COP26 takeaways: Rich polluters still refuse to pay climate debt

15 Nov 2021

Tess Woolfenden

The UN climate talks (COP26) in Glasgow drew to a close on Saturday, marking the end of 13 days of negotiations amongst world leaders on how best to address the climate crisis. 

The negotiations presented a vital opportunity for rich nations to step up and finally deliver on their climate debt by providing adequate climate finance in the form of grants, to compensate lower income countries for the damage that two centuries of emissions have already caused them.  

Unfortunately, this was not the outcome we got. Instead, under the leadership of the UK Presidency, wealthy governments used their power at COP26 to suppress the demands of the global South, to pass the buck of responsibility and to sideline the people most impacted.  

The Glasgow Climate Pact leaves lower income countries facing continued destruction, gravely short of the resources they need to respond. Already heavily indebted climate-vulnerable countries will be forced to take on more debt to pay for a crisis they did not create. It is a blatant betrayal. 

$100 billion climate finance goal 

In 2009, wealthy governments committed to providing $100 billion of climate finance for vulnerable countries every year from 2020-2024. But this goal has still not been met. While new pledges for climate finance were made by rich governments at COP26, they are still not enough to hit the $100 billion goal which was already woefully short of what is required for climate action. (Many global South actors have highlighted how this number should be in the trillions, not billions).  

In fact, just before the summit began, the German and Canadian government published the ‘Climate Finance Delivery Plan’, which suggested that the $100 billion goal will not be met until 2023, 4 years late. In line with this, many lower income country actors have been calling on rich governments to provide the $500 billion in total that they promised by the end of 2024, rather than letting them off the hook for the years they have failed to pay up. No mention of this made it into the COP26 decision.  

Furthermore, it is important to scrutinise the finance pledges made by rich nations at COP26. We heard from allies how some governments were planning on providing the newly pledged funds in the form of loans, adding to the debt burdens of lower income countries while making profit off the interest. We also heard how rich nations are planning on using their existing aid budgets to fund their new pledges, essentially using the climate crisis as an opportunity to rinse aid budgets and going against the principle of climate finance as additional to any existing funding commitments in the Paris Agreement. 

COP26 delegates also started a conversation on the post-2025 climate finance goal. This was focused on process more than numbers, but we can expect powerful interventions from the global South in coming years on the need for this to dramatically increased beyond $100 billion.  

Debt and climate finance as grants 

Global South governments raised the issue of debt in negotiations at COP26, and thanks to their hard work, this did result in the COP26 decision document referencing the challenges that many lower income countries are facing because of increasing debt levels made worse by COVID-19.  

However, COP26 did not see the necessary shift away from forcing lower income countries to take on more debt by providing climate finance as loans. We were pleased to see that the COP26 decision does call for greater climate finance in the form of grants, but this also went alongside calls for more loans (albeit cheap ones). Furthermore, the language used for this was relatively weak by the UNFCCC standards (using ‘calls for’ as opposed to ‘requests’ or ‘urges’) and the agreement also fails to provide any tangible measures or timescales on what proportion of climate finance should come as grants. 

Loss and Damage 

Rich nations displayed their most outrageous behavior when it came to discussing compensation for the loss and damage climate vulnerable countries are already facing from climate change, such as from hurricanes, flooding and increasing temperatures. We heard many powerful interventions from attendees about the devastation their communities are experiencing at home, including from Mitzi Jonelle Tan who wrote that “when I was 12 years old… I developed a deep fear of drowning in my own bedroom and of my home being washed away by floods as my country, the Philippines, was ravaged by Typhoon Ketsana.” 

To pay for this damage, global South governments demanded that a loss and damage funding facility be established at COP26. But the evening after the proposal had been made, rich governments like the UK and US watered down the proposal to a ‘dialogue’ on loss and damage finance, beginning at next year’s COP27 in Egypt. With powerful rich countries dominating the negotiating space, this is unfortunately where the discussion settled (despite philanthropic organisations committing funds to the facility if it was established). Global South governments have been firm that this issue will be raised again next year.  

There was, however, some good news on this topic as Scotland and Wallonia (a region in Belgium) became the first entities at COP to pledge funds for loss and damage (Scotland pledged £2 million while Wallonia pledged 1 million EUR). Nicola Sturgeon highlighted how funding loss and damage was an issue of reparation and compensation and called on other governments to also pledge funds.  

Finance for adaptation 

Adaptation – action to limit the damage caused by climate change – has typically been an underfunded area in climate finance. Currently only about 20% of climate finance goes to adaptation. It was encouraging to see the decision text urge “developed country Parties to at least double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation to developing country Parties from 2019 levels by 2025″, but this does not go far enough. Global South and civil society actors have long been pushing to increase the share of adaptation finance to 50%. Furthermore, we need to see this change implemented immediately, not by 2025, if climate vulnerable countries are to have the resources they need to protect themselves from climate change.  

Engagement and participation 

COP26 was the most ‘exclusionary COP ever’. We saw global South delegations unable to get their visas (an ally in Sierra Leone only received their visa on the day COP26 started), civil society banned from certain rooms in formal COP26 spaces and the venue itself failing to be accessible for wheelchair users. We also saw the sidelining of global South demands on climate action – rich nations even removed the word ’emergency’ from the title of the decision document. The term ‘climate justice’ was only recognised as important for ‘some’ governments.   

Rich, polluting nations have turned their back on countries and communities on the frontline of the climate crisis, and have demonstrated one again that they are willing to uphold the status quo over protecting people’s lives. Nevertheless, the efforts and solidarity of global South governments and civil society at COP26 give cause for hope. The fight for climate and debt justice continues.  

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