THERE is no better way to remind ourselves of the urgency of climate change than by listening to the impassioned pleas of the Maldives Environment Minister, Aminath Shauna, when talking about the future of her idyllic homeland. “I do not want to leave my home, I don’t want my three-year-old daughter to leave our home,” she told me. On stage at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum earlier this month, she made that call again, urging “the world and international organizations, governments, to identify and to say the issue is a climate crisis.”
Hers is not an isolated story. The Maldives is just one of a number of countries that make up the Global South — a term used to describe developing nations, typically in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. They face a trifecta of problems: poverty, inequality, and the effects of a warming planet. They are on the front line of this environmental crisis. Increasingly, they feel burned by richer states that have reaped the benefits of using dirty fuels to grow their economies, and are now not willing to cough up the cash for those suffering the consequences.
So when the United Nations Conference of the Parties, known as COP28, starts on Thursday, they will be hoping the gathering will do more than just discuss the global environmental crisis. Focusing on renewable energy, reforming the way funding is distributed to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and actually delivering money to developing nations would be huge first steps toward restoring faith in the process; and addressing goals that are in all our interests.
The frustration is growing. In September, the Least Developed Countries group pointed out that while they are home to more than 14% of the world’s population, they only contribute around 1% of emissions from fossil fuels and industrial processes. The bloc also notes that although it has the least historical responsibility for climate change, it is being forced to adapt beyond its capacities.
Most egregious, in the eyes of members of this group, is the lack of action on the loss and damage fund, a mechanism that is supposed to provide financing for poorer nations most vulnerable to, and impacted by, climate change. Developing countries want the fund to provide at least $100 billion worth of annual financing by 2030. Ahead of the conference, the chair, Madeleine Diouf Sarr from Senegal, was clear; how the new pot of money will operate and whether it will get early pledges from countries will be key criteria for success at COP28. “An empty loss and damage fund won’t do anything for our people,” she said. “When their livelihoods are dried up by drought, their schools and hospitals are washed away by floods or when the rising sea takes their homes.”
But even before the meeting in Dubai begins on Thursday, divisions are running deep. There’s been no firm commitment from developed nations for an immediate and notable financial contribution. The US, one of the greatest global champions of addressing the climate crisis, had pushed for the commitments to be voluntary. It lost that bid, but did manage to insist that the fund can receive money from the private sector, too, ensuring that financing environmental adaptability would not solely be a government matter. While the private sector has a place in climate financing, a sizeable contribution from the US would have sent a promising signal — instead of the “million” currently on the table. China, which now emits more carbon than every developed nation put together, is also falling short of expectations. It won’t help that President Joe Biden is reportedly now not planning to attend the summit. Neither will China’s President Xi Jinping, further diminishing its significance.
None of this should be seen as progress, or satisfactory for the needs of the Global South, notes Gordon Brown, the former UK prime minister who is now a UN Special Envoy for Global Education. He is proposing that this year, COP28 works to get the world’s wealthiest petroleum states to pay a 3% voluntary tax on their 2022 revenues, which he estimates could raise $25 billion. That would go a long way toward funding the needs of those least developed and developing countries to help them prepare for the future, with the ultimate aim of ensuring a climate crisis doesn’t turn into a refugee crisis.
A sensible and logical plan, but one that would need the buy-in of the petro-states. There’s been much criticism of the decision to have the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s biggest oil producers, host the meeting: Human-rights activists and environmentalists have called for it to be boycotted all together. But this is where the UAE and its COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber, the chief executive officer of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. — one of the largest petroleum firms on the planet — could play a bigger role in convincing producer nations of their responsibilities. That seems an unlikely priority given the latest media reports of his plans to use the summit as a way to push the oil and gas agenda. Another possible move would be to do the same with energy companies, which have seen bumper profits from Russia’s war in Ukraine, while people in poorer nations are disproportionately affected by higher electricity costs as energy prices soar.
“We cannot continue to put the interests of a few before the lives of many,” declared the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, at the UN General Assembly in September, as she urged both companies and leaders alike to do more to address rising sea levels and a warming planet. She has been one of the biggest critics of richer, more developed countries and after last year’s COP27 summit warned of a billion environment refugees by the middle of the century if governments failed to tackle the crisis. What she and her counterparts in the Global South are asking for is climate justice. COP28 is a chance to deliver it to them.