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Whither Justice

While COP26 had managed to achieve significant procedural and institutional outcomes, it had fallen short of achieving substantive outcomes which could reflect the imperative of climate justice.


The Bonn climate change conference has taken place after a hiatus of three years, punctuated by the disruption caused due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The conference comes in the wake of the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) which had taken place in Glasgow in November 2021. It builds upon COP26 and attempts to lay the groundwork for the upcoming COP27. While COP26 had managed to achieve significant procedural and institutional outcomes, it had fallen short of achieving substantive outcomes which could reflect the imperative of climate justice. This imperative of climate justice is based on a global climate regime that is equitable, based on differentiation and respects the principle of historical responsibility.

While the COP26 has had much to showcase in terms of procedural outcomes, its substantive outcomes are mainly symbolic and marked by a progressive dilution of climate justice. In terms of procedural outcomes, COP26 had managed to finalize the Paris Agreement Rulebook and agreed on ratcheting ambition in terms of goals on adaptation, mitigation, and climate finance. In terms of substantive outcomes, COP26 showcased merely symbolic progress in terms of announcement of various sectoral pledges, stilted progress on climate finance, institutionalization of Net Zero schedules and further legitimizing the target of 1.5 degree Celsius temperature threshold. Contentious issues spanning climate finance, adaptation and loss and damage were relegated to the convening of the technical bodies of the climate regime at Bonn.

The 56th session of these technical bodies ~ Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) ~ convened in Bonn between 6 and 16 June. The technical conferences convened at Bonn are, in many respects, even more significant than the Conference of Parties (COPs), since they lay the necessary groundwork in terms of negotiating the procedural and technical issues that might eventually acquire a substantive political status in the COPs. However, the political will to build upon the convergence of these dissenting positions ~ through diplomacy ~ has usually occurred outside of the formal mechanisms of climate negotiations. In this respect, the conclusion of the present Bonn Climate Change Conference has been marked by little in terms of substantive agreement and much in terms of symbolism. It has brought in its wake much acrimony between developed and developing countries on issues such as climate finance, loss and damage and adaptation, even though it was able to make some progress on other issues.

The issues-areas in which some progress was seen include success in discussions on voluntary cooperation under Article 6, relating to market and non-market approaches. The Bonn conference also launched the first technical dialogue on the global stock-take which is designed to review progress in achieving the climate stabilization goals of the Paris Agreement. The conference also devoted substantial amount of negotiation time to the contentious issue of transitioning to a reporting format under the Paris Agreement’s Enhanced Transparency Framework. However, sharp lines of disagreement between developed and developing countries clearly delineated the trade-offs that are increasingly becoming visible in the climate regime, at the cost of an equitable and inclusive concept of climate justice. In particular, the traditional trade-off between mitigation and adaptation was visible.

While the developed countries, especially the European countries, emphasized the need to improve collective as well as individual mitigation efforts, developing countries were more focused on delivering substantial outcomes on adaptation to climate change. These adaptive mechanisms span the need to channel climate finance to developing countries ~ especially doubling climate finance by developed countries by 2025 as reiterated in the Glasgow Pact – as well as to operationalize financial mechanisms related to Loss and Damage (L&D). First, in terms of loss and damage, the demand for operationalizing the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage has been pending since the Network was established in 2019 as a part of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.

The demand, at COP26, of G77+China to set up a loss and damage finance facility was instead met with a diluted response of establishing a Glasgow Dialogue on loss and damage. Even in the present talks in Bonn, the loss and damage dialogue that took place was very broad-based – focusing on insurance as part of L&D instead of the idea of L&D as compensatory and grant based additional funding – and did not deliver any substance. The issue also did not make it to the formal negotiations’ agenda of the SBI and was relegated to dialogues and break-out groups. The tendency of the developed countries to view the issue of L&D in terms of ‘solidarity’ funding, based on voluntary humanitarian aid, as opposed to the developing country perspective of looking at it in terms of the mandatory legitimate compensation due to them presents a stark underlying dichotomy in conceptions of climate justice.

Often the developed country employment of misleading rhetoric under the garb of universal cooperative ideas equally applicable to all has served to mask the particular and differentiated demands of climate justice. This is especially true in the case of developing countries and small island states that are amongst the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change without having contributed to the historically accumulated stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Second, in terms of climate finance provision, the developed countries have not been able to deliver on their past climate finance commitments and even the finance that has been delivered has gone majorly to mitigation with only one-fourth going to adaptation.

Additionally, even the finance channeled has majorly taken the form of loans instead of grants for developing countries. This shows how the climate regime is increasingly being tilted towards mitigation ~ an expensive proposition for developing countries, as opposed to adaptation, especially considering the lacuna in technology transfer to developing countries. The very institutionalization of the Net Zero Emissions (NZE) regime is itself a confirmation of such an approach. The achievement of net zero targets by developed countries would require rigorous interim mitigation schedules which would focus on substantive decarbonization of the economy as well as reliance on advanced technologies. With the UNEP’s Emissions Gap report highlighting how the submitted Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are not on track to meet the global warming threshold, it is not clear how much of the NZE regime is couched in rhetoric and how much is substantive, considering that much of it relies on the success of as yet untested and expensive technological fixes.

The failure to address these trade-offs and the increasing reliance on voluntary approaches shows how the imperative of climate justice is being diluted in the global climate regime. Interestingly, these contentious issues were able to come to the fore as part of dialogues and breakthrough groups due to the efforts of civil society organizations. The increasing prominence of non-state actors in climate negotiations was noted even at the Bonn conference, especially in innovative and inclusive formats ~ such as the ‘world café’ format bringing together governmental and non-governmental actors ~ that were adopted to discuss issues like global stock-take.

These forums outside of the formal negotiations also hosted other significant dialogues related to oceans, and climate change and gender and climate change. However, while the two-year discussions on the global goal on adaptation and on climate finance have commenced under the formal mechanisms of COP26, the issue of loss and damage has been postponed to the upcoming COP27. The developed countries need to realize that this cannot be delayed indefinitely especially given the rapid rise of climate induced sudden disasters as well as slow-onset events.