Climate justice in Katowice

Climate change is upon us. And it will get worse.  The recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the feasibility and implications of limiting the increase of global temperature to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels says as much. With Brazil possibly joining the United States in rejecting the global consensus on climate action manifested in the Paris Agreement, things could get worse.

In the 1990s, as I have written before, the first decade of climate action, the emphasis was on the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from developed countries in the hope that their leadership would be enough to address the challenge. But the rich countries failed us. Meanwhile, emissions from the bigger developing countries increased rapidly and exponentially while countries, especially the most vulnerable, began experiencing the early impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Understandably, the second decade of climate action (2001-2010) saw the emergence of adaptation as a priority equal or even more important for developing countries. Obtaining support for adaptation efforts became imperative for these nations.

Today, mitigation and adaptation remain at the top of the climate agenda, but increasingly climate justice is being asserted by countries and stakeholders. Traditional, more familiar concepts such as “common but differentiated responsibility” and “equity” are being reframed as a matter of justice, where countries and corporations from both North and South are held accountable for causing climate-related loss and damage. In the years to come, this need for accountability, which includes both assistance and reparations to vulnerable countries and peoples, will supplant mitigation and adaptation as the major issue for negotiation by governments wrestling with increasing climate change.

The Paris Agreement illustrates the emergence of climate justice as the principal issue governments and stakeholders must address in the future. In its preamble, the concept of climate justice is acknowledged for the first time in an international agreement. Likewise, in the same preamble, the related concept of human rights is enshrined as a guiding principle in the implementation of obligations. In the operative provisions, climate justice is the spirit behind the provisions on adaptation, support (finance, technology transfer, and capacity building), and in particular on the establishment of an international loss and damage mechanism. Of course, one hopes the Agreement would have been stronger on compliance measures, including having punitive provisions, but this was just too radical an idea at this point.

It must be emphasized that climate justice is not just a North vs. South issue. It is between and within countries, and includes corporations and their impact on peoples. It is also about racial, ethnic, gender, and other forms of discrimination that make some communities more vulnerable than others. Finally, climate justice is an intergenerational challenge.

From a climate justice perspective, the Paris Agreement is not perfect. It is not the panacea to solve all the issues intertwined with climate change. But it is the best, the most, we can get now. Thankfully, the Paris Agreement is not the least common denominator. Certainly, it is progressive in its inclusion of human rights and climate justice among its principles.

While legally binding targets could have been better, a bottom-up, country-level differentiated approach is the best we can do for now. In any case, the monitoring and reporting obligations under the Paris Agreement provide openings for reviewing compliance.

The Paris Agreement Articles on the support mechanisms—finance, technology transfer, and capacity building—are positive provisions. But, being products of the usual compromises on these issues, they are incomplete. Their modalities and the institutions that will make these provisions come alive must be negotiated in the next two years. Those negotiations will be tough. Thankfully, negotiating groups like the CVF, the Less Developed Countries (LDCs), and the Like Minded Group of countries, by themselves or working with the Group of 77 and China, have continued to insist on greater ambition regarding climate finance, using as an argument the imperatives of climate justice.

Another Article that emphasizes climate justice with regard to developing countries is that on loss and damage. Since the Warsaw COP in 2013, the Philippines was one of the nations pushing hard for putting into place this mechanism to compensate loss of lives and damage to property and infrastructure resulting from climate change. The Warsaw meeting was traumatic for the Philippine delegation because the COP opened right after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the country. But this disaster provided an opening to successfully push for the creation of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage.  This is not yet the liability regime some have been advocating but its institutionalization through its inclusion as an Article separate from adaptation in the Paris Agreement is important. It opens the way for developing methodologies to assess and put value on loss and damage arising from climate change as well as developing the mechanisms to make the system work. The remaining task is the put flesh on the loss and damage mechanism so it becomes a foundational pillar of a compensation and liability regime.

On the  first week of December, governments will again be meeting, once again in Poland, this time in Katowice. The last time we met in this Eastern European country was November 2018, in its capital city Warsaw, right after Yolanda/Haiyan devastated the Central Visayas. Our delegation, working with other developing country delegations and led by the passionate and excellent negotiator Yeb Saño, succeeded in working for the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. In Paris, in 2015, we were able to institutionalize the mechanism in the Paris Agreement. My hope is that in Katowice, we will continue to make progress and decisions are made that bring us nearer to a climate just world.


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