The climate justice approach and the politics of climate change

by Lim Li Lin

The climate change talks have been going on for a long time. Since Rio in 1992, when the Climate Convention was adopted, there have been 16 Conference of the Parties (COPs). Then in 2007, a new round of negotiations was launched in Bali.

Many thought Parties were going to arrive at a deal in Copenhagen, COP 15, but that proved a mirage. And then there was Cancun, and now Durban, where it is clear that negotiations will not conclude. What is perhaps unclear is what will happen after Durban.
How are humans going to live with climate change? One response to this is the climate justice response. The challenge here is that climate change impacts everything and everybody. It is a really big challenge, but it is also a huge opportunity. There is an opportunity to promote solutions that are real solutions – people-centered solutions, ecological solutions and socially just solutions.

Climate change is also a justice issue. The rich and corporations are the principal drivers of climate change. And here the culprits are mainly the extractive industries, the fossil fuel industries, mining and oil companies and, of course, consumers of what these companies are extracting from the ground, so it is also a demand-side problem.

But it is really the rich minority in this world that have principally caused the problem of climate change. However, those who did not cause the problem, the poorest, who are the world’s majority, will feel the impacts worst and first. This is a fundamental fact and the basic foundation for the climate justice analysis and the climate justice movement.

The developed countries – forming only 20 per cent of the world’s population – have emitted nearly three-quarters of all the historic greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) into the atmosphere, so there is a fundamental imbalance here. This atmosphere is not theirs alone; this atmosphere is shared by all of us and they have polluted the atmosphere that they share with everyone, causing this problem of climate change.

If there is a limit to what can be emitted into the atmosphere, and developed countries have emitted so much, it means that there is little capacity for more. The fact is that these countries have already over-consumed what we might call their fair share. They have already taken away that space from us in developing countries, who arguably need it more to develop.

If this is the case, then we need to talk about how we develop – we need real, sustainable development. We need to de-link our development from emissions pollution. But because we haven’t yet been able to do this successfully – and even developed countries have not been able to show us that they can de-link their development from GHG emissions – we are still facing the struggle of how we are going to do it. At the moment the predominant model is to grow and develop our way out of poverty and that requires emissions.

On actual, historic emissions, since 1850, Annex 1 countries (the developed countries) have used more than three-quarters of available emissions space. This situation should probably be the reverse since the population in developing countries is around 80 per cent of the world’s population. What the developed countries propose in the negotiations is that they still take a very big share of the available emissions space in terms of population, when it should be much less because they have already over-consumed in the past and they have a much smaller population. That’s where the basic problem lies.

One of the key discourses in the climate justice agenda, proposed by Bolivia and backed up by NGOs and civil society, is what they have framed as climate debt: Because the developed countries have already over-used, and propose to continue over-using in the future, their share of the atmospheric capacity (a global commons), they have diminished the Earth’s ability to absorb GHG emissions and this has denied developing countries the fair space needed to further their development. This is an emissions debt to developing countries and has led to climate change and its impacts.

Then there is also an adaptation debt, as now there are adverse effects of climate change, and these impacts are being felt in developing countries. The adaptation debt to developing countries is in terms of loss and damage, the imperative to adapt and for lost development opportunities. Together, the emissions debt and the adaptation debt comprise a climate debt. This is how Bolivia and many climate justice groups have framed it.

Many groups have been calling for the adoption of the climate debt principle so that developed countries would be compelled to repay climate debt through finance and technology transfers. This obliges developed countries to accept full accounting for their historical emissions debt and commit to making the deepest possible emission reductions in the negotiations.

If one actually were to do a full accounting of the emissions debt of developed countries, this would probably show that they would need to cut emissions by minus 300 per cent. You might say that is impossible – we can’t cut it even by 100 per cent, how are we going to go to minus 300 per cent? We do acknowledge that such a cut back might not be technically possible at the moment. However, developed countries need to make the deepest cuts technically possible at this time. So what they need to do and what they can do may differ because there are presently technological and other practical limits. They need, however, to accept their responsibility and do the utmost.

And for what cannot be done, they must transfer finance and technology to developing countries who will have to make emissions cuts or be faced with the impacts that excessive global emissions bring. This is a debt that developed countries owe to developing countries, it isn’t aid. It is an obligation, a right that developing countries have to finance and technology transfers from developed countries.

This framing has allowed for a methodology that developing countries like Bolivia and others have put forward in the negotiations. Using the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities as a basis, Bolivia and other countries have demanded that developed countries reduce their emissions by 50 per cent from 1990 levels without offsetting by 2017, and transfer finance and technology to do likewise in developing countries.

