This is a guest op-ed by Nathan Thanki, Lidy Nacpil, and Asad Rehma, Coordinating Team, Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice
For most people the word justice conjures up images of superheroes and supreme courts. It seems a grand notion with little bearing on the practicalities of daily life. And when applied to the climate crisis it seems even less comprehensible. But the shocking thing about climate justice is that not only can it be calculated—it can be achieved.
In December world leaders will come together in Paris, not to commit to building a climate just world, but to finalise a new climate agreement and commit to national ‘pledges’ which are supposed to cover a range of activities related to climate change. These include how we are going to adapt to and deal with the impacts of more storms and droughts—including the human displacement that follows.
However these pledges have not addressed all of these crucial issues of addressing our response to change—focusing instead on pollution cuts only. Yet even with that almost singular focus, the pledges so far leave us a long way off doing enough to limit us to 1.5 degrees warming—any more of which would lead to sea level rise in the tens of meters.
Recent reports from the UN itself have tallied up the pledges so far, and they aren’t enough to avoid disastrous levels of warming. Essentially, we are left with an ambition gap in terms of reducing pollution and supporting communities deal with climate change. The gap is not just the difference between what needs to be done and what’s on offer, the gap is the difference between being able to grow enough food to feed everyone or not.
These types of reports also contain another, unmentioned, gap in their story: they do not explain how we got here. The world did not wake up one day to find itself a polluted mess. Some industrialised countries such as the US, Canada, France, Germany and Britain have already polluted a great deal for a long time. These countries now have economies that benefit greatly from the infrastructure this pollution allowed them to build. So while all countries have a responsibility to contribute to the global effort to tackle climate change, the reality is that some countries have both a greater responsibility and a higher capacity to act than others due to their higher income and wealth, level of development and access to technologies.
To understand how there are both fair and unfair ways to approach the climate crisis, imagine the following. You live in a village next to a river that you know will flood and destroy your home. When the rains start, the village gets together in anticipation of the flood .
The village is faced with a choice of how to respond. One approach would be to divide up the total sandbags needed to damn the river and save the community by fairly distributing the work between the villagers. Your elderly neighbour who has to use a walking cane would be assigned fewer sandbags than your strong and strapping young neighbour. Within a set time, each member of the community would bring their fair share of sandbags to the levee, and the town would be saved.
The other approach would be for each villager to bring as many sandbags as they want to. So if your buff young neighbour doesn’t choose to bring any sandbags, and your elderly neighbour is only but so capable, the levee could be only half-built by the time the river bursts its banks. The village would be destroyed.
In 1992 the global village came together in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit on environment and development, establishing climate change negotiations under a targets and timetables approach. Over the following two decades a ‘do what you feel like’ pledge style approach has replaced the ‘do what you should’ approach. The difference is that while ‘do what you feel like’ is on course to give us a planet without coral reefs, Arctic ice, and many Small Island Nations, ‘do what you should’ can help us build a just and safe future for all.
Such is the conclusion ourselves and others are presenting in a new report, Fair Shares: a Civil Society Equity Review of INDCs. Coming from a diverse mix of social movements, environmental and development NGOs, trade unions, faith and other civil society groups, our review differs from the official UN story by asking the countries that have accrued wealth through development that has polluted the planet to accept their portion of responsibility. Rather than add up pledges and say “hey, what do we do about this gap?” we offer a clear vision of action steps based on these measures of responsibility and capability.
We have six key findings:
1) The pledges, if taken as proposed, will likely bring us past tipping points for the global climate system, into a 3 degree warmer world with devastating implications we cannot fully comprehend.
2) The pledges amount to barely half of the pollution reductions we need to do by 2030.
3) The ambition of all major developed countries falls well short of their fair share, no matter how lenient one is in calculating that fair share. Particularly lagging are Russia, Japan, the United States and the European Union.
4) The majority of developing countries have made pledges that exceed or broadly meet their fair share, even without sufficient financial support from the developed countries.
5) For most developed countries, even extremely deep domestic pollution cuts wouldn’t allow them to meet their fair share of climate action.
6) Finance commitments—the essential ingredient for delivering fair shares and a fair agreement in Paris—have not been delivered by developed countries.
On the back of these findings come several recommendations.
Firstly, countries should ensure that their pledges represent their fair share of the total effort. To avoid delaying action even longer, this means setting targets for 2025, 2030, 2040, and 2050 in order to keep below 1.5 degrees warming.
Secondly, the agreement in Paris should include a mechanism to increase the ambition of these pledges every 5 years, starting immediately. We can’t afford to keep kicking the can down the road.
Thirdly, countries need to put forth plans to decarbonise—phasing out fossil fuels and redirecting finance to renewable energy, whilst supporting workers and communities who depend on the sectors that need to change and those who will be impacted by immediate climate disasters.
Last but not least, developed countries have to commit to massively scale up the financial support for developing countries. Support and cooperation are key to tackling the climate crisis—both cutting out pollution and dealing with the impacts.
Achieving justice is not easy, but it is not impossible. Even in the often criticised negotiations there is hope that distrust and frustration can give way to genuine participation and progress toward concrete actions that will have lasting, and real, benefit for humanity.
For further information see www.civilsocietyreview.org
Image credit: Piotr Wawrzyniuk via Shutterstock