COP 27: Climate justice landmark or empty promises?

For better or for worse, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt may be the most important iteration of the annual United Nations huddle since 2015 and Paris. Depending on how one sees it, COP 27 – the official abbreviation for the event with COP standing for Conference of the Parties – resulted in either the biggest win on climate since COP 15 and the Paris Agreement or represents the biggest missed opportunity.

The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan agreed at the end of the conference included a commitment by wealthy nations to provide financial reparations to developing countries that have faced the worst from ever-worsening climate change impacts. For the first time, negotiators from the Group of 77 and China (G77+China), led by Pakistan as the chair of the bloc, won an agreement to set up a ‘loss and damage fund’ to help these nations recover from the damage and economic losses wreaked from ongoing climate change impacts.

Observers and climate change activists have long pointed out that the money to help poorer nations adapt to the impacts of global warming is available. But amid the din of climate change rhetoric in the richest nations and the internal and external politics that kept meaningful progress elusive, the victims in the developing world have often found themselves invisible.

Against that backdrop, the loss and damage fund commitment has been rightfully seen as ‘historic’, ending nearly 30 years of waiting by countries that have had a minimal footprint on climate change but have faced disproportionately its devastating effects.

However, COP 27 did not result in any commitment to phase out fossil fuels, leading many leaders, activists, and scientists to express disappointment. Coming at the end of a year that saw unprecedented carnage from climate change-related disasters, like the severe floods in Pakistan, it was widely hoped that a serious commitment on fossil fuels could be reached in Sharm el-Sheikh. But no such agreement was reached despite the warning by UN chief Antonio Guterres that “humanity faces a stark choice between working together or collective suicide in the battle against global warming.”

Premature joy

Even the loss and damage fund comes with caveats that have prompted observers and experts to suggest caution. While providing some hope of recourse and assistance to nations at the forefront of climate change impacts, the agreement is neither legally binding nor is there any consensus on how such a fund, if it is ever set up, will work in practice.

Speaking to The Express Tribune, Dr Adil Najam, Dean Emeritus and Professor of International Relations and Earth and Environment at Boston University’s Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies, suggested it was too early as yet to celebrate the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan and the loss and damage fund. “I do think that the celebrations are somewhat premature, but that does not mean that the acceptance of the fund is insignificant,” he said.

According to Dr Najam, a loss and damage fund has been a long-standing demand of the most vulnerable countries. “And its eventual acceptance – even if only in principle – is an important step forward,” he elaborated. “However, one should be clear-eyed about this: at this point there is no fund, and there is no money in such a fund.”

“What is there is the agreement to constitute a committee (the so-called ‘transitional committee’) that is supposed to come to a consensus on what such a fund might look like, how it might operate, where possible funds may come from, and how (and on whom) they may be used),” Dr Najam added. He explained that this committee is then supposed to bring these recommendations to the next COP in 2023.

“That is a tall order. Given the history of such negotiations – including the chronic habit of the polluting countries to make promises that they have no intention of keeping (such as the phantom $100 Billion that was agreed to in Paris) it would be a triumph of hope over experience that the fund will materialise any time soon,” Dr Najam warned.

But having said all of that, he stressed that the fact that the principle has been agreed means that now vulnerable developing countries have a realistic lever to keep this issue and demand alive and to keep pushing on this issue. “That is the achievement. When you are poor and vulnerable, you have to learn to celebrate even tiny steps forward. Therefore, we should celebrate this too.”


Sharing his views on topic, Dr Ashok Swain, a professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden’s Uppsala University, stressed that to talk about the loss and damage fund we need to look at how the discussion on the climate crisis moved from security to justice. “Previously, the world was more concerned about security or prevention, now that discussion has shifted to justice, which means countries that bear the brunt of the crisis deserve to receive some compensation for the losses,” he said.

Dr Swain pointed that the Global South has not contributed to the climate crisis but is suffering the most. “It is a moral victory for the Global South but for all practical purposes, it doesn't mean much. We’ve been hearing about similar climate funds since 2009, but it has never come to that level it should have been by 2020,” he shared.

