COP26: Will the Glasgow climate summit resolve the moral issue of climate reparations? – Martyn McLaughlin


Sadly, the principles of loss and damage have remained the poorer relatives of elephants in the room inside Glasgow’s sprawling SEC complex.

On Monday, the daily theme of COP26 bypassed these questions with the usual cavalcade of workshops, panel discussions and serious speeches from junior ministers, bank executives and NGOs. Representatives of marginalized nations who fear for their future have heard little to dissuade them from thinking that enough is not being done to help them.

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Since the idea that high-income industrialized countries should bear the financial burden of climate-related compensation payments was first raised by the Alliance of Small Island States some 30 years ago, it has been remained firmly on the periphery of every major climate summit.

Progress was made in 2013 with the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage and the creation of the Santiago Network in 2019. But for the most part, there have been too many false dawn.

Six years ago, for example, COP21 caused a stir when notions of loss and damage linked to the adverse effects of the climate crisis were incorporated into Article Eight of the Paris Agreement. The text’s footnotes, however, made it clear that their inclusion was nothing more than lip service, stating that it “does not imply or provide the basis for liability or compensation. “.

The US negotiating team insisted on this particular clause, which warned that otherwise it would not accept the comprehensive deal. What were the masses gathered together yearning to breathe freely?

In Glasgow, such intransigence persists, and the vague promises made in Paris have so far not been kept. The wealthiest nations still oppose any discussion of compensation for damage caused by climate change, much to the frustration of those calling for change.

Climate activists take part in a Global Day of Action for Climate Justice protest on Saturday in Manila, Philippines (Photo: Ezra Acayan / Getty Images)

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“Everyone knows that rich countries are afraid of exposing themselves to responsibilities and compensation,” said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh. “Even the term ‘loss and damage’ is, in fact, a euphemism for liability and compensation. They refuse to address this problem.

Not surprisingly, the fundamental reason for such stubbornness is money. In the absence of a universally accepted framework, it is notoriously difficult to quantify the amount of damage that each major developed country would have to pay, but even a conservative estimate would suggest that the sums are significant.

The United States – the country that has produced the most carbon dioxide emissions since the start of the industrial age – is expected to pay somewhere in the region of £ 1.5 trillion. The UK, which has emitted around 75 GtCO2 since 1850, would also face a colossal bill. The climate debt that we owe to the countries of the South is gargantuan, and it is increasing day by day.

An activist takes part in a climate change protest in Kathmandu earlier this week (Photo: Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images)

Some developing countries have made the compelling argument that there is a legal obligation for historic large polluters to provide remedies based on the no-violation rule, a widely recognized principle of international law that obliges countries to prevent, reduce and control the risk of environmental damage to other states.

There is historical precedent for this, and remarkably, it dates back 80 years to a dispute over a smelter in Canada that produced smoke that damaged Washington state forests and crops. A landmark court ruling later ordered Canada to award damages to its neighbor and established the principle that the polluter must pay.

Even so, the legal basis for damages in climate emergencies is not the most compelling justification available to developing countries. There is a compelling moral argument for action that should take precedence over any other argument.

The climate debate is too often caught up in technical and economic minutiae, but it is important to present it not only as an ecological disaster, but as an ethical disaster. If not addressed, it will be a source of continued shame. As Danny Sriskandarajah, Managing Director of Oxfam GB, put it: “Climate action without climate justice, I think, is morally and technically bankrupt.

In the face of that, it should be a source of pride that a nation – Scotland – has broken the long-held taboo around climate justice. The £ 1million provided by the Scottish Government to help the world’s most vulnerable communities cope with climate change loss and damage will not go far, and it is just a pocket change compared to the sums needed.

But it is a symbolic and revolutionary payment from a nation that once formed a key industrial center of the British Empire, and it throws the gauntlet on other developed nations.

Signs so far indicate that no one is ready to pick it up and that the national interest will prevail again. While COP26 cannot provide the annual $ 100 billion (£ 74 billion) crisis fund that was pledged as early as 2009, the concept of a climate justice fund appears to be an outlier.

But the pressure is on the rise, and as the field of attribution science continues to show how human activities such as energy production and transportation cause extreme weather events, calls for a new A financial mechanism, such as an international commission, to deliver restorative justice to those who have suffered the most will be increasingly difficult to resist.

It is a thorny and messy question, complicated by questions about colonialism, historical exploitation and geopolitical weight. At its heart, however, is a long overdue chance of recognition and responsibility. There is still time in Glasgow for moral reasons, but time is running out.

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