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Feeling the heat: small island states’ quest for climate justice at the Bonn COP23 Climate Conference

For the first time, Fiji, a country from the Alliance of Small Island States who are already experiencing the devastating effects of climate change, will preside over a UN climate conference. This creates traction for central climate justice demands right next door to one of Europe’s greatest sources of CO2 emissions: the Rhineland mining district. But what has the Paris Climate Agreement, which was lauded so enthusiastically two years ago, actually achieved?

By @RLS_Klima

This year marks the first time that a member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Fiji, holds the presidency of a UN climate conference, thus increasing visibility of the issues faced by nations who are amongst those most affected by climate change. These are places where the effects are already starting to be felt, whether it’s soil salinization from rising sea levels, storm surges and hurricanes that can destroy thousands of homes in the blink of an eye, dying coral reefs due to ocean acidification, or the subsequent drastic loss of fishing grounds. The result will be huge economic damage, and climate refugees fleeing islands that will soon disappear into the oceans, taking thousands of years of history and cultural heritage with them.

This is the true price for the insistence of industrialised nations on preserving their model of production and consumption – Germany, as the Rhineland lignite-mining region just 50 kilometres from the conference venue shows, is thereby no exception. In essence, radical and effective climate action would require less growth, curbing profits, a decrease in the types of jobs that have shaped industrial growth thus far, and less consumption – at least in wealthier nations.

Climate justice today? A global temperature rise of just 1°C is already costing far too many lives and destroying livelihoods

Average global surface temperatures have increased by one degree Celsius since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. This doesn’t sound like much, but just two years after the momentous signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, we are once again seeing the devastating impact a mere one-degree rise can have. This year has been marked by stories of extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, as well as the calving of a gigantic iceberg from the Antarctic Larsen C ice shelf, heavy monsoon rains in India and a heatwave in Canada that caused extreme wildland fires.

Paris aims to stop these dangerous developments

Allegedly designed to stop these worrying trends, the Paris Climate Agreement was enthusiastically celebrated by the international community when it was concluded in December 2015. The agreement was undoubtedly a remarkable milestone in over twenty years of climate negotiations: for the first time, all UN states officially committed to taking action against global warming. However, when the US announced this year that it was pulling out of the Paris Agreement, this had significant repercussions at the international level. Cooperation between the US and China, a relationship which has now grown frosty, had been key to reaching an agreement in Paris. Many new stakeholders, however, have since entered the arena, stressing their resolve for climate action, in particular cities and regions, many of them in the US.

Optimists hope that the Paris Climate Agreement will create a sufficiently strong political, economic and social drive and save humanity from catastrophic climate change. To date, however, very little justifies such optimism or indicates that the Paris Agreement can effectively contribute to greater climate justice. Many aspects underscore this fact.

The goal stated in the Paris Climate Agreement – to keep global warming well below 2°C – wilfully accepts the exodus, impoverishment, suffering and even death of millions of people. Preventing the worst consequences of climate change will depend on our capacity to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C, a fact the agreement does not explicitly recognise.

We report on on UN climate summit and on the People's Climate Summit in Bonn in our dossier on COP23

The Commitments of the States

The voluntary commitments to reduce emissions that the signatories to the Paris Agreement have made so far are nowhere near enough to meet even the 2°C goal. As it stands, signatories currently accept at least a 3°C rise in average global temperatures by 2100. This is extremely risky because 2°C is widely believed to be a tipping point beyond which climate change becomes self-reinforcing.

Signatories to the Paris agreement have agreed on a ratchet mechanism. It implies regularly monitoring the commitments states have made to cut emissions and encouraging them to ratchet up their goals by 2020 in an effort to close the ambition gap between officially proclaimed goals and actual measures and targets. The first round is scheduled for 2018 in the context of the Facilitative Dialogue and subsequent monitoring rounds will take place thereafter every five years. We must now ensure this process is successful, particularly regarding climate justice, which would mean that the countries of the Global North, historically the main drivers of climate change, play their part, and significantly raise their commitments to cut emissions.

The emissions budget to limit global warming to 1.5°C has either already been used up or will be used up within three and a half years

The reality is that even optimistic estimates claim that our emissions budget to limit global warming to 1.5°C has either already been used up or will be used up within three and a half years. And our emissions budget for the 2°C goal gives us a window of between merely eight and 22 years. This is an incredibly short timespan to entirely transform our economies and societies, and a fact so far largely ignored in both the negotiations and states’ individual climate policies. The will to increase ambitions and to adapt targets to bridge the ever-widening gap between rhetoric and reality are largely absent from the highly technical debate on the concrete implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Conflicts of interest

There is nothing to suggest that the private sector, which is a major contributor to climate change due to its fossil-based business model, is set to lose its influence at UN climate negotiations. Most UN states remain reluctant to limit conference access to the lobbyists of commodity giants, global agribusinesses and the automotive industry. Unfortunately, Paris has actually reinforced the trend of heavily involving the private sector in UN negotiations. We need only look to the agricultural sector to see how dangerous such a move can be. Representatives of the chemical, raw material and agriculture industries sit at the negotiating table alongside national delegations and advertise their package of genetically modified plants, fertilisers and pesticides as Climate Smart Agriculture, i.e. a form of agriculture smartly adapted to climate change. However, negotiations hardly ever touch upon the existential threat this approach poses to smallholder farming structures, how it exacerbates farmers’ dependency on corporations, the negative consequences it has for ecosystems and how it undermines food sovereignty.

