for the damages.

This summer, for example, turbo-force monsoon rains left much of Pakistan underwater, with 1,700 people dead, 8 million displaced, and 1.7 million homes destroyed. The Pakistan government estimates $30 billion to 35 billion in losses. The unprecedented high waters caused widespread devastation to farms, bridges, railways, roads, and other infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are still living in tents. Studies show that climate change “likely increased extreme monsoon rainfall in Pakistan” and will continue to do so as the increase in temperatures approaches the 2 degrees Celsius mark.

This year, Africa—the continent most vulnerable to climate crisis, according to the United Nations—experienced a fourth consecutive year of below-average rainfall, precipitating one of East Africa’s worst droughts in decades. In Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, 18 million people endured extreme hunger.

The less affluent countries feel aggrieved because, historically, the likes of South Asia and East Africa have contributed only infinitesimally to the processes behind climate breakdown. Today, all of Africa contributes only 4 percent of global carbon emissions. Its historical footprint is even smaller. Per capita, the average Kenyan emits just 0.33 tons of carbon dioxide. Pakistan’s share of global emissions is just 0.5 percent, with a per capita emissions figure of 0.9 tons. In contrast, the U.S. global share 14 percent and per person emissions at 15.5 tons. Looking back, the United States is responsible for 25 percent of historical emissions. The European Union and the United Kingdom together stand at 22 percent.

Thus, the rage of the poorer countries is legitimate and rational. “Our territories contribute the least to the climate crisis, yet we pay the ultimate price for our world’s carbon addiction,” said Conrod Hunte of the Alliance of Small Island States.

“There is so much loss and damage with so little reparations to countries that contributed so little to the world’s carbon footprint,” Pakistan’s climate minister Sherry Rehman told The Guardian, “that obviously the bargain made between the Global North and Global South is not working. We need to be pressing very hard for a reset of the targets because climate change is accelerating much faster than predicted.”

At this year’s U.N. General Assembly, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres hailed loss and damage as a “fundamental question of climate justice, international solidarity and trust,” adding that “polluters must pay” because “vulnerable countries need meaningful action.”

The developing countries are not coming to the COP with a money figure in mind, but rather to expand the COP 27 agenda by adding to it the topic of establishing a facility that adjudicates losses and damages. Although they also demand that there be a separate pool of money to address historic costs, it is the principle of liability that they first want recognized. “What is critical for developing countries,” said Liane Schalatek of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, an international think tank based in Germany, “is that the finance through a loss and damage facility be additional to the support for mitigation and adaptation that developed countries already provide.”

Indeed, the Global South has been unable to turn compensation claims into a permanent part of the U.N. climate process. In Glasgow last year, they failed again as developed countries dug in their heels against it. The United States and the European Union, in particular, fear nothing more than being held legally accountable for their historical contributions to climate breakdown. One study estimates that by 2030, developing countries are likely to face $290 billion to $580 billion in “residual damages” a year. This figure accounts only for damages from global warming that cannot be prevented with adaptation strategies.

Unlike the governments of Scotland and Wallonia, a region of Belgium—and more recently Denmark and Germany—which are open to discussing reparations, the United States is pushing back, with a logic of its own. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry argues that the climate negotiations should be looking forward, spending energy and monies trying to head off the worst of the climate crisis (through processes of decarbonization), while helping less wealthy countries to adapt best they can to the changed circumstances. In other words, let’s not cry over spilled milk, but get on with ensuring that more milk’s not spilled. “If developed countries do not commit to loss and damage financing, the poorer countries might need some other funding commitments on adaptation to show good faith efforts and to prevent COP27 from becoming a failure,” says Schalatek of the Böll foundation.

Should worse come to worst, the poorer countries might simply refuse to play ball, throwing into jeopardy progress on the headline issues of reinvigorating the national climate goals that participants agreed to in Paris in 2015. The intention is to recalibrate the 2030 emissions-reduction targets in line with the 2015 Paris summit’s goal to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. “The poorer countries cannot be expected to upgrade their emissions commitments without a significant uptick in financial support,” said Schalatek.

Despite the moral imperative, the Global South’s hopes to actually institutionalize another basket of funding is probably doomed, even if it makes its way onto the agenda. In 2009, the well-heeled countries committed to mobilize $100 billion per year for developing countries to pay for climate measures. But every year since they’ve fallen short of this $100 billion pledge. In 2020, developed countries came closest to their goal mobilizing between $21 and $83 billion— depending upon who is counting—for climate funding in the Global South.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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