COP-27 failing before it begins

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By Sir Ronald Sanders 

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the Organization of American States.   He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto) 

The most ominous sign of what the forthcoming COP-27 meeting on climate change portends for small states is that officials from a Group of 20 (G20) major economies, who met on August 31, failed to agree a joint statement at the conclusion of the meeting.

The meeting, held in Bali, started with a stark warning from the Indonesia Environment Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, that the planet was being pushed to the point “where no future is sustainable”.

At the COP-26 meeting in Glasgow last year, world leaders acknowledged that their pledges to reduce carbon emissions have not met the previously agreed goal of keeping global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.  They vowed to do better.  It appears now, that they won’t.

In Bali, some countries objected to language,  agreed at COP-26 in Glasgow on how they would contribute to limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Not for the first time, countries, which are among the world’s biggest polluters, are reneging on commitments made as far back as 2009.

Pledges, which were announced with great fanfare and rousingly welcomed by the desperately hopeful, are now being backpedalled.  This backpedalling has come in a year when the brutal effects of climate change have been painfully undeniable.   Yet, these distressing conditions have not moved governments, which place their short-term domestic political interests over the well-being of the planet and, specifically, the small countries, such as those in the Caribbean, that are worst affected.

Extreme weather events have also battered several parts of the world, not only small states which can least withstand or recover from them.  Fires, floods, and heat waves have pummeled European countries, the United States, Africa, and Asia.  In recent weeks, unprecedented flooding killed at least 1,000 persons in Pakistan. And, East Africa is now experiencing the driest conditions it has faced for 70 years. More than 20 million people are affected and suffering from food shortages.

The Caribbean is still amid the 2022 hurricane season, enduring heat waves, unexpected high rainfall, and floods, followed by long periods of drought.  Above all, the islands are anxious that no hurricane befalls them, although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted a 65% chance of an above-normal season, which does not end until November 1.

But, even in the face of evidence and authoritative warnings that human-caused climate change is increasing in severity and frequency, as the planet is pushed closer to the perilous threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world’s worst polluters refuse to budge.

This caused Britain’s climate delegate in Bali, Alok Sharma, who chaired the Glasgow COP-26 meeting, to lament that “It is certainly the case that a number of countries are backsliding on the commitments that they made in Paris and in Glasgow”.  He described the situation as “incredibly worrying”.

And so, it is.   The G20 countries account for 80% of global emissions.  Ten of them are most responsible for the current CO2 emissions that cause climate change.   They are China (28.6%), the U.S. (16%), and India (5.8%) Russia (5.4%), Japan (3.7% ) Germany (2.4%), South Korea (1.7% ), Canada (1.6% ), Indonesia (1.41% ) and Saudi Arabia (1.4%).   The first five countries are responsible for 55.8%. It is they who must cut their emissions.

Further, the rich nations, which expect other countries, including small island states, to cut their already minuscule CO2 emissions, must also satisfy their financing pledges.  Since 2009, the promise was made to provide $100 billion to help developing countries to meet their nationally determined contribution (NDC) to fight climate change.  The figure has never been achieved.

COP-27 in Egypt should not be yet another hand-wringing exercise, followed by long and lofty declarations and worn-out promises, with no binding commitment to severely cut emissions and to provide the necessary funding to developing countries.

Small island states and countries with low-lying coastlands should not simply indulge in negotiations on documents replete with escape clauses and no genuine path forward.   At all the past conferences, small states have been fobbed off with promises.  They have been persuaded to defend the indefensible and to describe the unacceptable as an achievement.  Meanwhile, their conditions are worsening.  So, too, are their long-term prospects as they suffer increasing damage and losses with no compensation, or even a readiness to discuss such compensation meaningfully.

That is why small island states should now support two initiatives that have been taken by their own.   The first is a decision by Vanuatu to seek an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice on the rights of present and future generations to be protected from climate change.  Vanuatu needs at least 97 votes at the UN General Assembly, which begins later this month, in order for the matter to be referred to the ICJ.

Every small state should be present and voting to show their solidarity and seriousness about resisting the climate change tide that is drowning them increasingly.

The second initiative that should get the fullest participation of small states is the work of the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS), which was launched at COP-26 by the Prime Ministers of Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu, to pursue climate justice for their countries and other small island states, through a legal approach to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.  This initiative has now attracted the backing of 14 legal experts in international law who are actively working on the project.

Meanwhile, serious note must be taken of the gravity of the statement made by the Chair of COP-26, who said that the position, taken by some countries in Bali on August 31, was unacceptable. “The big emitters absolutely need to look these climate vulnerable countries in the eye and say they are doing absolutely everything they can to deliver on the commitments they have made”.

If that does not happen, small states should collectively and visibly take action to seek climate justice outside the COP process. None should resign themselves to the consequences of abandonment.

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