By Sir Ronald Sanders
The upcoming Climate Change meeting in Dubai – COP28 – is enveloped in hype, yet expectations of transformational change are misplaced.
Industrialized countries, major greenhouse gas emitters, along with developing oil and gas producers like India and Saudi Arabia, often offer misleading statements. Countries like Canada and the European Union, despite their vocal commitment to climate change, frequently fall short in fulfilling their pledges.
That, regrettably, is the way of the world. This status quo, particularly among rich nations, will continue as they get richer, protecting fossil fuel producers and disadvantaging developing countries, especially small island states, even as the latter countries suffer the worst climate change effects.
The economic divide between developed and developing countries has been further exacerbated since the 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. In the US and the EU, for instance, we’ve seen a significant rise in workers’ real wages. Reports indicate that in the US, average weekly earnings have notably increased since 2019, and in the EU, federal-government employees in Germany are expecting wage hikes of up to 16.9% next year.
This economic growth in developed regions, however, often comes at a cost to developing countries. It’s driven not only by internal policy but also by exerting control over international markets and financial institutions. The US and the EU, by protecting their agro-industrial sectors and imposing unequal trade agreements, gain access to markets in developing countries. Moreover, their dominance in institutions like the IMF and World Bank results in conditional financing for developing nations, impeding their ability to enhance production capacities and competitiveness. This economic strategy not only widens the wealth gap but also contributes significantly to climate change, as the agro-industrial systems of the US and the EU are among its largest contributors.
Additionally, the oil and gas companies exert considerable political power in the US, the EU, and Canada, influencing policies through various means. These companies resist measures like carbon taxes to minimize their tax burdens, thereby expanding fossil fuel production, multiplying their profits, and worsening climate change.
COP28’s propaganda will portray promises as progress, despite little action to mitigate the impacts on developing countries. Tellingly, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the world is likely to surpass the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming limit by the early 2030s, leading to extreme, unadaptable climate disasters and fundamentally altering the Earth system. Heatwaves, famines, and diseases could claim millions more lives by the end of the century.
Thus, the real task at COP28, beyond mere “stocktaking,” is to establish legally binding rules for significant carbon emission reductions. Unfortunately, this is unlikely. Industrialized nations and fossil fuel-dependent countries, including coal producers, won’t agree to binding commitments. Talk, promises, and pledges are easy and cheap.
The ‘loss and damage fund’, a critical topic at COP28, is shrouded in misinformation. Advocates from small island states have tirelessly championed this fund, facing significant challenges. Their struggle is evident when considering the power dynamics of past COP meetings. For instance, wealthier countries like China can send a large delegation, such as the 233 delegates at COP15, vastly outnumbering representatives from smaller nations like Haiti and Chad, who could only send seven and three delegates, respectively.
Moreover, the influence of fossil fuel companies cannot be overlooked. These companies unite to exert considerable sway over the negotiations, deploying numerous lobbyists and even distributing briefing papers to support their positions.
Alliances, like the Association of Small Island States, lack the numbers or expertise to negotiate effectively across multiple simultaneous committees. African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries might have better chances if they coordinate mechanisms and share negotiation responsibilities, but they don’t.
At COP27, after years of advocacy, the concept of establishing a loss and damage fund was agreed, but its activation was delayed awaiting “recommendations” from a “transition” committee dominated by industrialized nations. Five meetings, including a hurried one in November 2023, were held to reach a grudging consensus on the Committee’s recommendations for COP28, where nations are said to have agreed its terms on the first day of the meeting, but delivery is yet to be judged.
One reluctant recommendation is that the World Bank, distrusted by developing countries due to its policies largely set by the US and the EU, should run the fund. An African NGO, Power Shift Africa, declared the initial funding pledges “clearly inadequate” and the US pledge “embarrassing.” Of the $429 million pledged, the EU promised $245 million, the UK $75 million, and the US $10 million.
Therefore, while hoping for an adequate and effective loss and damage fund, especially for small island states, I remain cautious.
The world is likely to surpass the 1.5 degrees target by the early 2030s, leading to extreme climate disasters beyond adaptation. The Washington Post found that countries are underreporting their greenhouse gas emissions, likely 16 to 23 percent higher than reported. Clearly, relying on inadequate funds in a loss and damage fund is unrealistic. The funds simply will not match the pace of damage and losses that continues to be inflicted.
Without radical change, matters will worsen. The UN Secretary General has called for the phasing out of coal, oil, and gas, responsible for over three-quarters of global emissions, but there’s little sign of this happening. Developing countries’ best hope lies in applying collective pressure to push for action.
The world has the scientific knowledge and resources to curb climate change; the damage can’t be fully reversed but it can be halted, if the industrialized countries apply the necessary political will. However, developing countries should not expect industrialized countries to act without pressure. It is up to the developing counties to build such pressure. They should pool resources to develop and deploy joint strategies to cause industrialised nations to act.
The Alliance for Small Island States should begin the work to create such a platform for cooperation.
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also the current President of the OAS Permanent Council. The views expressed are entirely his own. For comments and previous commentaries, see: www.sirronaldsanders.com)