According to him, much of the money that was promised for that fund, was being diverted by the West from regular development aid. “So, for this loss and damage fund, we don't know who will provide the money, how much, and how will it be provided.”

“There can’t be any legal action against countries that don’t contribute. So, this is more of a moral victory for the South but in all practical purposes it doesn't mean much,” he added. “I’m sorry to say that I’m not very hopeful about the Global North walking the talk in this case. The West will not provide the resources to the Global South to address their problems. We will have to live in a different world to believe that this will materialise.”

Dr Swain also noted that it is a pity that even as the world is moving towards climate justice, it is moving away from preventing climate mishaps from happening. “Leaders in the North and South are doing this to walk away from their real responsibility which is to prevent such disasters and how to address climate change,” he said. “If we don’t abide by the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit that was agreed in Paris, nothing really matters. By diverting funds from one source to the other, the West is conveniently shrugging off its responsibility, which should be lowering emissions to prevent climate change.”

Like Dr Najam and Dr Swain, the former chairperson of Karachi University’s Department of International Relations, Dr Talat Wizarat, was pessimistic about the loss and damage fund as well. “I’m not very hopeful because the United States and some of these countries that are polluting our planet more than anyone else, are very clever in wriggling out of such agreements,” she said.

“For now, they have accepted under pressure that they are causing a significant amount of pollution, but they have not made any financial commitment for this ‘voluntary’ loss and damage fund,” Dr Wizarat pointed out. “Without money, only accepting their responsibility, it should not have been announced. They should have allocated some funds, the UN should have extracted those funds from them, but the UN failed to do that, and I don’t think these countries are eager to dish out any funds,” she stressed.

Reparations and practicalities

Even if rich nations were willing, Dr Wizarat questioned the sustainability of a loss and damage fund. “The funds will never be sufficient for the damage being caused by climate change,” she said. “They will not be able to dish out billions of dollars after every disaster. Financially, they will not be able to cope with the pace at which natural disasters are unfolding.”

Retired senior Pakistani diplomat and a former high-ranking UN official Shafqat Kakakhel agreed with Dr Wizarat’s opinion. “It is highly unlikely that developed countries will accept funding arrangements that will be sufficient in responding to the needs of developing countries hit hard by climate induced extreme events and other negative effects of climate change,” he said. “For example, the total losses and damage inflicted by this year’s floods that have ravaged Pakistan are estimated at over US$30 billion. Which funding window will make this colossal amount available to us to undo the consequences of the floods?”

Kakakhel added that the effectiveness of the proposed loss and damage fund will very much depend on the operational requirements to be adopted by COP 28 hosted by UAE next year. “Developing countries represented in the Transitional Committee entrusted with making recommendations on the operationalisation such as the sources and quantum of funds and the rules and regulations for approval of funds have to fight hard to ensure their interests,” he said. “For instance, the international community has established an Adaptation Fund but developed countries have not generously contributed to it. Although agreed inter-governmentally, the rules for securing money from the Green Climate Find (GCF) are so complex and cumbersome that the GCF Board cannot approve projects requiring substantial amounts of money.”

“That is why one of the demands of developing countries in respect of loss and damage funding arrangements was that the rules for disbursement of funds should be simple and user-friendly for the victims of climate related loss and damage,” he explained.

‘Graveyard of broken promises’

Discussing the COP platform, Dr Najam told The Express Tribune that he did not expect much to happen between this year’s huddle and the next climate change conference. “I apologise for sounding like a cynic, but I have been studying climate negotiations closely for three decades. Why should I expect more to happen between COP 28 and COP 27 than what happened between 26 and 27, or 25 and 26, or 24 and 25,” he said.

“Climate COPs have been a graveyard of broken promises, false slogans, and shattered hopes,” the Boston-based professor shared, adding that they have lost most of their utility beyond being “a jamboree, a mela, a global gathering to renew vows.” According to him, while such gatherings have some value in raising attention, they have abjectly failed in triggering meaningful action or in mobilising meaningful resources. “I hope and pray that I am wrong in this, and the next COP will be different; but frankly, I am not holding my breath.”