Flawed solutions instead of real structural change

The Paris Agreement also promotes ineffective, unjust and dangerous climate policy instruments in other regards, and thus fails to deliver a much-needed paradigm shift in terms of climate policy. The agreement fosters market-based mechanisms, such as UN REDD+ for forest protection, and promotes the new Sustainable Development Mechanism, which is currently being developed and will almost certainly also be market-based. These are, however, flawed solutions. We are facing a situation where we urgently need to effect structural changes to the economy and society that would permit us to live on a fraction of the energy we consume today, but the solutions put forward here open the floodgates to clever number crunching and offset emissions on paper by converting emission reductions into a commodity. Such climate policy instruments are also unjust as they potentially open the door to massive human rights violations, REDD+ being one example. Offsetting – a logic ever more central to international climate policy – paired with a rapidly diminishing emissions budget increasingly shifts focus onto a further dangerous strategy: removing CO2 from the atmosphere (negative emissions) and storing it underground.

In other words, the term decarbonisation has made it into climate policy discourse. The Paris Agreement, however, rigorously avoids using it as a possible anchor for more radical demands to phase-out coal, oil or gas. Needless to say, the agreement offers no framework to call into question the production and consumption patterns of the capitalist economic system with a view to fundamentally restructuring the economy and society.

Germany: a prime example of climate hypocrisy

Although Germany will undoubtedly fall far short of its 2020 climate goals, the world continues to see the country as a trailblazer of climate action. The nation is still garnering praise for its energy transition, which has its roots in and was pushed through by social movements. But in all other regards, Germany is a country failing to deliver the vital policy change needed. Germany is not a champion of climate action, but a country whose wealth continues to rely on an economic model that remains profoundly destructive to society and the environment, as this analysis Germany as a 'Climate Savior' that we published to coincide with the Bonn climate conference shows.

Climate justice: other key talking points

Again, the Bonn COP23 will avoid discussing the really pressing issues: phasing-out coal, eliminating trade policies that run counter to climate policy, fundamentally changing the structures of mobility and radically re-orientating agriculture to prioritise organic forms of production. Climate diplomats are currently focused on developing a rulebook to implement the Paris Climate Agreement. They aim to develop the vague commitments contained in the agreement into a policy that ensures comparability and transparency, is fair regarding the Global South and ensures Paris climate goals are met. While diplomats aim for this rulebook to be adopted before the COP24 next year, many questions remain.

To a certain extent, these formal questions are intricately linked to the Global South’s demands for climate justice, not least because they tie concessions to the condition that the Global North visibly commits to providing climate finance and compensating climate loss and damage (discussed as loss and damage). Underscored by the presidency of Fiji, the following issues will almost certainly play a key role at COP23.

Climate finance

From 2020, industrialised nations have agreed to provide USD 100 billion annually to the nations of the Global South to offer climate protection measures and to help them adapt to climate change. However, to help build trust, i.e. ensure that they will actually live up to their historic responsibility as the main drivers of climate change, the countries of the Global North are expected to put forward a certain amount of money now. As the Global South has repeatedly criticised, more money is currently being spent on climate protection (i.e. efforts to reduce emissions) than is made available for adaptation to climate change in the countries that are most affected. A recurrent and hotly debated issue is the criticism that donor nations often label funds as climate finance that were already earmarked for transfer under other schemes.

Loss and damage

The Paris Agreement marks the Global North’s official recognition of the need to negotiate who will provide compensation for the already inevitable loss and damage that climate change will cause. Negotiations on this issue are proving tough and progress is slow. Some industrialised nations, such as Germany, advocate InsuResilience-related concepts for insurance models as a means of providing support in the case of damage. The aim is to create a publicly funded, but private, insurance market-based mechanism (for example, through German-based corporations Allianz or MunichRe). However, these negotiations lack a clear focus on climate justice (in particular, clarifying who will pay) and a commitment to develop a civil society monitoring committee is absent. Beyond the discussion concerning a concrete model of insurance, many further questions remain. Moreover, it remains unclear whether the workplan of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM), which is the official framework to negotiate this issue, can provide progress and create momentum regarding WIM funding as well as funding for loss and damage beyond insurance-based solutions.

The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung at the conference

As during past UN climate conferences, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung will be present at COP23 with a delegation that includes representatives from the Global South and Global North. All our delegates will closely follow negotiations, critically analyse the discussions and their outcomes, and also create channels of communication inside and outside of UN climate talks so that the voices of those suffering the consequences of climate change most acutely are heard. We demand concrete steps towards global climate justice and will highlight what is at stake and for whom, as well as the transformations we believe the world urgently requires.