From an outsider’s perspective, the global climate negotiations known as COP can seem like a circus. It can be hard to see progress amid the growing number of fossil fuel representatives in attendance. Yet before passing judgment, it’s important to understand the full extent of the visible and less-visible work that happens at the conference. A tremendous amount of work goes into pushing for more fair, ambitious, equitable, inclusive and science-based outcomes in support of the most vulnerable populations. Credit must go in part to the relentless work of activists, scientists, practitioners, researchers, Indigenous people, youth, etc., who deserve far more attention than do the fossil-fuel representatives.
What better example of this than the historic COP28 loss and damage decision, to illustrate both the importance and the limitations of the annual conference?
The term loss and damage (L&D) refers to climate impacts that go beyond what communities in the Global South will be able to adapt to over the coming decades. Developing countries, with the support of many civil society organizations, have been pushing for the recognition of L&D and the creation of a support mechanism for over 30 years, based on the fact that those who have contributed least to global emissions face the greatest climate impacts, while historic emitters continue to invest in and benefit from the fossil fuel industry. Industrialized countries, especially the US, have historically pushed back on L&D, fearing it would open the door to endless legal claims and financial reparations.
The first win from developing countries was the inclusion of loss and damage as a distinct article in the Paris Agreement—though with caveats imposed by the US in the final hours of COP21, excluding compensation or liability from the discussion. The second win took place at COP27, when all countries agreed to create a fund dedicated to addressing L&D, though without agreement on how the fund would function. A transitional committee was subsequently formed to produce recommendations regarding where the funds should come from, who would have access to them and which organization should host the funds. The third win, on the first day of COP28, was the adoption of those recommendations, followed by financial commitments from several countries accounting for a total of $700 million so far.
A Historic Win, Though Serious Concerns Linger
The victory on day one of COP28 is a symbolic step toward climate justice. But many highly contentious issues remain.
First, developed countries chose the World Bank as the interim organization to manage the funds, despite serious concerns from the Global South and civil society.
In addition, there is no clarity on how the fund will be financed or replenished. The current commitment of $700 million lags far behind an estimated need of $400 billion a year. Mitigation and adaptation finance long promised by the Global North to the Global South—to reach $100 billion a year by 2020—never fully materialized. According to the Climate Policy Initiative, 90% of the funds disbursed in 2022 focused on mitigation only, and mostly as market-rate loans or debt-financing instruments.
Loss and damage finance needs to be new and additional (in other words, not derived or double counted from mitigation, adaptation or development aid), predictable (to support effective planning), and adequate. It should be accessible to all developing countries and should prioritize access to most marginalized and vulnerable groups. Developing countries are calling for an obligation of historic emitters to contribute to the fund in proportion to their role in the climate crisis, rather than a simple encouragement, and for the adoption of complementary mechanisms such as air and maritime levies and taxation of the fossil fuel industry. One recent study estimates that European governments lost out on €34.2 billion from poor taxation on aviation in 2022, while the five largest oil companies (TotalEnergies, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell) made a profit of $153.5 billion that same year. They too must be held accountable. The financial burden should be on wealthy polluters, not ordinary people.
Although the fund has been officially operationalized, it is critical to ensure that those issues are adequately reflected in other important COP agenda items, especially related to finance, technology and implementation.
To Those Who Say Nothing Ever Happens at COP
At the end of the day, the COP process relies on consensus and can only go as far as the ambition of the governments taking part in it. This has been the case since the beginning: Kyoto was too legally binding to embark enough countries; Copenhagen was too weak; Paris is the result of two decades of negotiations, with its unavoidable compromises. COP is far from perfect, but it’s keeping climate on the global agenda by bringing every country together once a year, and pushing for more ambition and accountability in policy, investments and implementation at national level—which surely is better than not, even (especially?) with governments that are clearly not rising to the challenge.
COP is also providing the biggest convening and organizing platform for the climate community, and the chance to amplify marginalized voices. Although the power of coalitions is widely under-documented, the constant pressure and advocacy by civil society and the Global South over the years have led to (insufficient but) notable improvements in areas such as youth inclusion, gender responsiveness, human rights, indigenous communities, nature-based solutions, and more generally, equity and climate justice.
Those directly inform the direction of the research, projects, policy being developed and implemented all around the world with more direct and tangible impacts on the ground.
The COP process provides a framework, not a magic bullet. It is not sufficient, but it is necessary, because addressing the crisis will require everything we’ve got.
The L&D fund partly owes its existence to the tireless work and advocacy of Saleemul Huq, one of the most persistent advocates for L&D and climate-vulnerable communities, who died unexpectedly on October 27th. Huq advised delegations from the Global South, challenged leaders from the Global North, and trained a whole generation of climate justice experts and advocates. COP was his back yard, and it will never be the same without him. May he rest in power.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.