Dr Swain, when asked about his opinion on whether he expected any changes before the next COP summit in Dubai, shared Dr Najam’s pessimism. “I reiterate that the climate justice discussion is absolutely right, but how practical is it? That's what is important. I mean, do we really expect the West to pay for whatever environmental damages will take place in the Global South due to climate change? I doubt it very seriously. It's impractical to have such expectations and does not serve any purpose. It will remain a pipe dream,” he said.

That said, Dr Swain urged developing countries to put more pressure on the Global North. “They need to coalesce and mount pressure on the North to cut down their emissions rather than seeking paltry financial assistance to deal with the consequences of climate change,” he stressed. He pointed out that the rise of populist leaders in Europe and other parts of the world has resulted in this trend of walking away from cutting emissions. “That's what the Global South should be focused on – bringing the big polluters back to their commitment to reduce emissions.”

At the same time, the Global South, which bears the brunt of climate change, needs to take concrete measures to prepare, said Dr Swain. “While countries in the Global North have a plan to deal with climate change, they are adapting, the South is always taken by surprise and unprepared.”

Stressing that prevention is the key in the climate crisis, Dr Swain advised framing climate security issues as national security concerns. “Unless climate security remains the number one national security issue, it won't be prioritised by the political leaders,” he said. “In the Global North we are not even hearing about climate change during election campaigns. If such an important issue does not make it to the election debate in European countries, then how do you think leaders will make the hard calls to address this global crisis?”

To celebrate or not to celebrate

Within Pakistan, many have seen the inclusion of the loss and development fund commitment in the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan as something to celebrate. Partly due to this year’s devastating floods that illustrated in stark detail the dangers of climate change and partly due Pakistan’s role as leader of the G77+China bloc that won the agreement, the development has been hailed as a major victory for the country.

“The establishment of loss & damage fund at the UN climate summit is the first pivotal step toward the goal of climate justice,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said in a Twitter post following its announcement. “It is up to the transitional committee to build on the historic development,” he added while applauding Climate Minister Sherry Rehman. In a tweet a month earlier, PM Shehbaz had stressed, “What happened in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan,” while appealing for urgent action to help the country tackle the devastation wrought by monsoon rains.

Addressing the concluding plenary of COP 27, Sherry Rehman called the loss and damage fund “the down payment in our joined futures and investment in our coming generations.” She insisted that the fund’s establishment was not about dispensing charity but rather ‘an investment in our joint future’. Foreign Minister and the head of her party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, too hailed the fund agreement as a ‘major win’ for Pakistan and the rest of the developing world.

Elaborating on the celebration, Ambassador Kakakhel said the agreement was significant for Pakistan because such arrangements had been demanded by small island states since the negotiations on climate change began in 1991 and later supported by the least developed countries and all developing countries at COP 26. “It’s also significant because Pakistan itself is highly vulnerable to the loss and damage effects of climate change. And, of course, it is significant as a global compact fulfilling the imperative of climate justice.”

Dr Najam, however, warned that it would be a mistake for Pakistan to count on any promised fund while arguing that the country also needed to introspect and act on its own climate rhetoric. “If Pakistan’s slogan abroad was that ‘What happens in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan’ then our slogan at home must be ‘What happens in Pakistan can be made more bearable by what Pakistan does in Pakistan’,” he said.

Agreeing that Pakistan must continue to ask for climate justice internationally because the contributions of most Pakistanis to causing this crisis are minuscule, the Boston-based professor said that the country’s calls for climate justice abroad would have very little moral legitimacy if we were also not working towards climate justice at home. “Yes, most Pakistanis have had very little to do with causing the climate crisis, but the rich in Pakistan have emissions very similar, sometimes worse, than those of the rich elsewhere,” he pointed out.

Dr Wizarat, commenting on celebrations in Pakistan around the loss and damage fund, said governments in developing countries have little or no real accomplishments. “For them, promises like the loss and damage fund, provide the illusion of success that they can present before the domestic audience – that by and large is suffering,” she argued.

