World Environment Day and the ongoing virtual climate talks

“To defeat this threat, the world must come together and cooperate based on common interests and shared values.”

In the next weeks, with colleagues from the Manila Observatory and the Ateneo de Manila University, I will be attending the historic, first-ever purely virtual negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Our team is eight-person strong, with my seven colleagues doing this for the first time while this is my 50th time to attend a climate negotiation since my first meeting in Berlin in 1995. If times were normal, we would be in Bonn for the next two weeks for these intersessional negotiations (the virtual session will be for three weeks) and in Glasgow, Scotland in November for the Conference of the Parties. We might still do the latter if it can be done safely.

As my colleague Dr. Manny Solis and I have recently written, combating climate change can be compared to a tug of war between countries with different interests. Unfortunately, right now, we are losing the fight and are now faced with a global climate emergency that threatens global stability and prosperity. To defeat this threat, the world must come together and cooperate based on common interests and shared values.

The reason why progress has been slow is that the geopolitics of climate change is complicated. Dr. Solis and I have pointed to two principles in the climate change convention that reflect the diversity and conflicting interests of countries.

First, the principle of historical responsibility. The accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere which is causing climate change is the result mainly of emissions from developed states, the first countries to industrialize. But this is not static in that big developing countries have also exponentially grown their emissions in the 20th and 21st century and even middle-income countries are doing the same.

Second, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities or CBDR – which acknowledges that climate change is a global problem and everyone must do something about it – reduce emissions and assist others to do the same – but what one should do and contribute to others depends on a country’s historical responsibility and means to do so.

These are rational principles and are well-accepted, but how they have been interpreted through the years has been contentious. It’s the main reason that progress is slow and that the climate negotiation experience is an experience often of one step forward, one step backward.

We did take a good step in 2015 when The Paris Agreement was adopted. Although it is not a perfect agreement, that accord was good and comprehensive. More importantly, its provisions allowed for modification, for example increasing ambition. The Glasgow meeting will hopefully yield that result and the virtual negotiations should pave the way for that.

The Paris Agreement has two targets. This was contentious with many big countries, developed and developing, willing only to adopt a 2.0-degrees target as the upper limit for global temperature increase. The Philippines, with our allies, in the Climate Vulnerable Forum, argued for a higher target of 1.5 degrees. The less ambitious target will mean we lose many island states. For us, we will lose many of our small islands and coastal areas. Thankfully, as confirmed in recent summits in Washington DC, USA, and St. Petersburg, Russia, and as we are hearing also in these virtual negotiations, 1.5 degrees is now the norm accepted by many parties.

The Paris Agreement has Mitigation and Adaptation mandates that countries must include in their obligations under the agreement, what is called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). It is clear that the climate emergency requires higher NDCs by everyone, including the Philippines which finally submitted its NDC a month ago.

On this World Environment Day, I am hopeful for the future of the climate process. With the US back in, with many big countries adopting net neutrality goals and others increasing ambition, with young people demanding ambitious action, with finance institutions like banks taking action by refusing financing for coal and other fossil fuel projects, and with climate justice now at the center of the agenda, the next meeting in Glasgow could be a turning point.

I end this column, published on World Environment Day and the day before the Feast of Corpus Christi, and with the ending prayer of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si: “God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth, for not one of them is forgotten in your sight. Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the earth are crying out. O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love, and beauty.”

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