A message from South Africa
Debates — honest and respectful, but sometimes sharp debates — are a sign of healthy political movement, which among much else, must avoid groupthink. I’ve been trying to do my part, as you might notice from these two webinars:
The first — a Global Just Transitions webinar organized by the Institute for Policy Studies — was What Climate Debt Does the North Owe the South? It took place before COP27, and featured (in addition to yours truly) Meena Raman, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia and head of programs at Third World Network, and Alberto Acosta, Ecuador’s former minister of energy and mining and one of the principle drivers behind Ecuador’s storied attempt to raise international funds to keep the oil beneath the Yasuni rainforest in the ground. IPS’s John Feffer ably summarized the discussion here.
The second — How Can COP be Effective? — was organized by Jeremy Lent at the Deep Transition Network. It featured me, of course, as well as Osprey Orielle Lake, the Founder and Executive Director of WECAN, the Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network, International, and scientist and filmmaker Phoebe Barnard. Phoebe was unfortunately on a train with bad WiFi, but Osprey and I managed, between the two of us, to do a passable job of answering Lent’s extremely pressing question.
Almost nothing – but something real – changed at this year’s climate conference
There is something in the modern radical mind that wants the climate negotiations to fail. Such a failure, after all, would seem to prove that this wretched system cannot be reformed, that only a revolutionary break can re-open the human future.
COP27, the climate conference in Sharm El Sheik in Egypt, was not, however, a failure. I say this despite the fact that my inbox contains, among much else, an alert from an international organization I generally support (and will not name) that tells me that “For the 27th time in its history, COP, the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, has failed. The rapid degradation of our planet by our industrial economy will not be held in check.”
Alas, this email’s date stamp, November 18, places it two days before COP27 ended. During those two days, the rich countries that had blocked the establishment of the Loss and Damage fund folded under immense political pressure, thus allowing COP27 to finally create the fund.
The United States, the greatest of the miscreants, was the last to stand down. By some reports, it only did so after a last-minute threat by European negotiators to abandon the talks. But despite this win, the endless U.S. stalling did immense damage. In particular, it allowed the Egyptian presidency, no friend of humanity and nature, to play out an end-game gambit in which, finally, the core mitigation text—which is far too weak—couldn’t be challenged without putting the new fund at risk.
This was a failure, no doubt about it. But it was not a systemic failure. It wasn’t the fault of “the COP”—as in “COP27 is a COP out,” one of the least inspired of the recent headlines—unless this accusation extends to the UN system itself, which condemns the climate talks to consensus decision-making. This might be fair enough, save for one thing – blaming the UN lets the governments themselves off the hook, and this will not do, because the governments could yet change the rules.
Still, the Loss and Damage fund is a very big deal, or will be if we manage to provision it – to fund it adequately. As Mohamed Adow, the executive director of Power Shift Africa, put it, “What we have is an empty bucket. Now we need to fill it so that support can flow to the most impacted people who are suffering right now at the hands of the climate crisis.”
This is exactly right, and not just because a great deal of loss and damage financeis needed. So too is a great deal of mitigation finance. And adaptation finance. And just transition finance. But after COP27’s loss and damage finance battle, something very large has shifted. Back in the old days, when it was still possible to honestly imagine that mitigation alone would be sufficient, it was also possible to argue that the redirection of private capital flows would more or less suffice. But those days are over. Today, no one honestly believes that a meaningful flow of loss and damage finance will come through private channels, and this realization spills over to the transition portfolio as a whole.
The decision to create the loss and damage fund has thus queued up the real financing battle, in which international public finance takes center stage. Further, it did this even while it pushed the linked battle to phase out fossil fuels to a qualitatively new level. That battle was lost at COP27, but this was just an initial skirmish. Indeed, at COP27, the government of India, which will soon hold the G20 Presidency, came out, again and unambiguously, for the “phase down” (not “out”) of all fossil fuels, not just coal. The politics here are complex and fraught, and they promise to remain so, but this was unambiguously good news. The old days in which all major G77 politicians could be expected to reflexively argue that fossil energy is essential to development are, it seems, over.
This year’s Civil Society Equity Review — The Imperative of Cooperation: Steps Toward and Equitable Response to the Climate Crisis — builds on previous years’ elaborations of fair shares and its many meanings and implications, elaborations that have focused on emission reductions, adaptation, loss & damage, and fossil fuel phase out.