There is a full spectrum of positions at the climate negotiations. There are the ‘usual suspects’ led by the worst of all, the United States. Others such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Japan – basically the industrialised OECD countries – adopt hard-line positions. And then there is the European Union and the other developed countries that are either not in the European Union or are not quite in the developed country bloc, such as Mexico and South Korea, which are OECD countries, but are not Annex 1 countries.

Furthermore, there is the full range of non-Annex 1 countries. The largest bloc is the G77 and China, which comprises nearly all developing countries. Among the G77 and China there is the alliance of small island states, quite a prominent bloc in the negotiations because they represent the small islands who, up until this point, have been the moral voice of the negotiations owing to their focus on sea-level rise and the right to survival. There are the least developed countries, the African group and the ideologically left South American countries: Bolivia is key among them, also Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and others. There is also the BASIC grouping of emerging developing countries, not negotiating as a bloc, yet meeting regularly in an effort to coordinate positions. This group is viewed with suspicion by other developing countries. There is also the Arab group which overlaps with the African group.

What happened after the debacle in Copenhagen was that Bolivia went on to organise a large conference in Cochabamba in 2010. The idea came about as the Copenhagen meeting had failed miserably since the developed countries had tried to force the Copenhagen Accord onto other countries. Countries including Tuvalu, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Sudan basically rejected the Copenhagen Accord and there was no formal decision at that meeting. So Bolivia organised a World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth to bring together governments, civil society, and climate justice and social movements to discuss and address this issue. The idea was that it was supposed to be democratic and open to the peoples of the world to decide on this fundamental issue. There is much we can draw on from this.

The problem is what developed countries are trying to do: They acknowledge that climate change is a problem (some sectors in the US don’t acknowledge it is a problem and that is another problem altogether), however, their approach to solving the problem is incorrect. What they are trying to do, instead of acknowledging that they are the ones responsible for the problem, is to push the burden onto developing countries. This is an injustice.

They are trying to push climate change mitigation onto the BASIC countries in particular with the argument that their emissions are growing considerably hence they are responsible for a lot of the climate problem. Historical responsibility is not considered, as the developed countries argue that they can’t be responsible for the actions of generations before them, and what matters is emissions today. The US is saying that China’s absolute emissions today are bigger than their own, yet on a per capita basis, US emissions are still much greater than China’s. They are also not considering their historical responsibility, and this is fundamentally unfair.

What developed countries are also doing, instead of meeting reductions domestically, is to basically buy them from developing countries. This is possible with market mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism in the Kyoto Protocol. Instead of effecting domestic emission reductions, developed countries can pay developing countries to mitigate for them. On paper they meet their obligations, but actually the emission reductions are made elsewhere. Developing countries are trying to expand the market mechanisms and introduce new ones.

What developed countries are also trying to do is to use accounting loopholes that will allow them to show on paper that they have reduced emissions, when in reality, they have not made these emissions reductions.

They are also trying to deny finance and technology transfers to developing countries. What of the $100 billion that was first mentioned in the Copenhagen Accord? This is basically re-programmed aid money and it is not a pledge to give $100 billion, it is a pledge to help mobilise $100 billion, and that would include mobilising it from developing countries.

Developed countries have also been trying to push the problem of adaptation back onto developing countries. They are really not going to pass on the finance and technology, but instead leave the problem to developing countries to deal with themselves.

All of this plays out in the climate negotiations and has crystallised into the fight over what kind of emissions reduction system we should adopt. Up until this point we have always had a system of legally binding international commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Countries came together under the UN to say this is what we need to do because the science calls for it and we will negotiate as such and have an international agreement because it is an international problem. There is already a system for accounting, review, reporting and compliance and all of this is agreed and binding internationally.

However, what is happening now is that the US is promoting a system of bottom-up domestic pledges. They are pledging to reduce their emissions by around three per cent based on 1990 levels. They are resisting common accounting, reporting and review rules, and instead talk about “the sunshine of transparency”. They do not envisage a system with international compliance but a reliance on domestic legislation. However, it is clear that they are not going to have any climate legislation in the near future, so they can’t even promise that their pledge will be in domestic legislation, they merely state that this is what they are pledging to do domestically.

What is happening now is that the discussions have shifted. Countries like Canada, Russia and Japan are using the US as an excuse and have said that they will not commit to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, developed countries are pushing for a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, and the new treaty that they want will likely legalise a domestic pledge and review system. This is now the fundamental fight that is playing out in the climate negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol.


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