There are, metaphorically speaking, two tectonic plates underneath the COP process that constantly clash together while defining the fault lines of the disagreements over eventual texts that come out of negotiations. These are the two opposing viewpoints (otherwise referred to as ‘paradigms’ in academia) of the main camps.
The first is the climate and ecological justice viewpoint of the G77 (a coalition of 135 developing countries, designed to promote its members' collective economic interests and create an enhanced joint negotiating capacity in the United Nations) and China; the developing and least developed countries (LDCs) and the Small Island States (SIDs). In this worldview, responsibility for the crisis lies with the historical polluters – which they argue is the developed countries (as listed in Annex 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change published in 1992, at the first Earth Summit).
Since the developing countries have done so little to cause the climate crisis, their take is that those who should pay for climate mitigation, climate adaptation, loss and damage and a ‘just transition’ are indeed the developed countries. This aligns with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), which was captured in the Rio Declaration, also agreed in 1992.
The second and opposing view held by the developed countries relates to the neoliberal environmental governance framework, which became dominant from the Paris COP in 2015, in which historical responsibility is sidelined in favour of a voluntary contributions approach. This approach is forever forward-looking, such as the now infamous ‘promise’ to provide $100 billion in climate finance by 2020.
In this camp's approach, everyone is encouraged to contribute, and the private sector is given a central role in stepping up with green and transition finance, new technologies, innovation, and de-risked and blended finance (with some help from the public sector). The quality and effectiveness of public, taxpayers’ climate finance, in the form of grants – of which there is a chronic scarcity – can be enhanced by a proper relationship with the private sector, it is argued.
These metaphoric tectonic plates have largely shaped the mealy-mouthed and more substantive disagreements of COP28, as they have for many years in climate change governance. Writing on the 10th December, when most texts were still in draft form following the negotiations, many agenda items remained closed to observers, and ‘bracketed text’, and lists of options were still being fought over, it seemed clear that the resources are simply not on the table for the changes that the climate crisis demands.
As an observer at COP28 in Dubai, I have seen instead apparently small-minded arguments over one pronoun or introductory link word – but of course these mean so much more. For example, in a text about the New Collective Quantified Goal (NCQG) for climate finance, the G77 wanted to ‘note’ the small and paltry donation tin of new climate finance, while some representatives from developed countries, such as the UK and US, wanted the word changed to the ‘welcome’ of new funds, as if a show of post-colonial gratitude could make the point that all is now a voluntary gift. In total at COP28, contributions to the new Loss and Damage Fund stand at $726 million, while $175 million have been added to the UN Adaptation Fund.
Of course, the climate justice paradigm connects historical emissions with ideas of responsibility and the polluter pays principle, where the finance is an ‘obligation’. But if I have learned anything in the complexity of the paragraphs, it is that any hint of legally binding responsibility, liability, or litigable text which could even imply an obligation to pay up, is strongly pushed back by the ‘developed’ countries.
In fact, one example of the current fault-line is about alignment to the language of the Paris Agreement (pushed often by the G77 and LDCs), where this now appears to be a high-water mark of commitment, versus the watering down of ideas of obligation into the language of abstracted, general and voluntary contributions by the US, Australia, UK and EU.
Apparently, ‘We have all brought our chequebooks’ as if it were a charitable auction. References to climate finance being paid by ‘developed countries’ have been systematically removed from early drafts, replaced by text with no subject, or phrases such as ‘paid for by funds from all sources’. The developed countries have wanted paragraphs stressing the role of the private sector added in, whereas the G77 have wanted them removed, and developed country obligations added back.
In the first week of COP28, there were the usual early announcements of ‘large-sounding’ sums of ‘donations’. But these are measly and insufficient in relation to the challenge and scale of climate change. The developed country negotiators have then acted as if their singular brief – apart from avoiding legal liability – was to keep their chequebooks, in fact, closed. Among others, the UK government pledged $60 million, to the new Loss and Damage Fund at the beginning of COP28. By the end of negotiations on the 10th December, the new procedures (but not substance) of the NCQG was agreed, but as the number of different Funds for climate finance grow, we are far from new and additional volumes at scale.
In fact, current global climate finance in grant form is only around $60 billion, although developed country delegates spent long hours arguing that they had met the $100 billion promise made in 2011, by adding in other types such as loans. The G77, LDCs and SIDs pushed back, and said that the definition of climate finance used by the former group was flawed; that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) methodology was opaque and that they didn’t believe the data. After all, all sorts of self-labelled, green-inflected, and surely private sector finance had been counted into the total. The developed countries noted, mostly at the ‘water cooler’, that they won’t make that mistake again – of promising a particular number.
But the amount we need to spend each year to avert the worst of the climate crisis is in the ballpark of $1 trillion and rising, so the argument is over crumbs.
It might be tempting to think that these discussions over single words and phrases are not important but that might be an error. The ‘language’ and different viewpoints matter because they signify these underlying and foundational disagreements over responsibility, and because they foretell the consequences of failing to act. Never has so much been balanced on the pinhead of so many words.