Unlike previous reports, this year’s is a bit of a compendium. It focuses on international cooperation as such, discussing and surveying key areas where international cooperation is both possible and necessary. In so doing, it presents opportunities for international cooperation that very explicitly apply to all countries and continents, though it also pauses to recognize how the particular situation in Africa – the host of COP27 – crystalizes some of the key inequities of the malfunctioning world order.
This report outlines areas of potential international cooperation across four broad areas:
- International Cooperation under the UNFCCC
- International Cooperation through initiatives and multilateral platforms to address financing, renewable energy and fossil fuel phase-out
- International Cooperation to manage energy price instability and a fair share phase out
- International Cooperation Towards Changing the Rules and Architecture of Global Trade, Investment, Finance and Technology
Just before COP27, the Equity Working Group of the Independent Global Stocktake organized a workshop entitled “Enabling a Needs-Based and Equitable Climate Regime”. It was extremely illuminating, because — as it happens — needs based assessment is fated to be key to any international effort sharing system that is scoped to include more than mitigation alone.
Consider adaptation need, or loss and damage need, or just transition need in general. All countries have such needs, and many countries require support if they are to have any real chance of meeting them, and thus successfully rising to the climate challenge. But how can such support be assessed, relative to the scope and nature of these needs? And how can this be done in any sort of meaningful way?
The challenge here is fundamental to any true global stocktake. For this reason, we distilled the takeaways from the needs-based assessment workshop into this Negotiator’s Brief, which was widely distributed, at COP27, among developing country negotiators. It was, by all accounts, quite helpful.
The climate fair shares idea is no longer novel. But as the planetary crisis deepens, its profile is changing. Humanity is facing a civilizational emergency – a polycrisis with both climate and injustice at its core – and we need big ideas that can help guide us out of it.
This discussion paper, which was prepared by the Climate Equity Reference Project for the Climate Action Network International, is focused on one such idea: climate fair shares. Its purpose is to support analysis and campaigns for equitable climate action, including – quite explicitly – greatly increased international climate finance flows.
Note here a political premise — the equity challenge cannot be set aside while we concentrate on “implementation.” To be absolutely clear — we are in trouble, but a rapid global climate transition can still be achieved. We have (all) the money and (most of) the technology we need. But it is hard to see how any sufficiently rapid transition will be possible unless the benefits and promises and also the unavoidable pain and disruption are shared amongst the people of this world in a way that is widely accepted as being fair, or at least fair enough. We can not follow, yet again, the all too often repeated pattern in which most of the benefits are captured by those who are already wealthy and powerful, while most of the pain and suffering is born by those already marginalized and oppressed.
- Lessons and Thoughts contains a careful executive summary, which is good, because the paper as a whole is pretty long. By today’s standards.
- It contains a tidy chapter on planetary inequality – which is what you get when you have a world of nations, some of them wealthy and some of them not, and all of them internally stratified between rich and poor.
- It contains a brief history of the equity debate within the international Climate Action Network, which is at this point a global network of more than 1,800 civil society organizations in over 130 countries.
- It reviews the various fair shares projects that have been done over the past few years — in Norway, Canada, the US, the UK, Quebec, New Zealand, France and South Africa. The lessons are both varied and interesting.
- It contains a brief — if somewhat technical — explanation of why, when thinking about national fair shares in an emergency climate mobilization, it might help to lean into the Climate Equity Reference framework. As opposed to some of the alternatives.
- It lays out some preliminary — but not entirely preliminary — thoughts about “climate realism”, which is considerably different from the traditional variety. Given the future we’re looking at, as we shoot far beyond the boundaries of a safe climate system, this conversation needs real attention.
- It offers some advice on framing the financial costs of stabilizing the climate system, and why these costs – though certainly denominated in trillions – might be far more tractable than they appear. Particularly given how much money we waste today, on the militaries and, of course, on the rich.
- Finally, it asks a group of big strategic questions, and invites reflections on difficult equity challenges that go beyond even climate fair shares.
Tom Athanasiou, for the Climate Equity Reference Project.
It turns out that lots of people thought that Thanos had a point. Thus, the need for this explainer / comic book / screed / bibliography — Against the EcoFascist Creep. And don’t miss the Six EcoFascist Myths at the end!