“Pakistan is among the countries that are most affected by climate change, and this will have an impact on our economy, food security. It will affect almost all branches of our national life, including the security of our people,” Dr Wizarat stressed. “Climate change compounds Pakistan’s many existing problems. Lack of literacy would be further exacerbated with millions of children now out of schools. With the reemergence of terrorism, which we had brought under control, it seems Pakistan is in for a rough period. I wonder if our decision makers are thinking about these challenges that will be compounded due to climate change.”

The Karachi-based analyst added that Pakistan’s economy, which is already battered, couldn’t afford disasters like this year’s floods every two years. “We could have built dams that might have reduced the magnitude of floods. But we haven’t, and now Pakistan does not have the financial resources to do that. Sadly, we don’t have the political will to do things that benefit the country.”

Missed chance and the way forward

At the previous year’s summit in Glasgow, countries had agreed to phase down coal. According to reports, at one point in Sharm el-Sheikh this year, nations discussed expanding that to include oil and gas. Instead of reaching a final agreement, countries committed to "enhancing a clean energy mix, including low-emission and renewable energy.” The phrase "low-emission energy" raised concerns in particular. Due to no formal definition, experts, activists, and scientists worried that it could open the door to more gas development as burning gas produces less emissions than other fossil fuels like coal.

Speaking about the way forward for developing nations, Dr Najam said the goal should be to push on the emitter countries – especially the US and the European Union – to make real cuts in their emissions and to make them now rather than sell false promises of so-called “net zero” at a later date. “But in terms of adaptation, the real and urgent challenges are right here in Pakistan. They are challenges of good governance, challenges of sustainable development, challenges of climate justice,” he stressed.

“Adaptation means making the lives of Pakistanis who live on the Basin of the Living Indus livable: a Lahore where you can breathe, a Karachi where you do not die of heat because of lack of shade and hydration, a Thar that is not in recurrent drought, a Swat that does not see yearly flash floods, a coastline in Balochistan and Sindh were fisherfolk can maintain a sustainable lifestyle,” Dr Najam elaborated. “Good climate adaptation means good (sustainable) development, and that responsibility we must take on ourselves. Not just because we cannot afford to wait for the empty promises made by the industrialised countries to be fulfilled, but because we owe our own people a prosperous and sustainable future.”

Like Dr Najam, Dr Wizarat too stressed the need to for emission level to go down. “Laws and regulations must prevent these levels from rising beyond a certain point and all of the major polluters must be forced to review their emissions,” she said. “Second, there should be funds, committed, not vaguely promised, for countries that are severely impacted by climate change.”

According to Dr Wizarat, neither of these steps are being taken. “At the Kyoto conference several years ago, they gave every nation a level, by which they had to reduce their emissions. The United States started paying other countries to cut emissions on its behalf – which meant underdeveloped countries became more underdeveloped. They took the money, and they closed their factories. The deindustrialisation in countries like Pakistan is also a major challenge.”

Ambassador Kakakhel acknowledged that G20 countries have made considerable advances in reducing their emissions through greater energy efficiency and development of renewable energy resources. “However, they need to do much more as repeatedly emphasised by the scientists through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” Noting that sharp emissions reduction is a difficult task given its profound implications for the industrial and other energy user sectors, he said in democracies governments are reluctant to take drastic measures because of fear of loss of political authority on the part of ruling parties. “Private sector has its own constraints dictated by its shareholders.”

According to Kakakhel, Pakistan has been implementing a number of ad hoc adaptation projects proposed and funded by the global funding windows, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and development organisations of friendly developed countries such as the US, Germany, UK and others. “What is needed is a comprehensive National Adaptation Plan identifying not only the priority adaptation measures but at least broad details of their funding needs,” he said. “Our NAP should be driven by us, and it should draw upon the inputs provided by our provinces and autonomous regions which happen to deal with most of the climate change vulnerable economic and social sectors.”

“Climate change-related adaptation needs will neither arise nor be met in Islamabad. Proposals for them must originate in the provinces,” he added. “The risk of insufficient responses to the needs of developing countries has been a perennial challenge of the intergovernmental process. The remedy lies in vigilance, competence, and unity in the ranks of developing countries such as those put up by the Global South on the subject of loss and damage this far,” the retired diplomat concluded.

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