Who will stand up for the poorest countries in a 2015 global climate change deal?

In the middle of the second week of the UN climate change conference in Doha was a simple ceremony to mark the hand-over of the chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) negotiating group from Gambia to Nepal. It is undeniable that this group of 48 of the poorest countries in the world in recent years has grown in strength and stature at the climate change negotiating table. But in assessing the outcome of the latest talks, it is hard not to conclude that the rich and powerful once again sidelined the issues of critical concern to the poorest communities around the world. This is a conclusion which should be front and centre of the plans of campaigners everywhere as the talks move on towards a new global agreement in 2015.

For the poorest countries arriving in Doha, a priority was to secure clarity on the levels of climate finance that they could expect from rich countries in the next years, especially to help their citizens adapt to a warming world, a problem they did nothing to cause. In Copenhagen three years ago, the industrialised countries with greatest responsibility for climate change committed $30 billion of "Fast Start Finance" over three years 2010-12 as a down payment on mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020. Doha was the last chance for commitments to be made for the years from 2013.

Starting 'Fast Start Finance'

Developing countries demanded agreement on a financing trajectory to $100 billion per year, passing through a milestone of $60 billion by 2015. In the end, the agreement only "encourages" developed countries to maintain their contributions at the level of the Fast Start period. There is nothing to prevent public finance falling in 2013, just at the moment it needs to scale-up. To many, this feels like a betrayal.

Some countries were prepared to keep their word. The UK and Germany both announced their plans to increase public climate finance in the next years. But the EU could not agree a common position to put a collective finance offer on the table in Doha, and the hard truth is that no developed country demanded a clear collective commitment in the Doha agreement that would ensure life-saving resources will be scaled-up from next year. Never mind that in the final days of talks, President Obama asked for $60 billion for the clean-up of a single disaster, Superstorm Sandy, in the power politics of Doha, the interests of the poorest were marginalized in the final package deal.

The 'fiscal cliff'

Despite their domestic economic woes, the industrialised countries continue to dominate these negotiations. The looming US 'fiscal cliff' did not weaken the US negotiating position, if anything it strengthened it. The US Congress is the ultimate 'get out of jail free' card for the US in the multilateral talks - cited as the reason the US could never agree to tougher greenhouse gas emissions cuts in the next years, or to new commitments on climate finance. Such intransigence gives countries like Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the EU the perfect cover to do nothing too.

For much of the COP it seemed like the emerging economies would stick by the poorest in their demands on finance. At the end of the first week, China and Brazil were reportedly pressing this agenda, but when push comes to shove, finance is not their fight. Both China and India suggested they should not be prioritised for Fast Start Finance, and in Copenhagen Brazil made their own offer of South-South support. It is likely they will have other priorities in the 2015 deal, not least the level of emissions cuts asked of them.

Overtime runs out

Right into the over-time of the talks on Saturday morning, it looked like the group of LDCs were prepared to stand their ground, even as big pressure came on their ministers on budge. But as Russia led protests alongside other former Soviet states over the deal on the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the hours passed and any chance of a last stand on finance was effectively timed-out.

'Loss and damage': a small win?

One area of relative progress for the most vulnerable was in discussions on how to address the 'loss and damage' due to climate change to which it is not possible to adapt. The agreement starts a work programme which keeps open the possibility of an international mechanism that could one day provide compensation and rehabilitation for such costs.

This is an especially important victory for small island states at existential risk from sea level rise. Rising seas can be closely linked to global warming, making liability claims for damages thereby incurred plausible, especially where island states have access to the legal resources to pursue them. It may also benefit the millions of Bangladeshi citizens living below sea level who may be forced to leave their homes in the years ahead. But the loss and damage incurred by many of the communities living in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), especially in rural areas - like gradually declining crop yields from rising temperatures or soil degradation - may be harder to prove, and the legal support to do so harder to come by.

Who pays for climate change?

It also seems that the US condition for accepting an agreement on loss and damage was that any costs incurred by developed countries would come from within the existing $100 billion per year commitment. If this is the case, then the real fight is yet to come. The power of the loss and damage concept is that it may entail potentially unlimited liability for countries (or perhaps companies) responsible for causing global warming. In so doing it could be the most effective tool we have available to drive emissions down, and one that none of us should give up on yet.

But in the nearer term, the one thing poor communities in LDCs, especially in rural areas, needed from the Doha deal was predictable finance for adaptation for the next years. How long do they have to wait? Smallholder women farmers and pastoralists, some of whom from the Southern African Rural Women's Assembly Oxfam supported to participate in the Doha talks, are the people living on the front lines of the climate crisis. They depend on rainfed agriculture or their livestock for their livelihoods. As Yvette Abrahams told an Oxfam event in Doha, the grass in her ancestral lands stops growing at 38C. Her family faced down colonialism and apartheid to remain on those lands, but climate change is forcing them to leave. What good news will she bring back to her community from Doha?

Doha's lesson

On the final night in Doha it seemed like the issue of loss and damage could have crashed the Doha talks. Had the US not budged, a walk-out by the island states would have seen to that. The US stepped back from the brink, but only in return for the weakest of agreements on finance. With no guarantee that public finance will rise not fall in the next years, the $100 billion commitment means very little to those that need it most.

As campaigners leave Doha, more focus will turn to the years leading to a potential global agreement in 2015. Much bigger interests - and numbers - will be at play by then, as countries negotiate new greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. One lesson of Doha must be that few of the powerful players will stand up for the interests of the poorest communities in that deal. If those governments won't, it is vital that we outside of government start planning now to make sure we can.

Related links

Blog: Three facts and three photos about extreme weather in 2012

Oxfam’s research and report on climate change

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