I’ll not assume, dear reader, that you are up to speed with the Global Stocktake — which is beginning in earnest this year — but I will say that there’s absolutely no chance of achieving anything like rapid climate stabilization without assessment, review, and stocktake processes that (a crucial proviso, this) are strongly linked to ambition ratcheting mechanisms that kick in when we find ourselves falling short.
I will add that Article 14 of the Paris Agreement, which creates the Global Stocktake, was hard won. In particular, its mandate that the climate regime’s formal stocktake be done “in the light of equity” only exists because the African Negotiating Group and the “like minded” countries battled the rich countries to insist that equity play a key part in the Agreement’s final text.
Thus, I’m pleased to announce that, after a long gestation period, the very international Equity Working Group of the Independent Global Stocktake — a civil society shadow organization that would obviously not exist without the stocktake itself — has issued its initial report, which is called The Equity Landscape.
This report does not focus on the nuts and bolts of the formal global stocktake, but rather surveys the equity and ambition problem as a whole, within the highly constrained formal processes that define the stocktake and, blessedly, within “the real world” as well. It’s a substantial piece of work, and it wasn’t easy to produce, but if you’re following the equity thread in the negotiations, it’s required reading. Here’s a bit of the introduction:
“The Global Stocktake, which is to be conducted “in the light of equity,” could substantively advance global climate negotiations. But the GST is constrained by the same realities as the larger negotiations. The Independent Global Stocktake (iGST) is similarly constrained, though its independence allows it to look past the formal process to the larger world, which is after all the real source of the paralysis that now threatens us all. This brief paper takes advantage of this independence to do just that. It does not pretend to map the overall position in anything like a comprehensive manner, but it is, we hope, a helpful reflection. Its goal is not to paint the equity challenge in strokes so broad that practical steps seem useless and insignificant, but rather to inform such steps, that they might actually move us forward.”
Given the shout out that Bill McKibben just gave our work in the New Yorker, I’d thought I’d quickly post a brief direction finder — this post — for people who’ve come here looking for more information.
Here’s the shout out:
Tom Athanasiou’s Berkeley-based organization EcoEquity, as part of the Climate Equity Reference Project, has done the most detailed analyses of who owes what in the climate fight. He found that the U.S. would have to cut its emissions a hundred and seventy-five per cent to make up for the damage it’s already caused—a statistical impossibility. Therefore, the only way it can meet that burden is to help the rest of the world transition to clean energy, and to help bear the costs that global warming has already produced. As Athanasiou put it, “The pressing work of decarbonization is only going to be embraced by the people of the Global South if it comes as part of a package that includes adaptation aid and disaster relief.”
First, I want to stress that EcoEquity does not do this work alone, but rather as part of the Climate Equity Reference Project, or CERP. Further, CERP itself does not work alone, but rather as part of a large and expanding set of networks and collaboratives, in the US and around the world.
Second, if you want the details — some of them quite technical — on how the Climate Equity Reference framework works, it’s the Climate Equity Reference Project site you should rummage around on. See in particular the Climate Equity Reference Calculator, which is totally worth a bit of your time.
Third, if you’re interested in the specific details behind the United States’ fair share in a global emergency climate transition, you should check out the US Climate Fair Share site. The fair share position reflected herein is that of the US Climate Action Network — which chose the “equity settings” — which is itself kind of a big deal.
If you’re just coming to the climate fair shares idea, keep in mind that the exact numbers are not the point. The point is rather that national fair shares are calculated relative to three high level equity principles: historical responsibility, national capacity and, well, need. Which just so happen to be the equity principles behind the UN’S Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The nuances here are many and interesting, but the essential takeaway — at least for a high-capacity, high-responsibility country like the US — is that a nation’s climate fair share can be a lot higher than 100%. The US, bluntly, has to do a lot more than just reduce its emissions to zero if it wants to do its fair share in a global mobilization that is actually scaled to achieve the temperature goals laid down in the Paris Agreement. To read some details on this, and in particular on the equity choices USCAN chose when making its calculations, see this briefing.
Also note that the fair shares idea is extremely relevant to the challenge of rapidly phasing out fossil energy. On this front, check out to the Civil Society Equity Review, which has been putting out fair-shares inflected annual reports since the Paris meeting in 2015, reports with hundreds of organizational supports from around the world. Note especially the 2021 report, which is called A Fair-Shares Phase Out. It has to be counted as a foundational contribution to the nascent debate about how to approach the huge, though barely acknowledged, equity challenges of a very rapid and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.
To close, I’ll just ask you one of my favorite questions — what kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?