I decided, for personal reasons, not to attend COP26 this year. However, in two recent interviews with European journalists and on a panel discussion at the Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum, I was asked to reflect on the progress that had been made since COP21 in 2015. I responded that it was heartening to see 1.5 degrees Celsius now accepted and referenced in all news reports as the long-term temperature goal.
The Good News
When we went to COP21, very few people outside of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) thought there was any chance of seeing 1.5oC in the text of the Paris Agreement. When the final text of the agreement came out and Article 2(a) contained the words “Holding the increase in the global temperature to well below 2oC above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels”, we were told that we had pulled off a negotiating miracle. I remember the then European Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action saying to me, just before the High Ambition Coalition made its triumphant entry into the plenary room at Le Bourget, where a few minutes later Laurent Fabius would gavel the Paris Agreement into existence, “Fletcher, you and your small islands have pulled off a coup”. So, today, six years later, to see that 1.5oC is the only goal that is spoken about is very encouraging.
The Bad News
Unfortunately, sad to say, this is where the good news ends. The walk has not matched the talk. Every year since 2015 has brought new, bad climate records. We have continued to pump more carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide (the greenhouse gases) into our atmosphere, global land and sea temperatures have continued their relentless increase, ice melt at our north pole is taking place at an alarming rate, exceeding the predictions of the desktop models, our oceans are becoming more acidic because they are being forced to absorb more carbon dioxide, droughts and deadly forest/bush fires are becoming commonplace in some parts of the world, frequent flooding is destroying lives and livelihoods in others, and the impacts of climate change on health, food security, water security and economic stability are becoming more severe.
Unacceptable Fossil Fuel Subsidies
Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, the G20 countries have provided more than US$3.3 trillion in subsidies for fossil fuels, the same fossil fuels they have promised to phase out to allow us to get to the 1.5oC goal. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments in G20 countries have committed at least US$238.39 billion to oil and gas and another US$46.50 billion to coal. In other words, while Small Island Developing States and other climate vulnerable countries have been fighting to keep their populations alive and their economies afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rich, industrialized nations have pumped US$275 billion into subsidies for fossil fuels. So, I hope you can forgive my pessimism when I say the walk is not matching the talk.
Ominous IPCC Assessment Report
The recent assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) painted a very scary picture for our planet. It showed that in all but one of the scenarios, we would exceed the 1.5oC temperature goal. The report showed that while the 1.5 goal was still reachable, it would take commitments and actions on a scale we have not seen so far. The Emissions Gap Report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which was just released, shows that the existing pledges in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are the reporting instruments used by the countries that signed on to the Paris Agreement, will get us to no better than a 2.7oC increase. When we factor in the Net Zero pledges that have been made recently, many of which are not anchored in domestic law, we can shave an additional 0.5oC off the expected warming. In other words, the best effect of the NDCs and Net Zero pledges on the table will be global warming of 2.2oC. While some would like you to believe this is progress, it is not what we need, far from it. For SIDS, global warming is not an academic discussion about gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents, it is an existential issue. Each fraction of a degree over 1.5oC will cause serious impacts for us – loss of biodiversity, sea level rise that will inundate coastal communities, more days of extreme heat, longer periods of severe drought, stronger hurricanes, and greater likelihood of bush fires, to name a few. Our planet is a living system, which itself sustains other living systems. A fever in a human being is a sign of illness, and if left untreated, it can lead to organ damage and death of the individual. Our planet is no different. If this global fever is allowed to continue unabated, species will become extinct, ecosystems will be threatened, and the environment in which human beings live will become more unbearable and treacherous.
Major Financial Support Needed
All these climate change impacts will take an immense toll on our economies, which are already reeling from the devastating effects of COVID-19. We are currently struggling to keep our national economies afloat. When Hurricane Maria struck Dominica, it caused damage equivalent to 226% of that country’s GDP. Hurricane Irma caused destruction that exceeded 300% of the GDP of the British Virgin Islands. For developing countries to adapt to the myriad devastating impacts of climate change, UNEP has estimated that they will need US$70 billion annually, which will increase to US$140-300 billion annually in 2030, and US$280-500 billion annually in 2050. When you add the cost of responding to irreversible loss and damage (from extreme weather events, sea level rise, ocean acidification), the estimate for the cost of our response in this decade approximates US$1 trillion. As large as this figure sounds, it is less than one-third of what the developed countries have paid out in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry since the adoption of the Paris Agreement six years ago.
Developed countries made a pledge to mobilize US$100 billion annually in climate finance for developing countries by 2020. While they have reported providing an average of US$59.5 billion per year in climate finance, Oxfam has shown that when loan repayments, interest and other forms of over-reporting are removed, the true value of the financial support may be as little as US$19-22.5 billion per year. To add insult to injury, 80% of all reported public climate finance was provided as loans. In other words, we the countries that are the victims of a climate catastrophe we did not cause, are being asked to borrow money from the same countries that caused the crisis, in order to respond to the crisis. Even more egregiously, Oxfam estimated that only 3 percent of the climate finance was disbursed to Small Island Developing States.
We Are Running Out of Time
The window for taking action to reduce the impacts of climate change and to restrict global warming to no more than 1.5oC is closing quickly. Unfortunately, many of the countries that are in a position to keep one-point-five alive have shown weak ambition to do so. Moreover, the levels of climate finance that are needed to help the victims of climate change adapt and strengthen the resilience of their societies and economies, are not forthcoming from the developed countries. A recent report by the BBC revealed that some of the major greenhouse emitting countries have been lobbying the IPCC to water down the conclusions of its last assessment report to minimize the need to transition rapidly away from fossil fuels and the importance of making finance available to developing countries.
COP26 cannot be another COP of pledges and commitments. It cannot be another Talk COP. COP26 must be a COP of bold, ambitious action, at a scale we have not seen before. It must be the Walk COP.
Our SIDS negotiators have a proud history of being the most committed, knowledgeable and indefatigable team of negotiators at COPs. They routinely punch well above their weight and achieve outcomes that belie the size of their delegations and the resources at their disposal. Once again, they have a tough uphill fight on their hands. In whatever way we can, we need to rally to their cause and give them the support they will need to fight for Small Island Developing States. We need to amplify our voices for climate justice and urgent action on climate change. The survival of our citizens, our brothers and our sisters, depends on it. This really is a life and death issue.