COP Architects Furious at Lack of Climate Justice at Pivotal Summit

Researchers who helped draft the first United Nations Environmental Agreements nearly 30 years ago claim that the current COP26 climate talks are causing a massive downturn in low-income countries.
Scientists and policymakers from both rich and poor countries attended the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Zakri Abdul Hamid (ecologist) was the scientific advisor to Malaysia's delegation. He recalls how he went from being a straight-laced young academic to becoming a scientist policymaker.

Saleemul Huq, a climate expert from Bangladesh who served as an advisor to countries that are most vulnerable to climate change at Rio, said "I had high expectations in Rio."

UN agreements were reached to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. UN also established a UN focus on sustainable and responsible development. Zakri believes he was "naive" in expecting wealthy nations to keep their pledges to protect the rights of poorer nations.

Low-income countries are critical of the slow pace of decarbonization and complain that promises to provide funding have not been kept.

Agreement on Landmarks

Rio was an important meeting, as policymakers from both rich and poor countries came up with a fair formula to protect the environment against the worst effects industrialization has on it. The majority of the ideas that led to this summit came from high-income nations. The concern of lower income countries was that a biodiversity or climate agreement would hinder them from building modern infrastructure and industries.

Richer countries accepted to shoulder the responsibility of decarbonizing and reducing biodiversity losses, while giving less developed countries more time for industrialization. Zakri, who later became the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Chair, said that they have not achieved this.

Researchers at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi found that the top-income countries were responsible for nearly two-thirds (or more) of all greenhouse-gas emissions between 1990 and 2019. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was an international law that aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 5% on average from 2008 levels. It is also not being adhered to by wealthy nations.

Contraction and convergence became a popular way to increase equity in the 1990s. The idea was that high- and low-income countries would both decarbonize, but at different rates--with richer countries cutting emissions more quickly ('contraction')--until emissions from the two groups converged on the same per-capita level. Influential policymakers, from both low- and high-income countries, such as China and the United States, were quick to adopt this idea.

It did not offend anyone; it unites everyone. It is fair. It is inclusive," Aubrey Meyer, the principal architect of the Global Commons Institute in London, said. However, this support was not translated into any meaningful actions.

"Today, thirty years later at COP26 most environmental problems have got worse," Zakri says. Richer countries have not been held accountable.

Sunita Narain, director-general at the CSE, co-authored the report with Avantika Goswami (climate-policy specialist). Narain claims that the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which was meant to limit global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, has led to a weakening of equity commitments. Lower-income countries will also be expected to begin reducing their greenhouse gas emissions after the agreement was signed. She says that these countries emit a fraction of greenhouse gases as the big emitters.

Narain, representing CSE at the Rio summit, stated that "the reality is that Paris doesn't give us the space for growth." She is concerned that the pledges of large emitters to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or later will allow richer countries to "continue taking more of the carbon budget", even if strict interim targets are not enforced.

Funding failure

Rio's veterans are furious at the broken climate finance promises. The 1992 agreement stipulated that wealthy countries would finance countries that are more vulnerable to the effects of global warming and help them develop new technologies.

The Global Environment Facility, a fund worth $1 billion, was created. This would be followed up by smaller climate funding pots. In Copenhagen, 2009, richer countries agreed to a more realistic figure to meet the needs of low- and middle-income countries. They promised US$100 billion per year between 2020 and 2025. Tariq Banuri, who represented Pakistan at 1992 Earth Summit, said that the 2020 target was not met and that more than two-thirds the funding received was in loans.

Banuri claims that the COP negotiation process that Huq, Zakri and Narain helped to create is no more than "institutional treatment" for richer countries. They are trying to convince themselves that they are doing something, but it is a failure. He says he is very pessimistic regarding the COP.

However, there is a general consensus that hope must not be lost. Narain states, "They must continue speaking truth to power."

Huq, the founder of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (Dhaka), believes that countries should continue to work with the UN to achieve justice. He says that the United Nations is the closest thing to a global governance institution. "We must persevere with this, even though it's not really delivering."

This article was published with permission on November 10, 2021.