Tag Archives: Climate Change

COP 24: Paris Agreement Rule Book Agreed But Is It Enough?

Alicia Nicholls

On December 15th, 2018, nearly 200 countries signed off on the rules required for translating the Paris Agreement from mere aspirational words on paper to an operable agreement. Agreement on the Paris Agreement ‘rule book’ came late on Saturday night, one day after the Twenty-Fourth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) talks were scheduled to conclude.

While there is understandable international relief and jubilation that an agreement for operationalising the Paris Agreement has been reached after two weeks of at times tension-filled negotiations, climate-vulnerable countries like Small Island Developing States (SIDS) would be justified in opining that the global political response to the climate change crisis still remains well below what is needed to stop irreversible global warming which threatens their very existence, and the future of the planet.

Background

Over 20,000 delegates from 196 nations converged in the small Polish town of Katowice from December 3-14, 2018 with one primary objective in mind – formulating the guidelines and institutional mechanisms for giving life to the landmark Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 in 2015 in Paris, France.

While far from perfect, the Paris Agreement represents a commitment by the parties to hold the global average temperature increase to levels below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience, to make available finance flows for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

The Paris Agreement rule book includes the modalities, procedures and guidelines for making this happen. A deadline of December 2018 was set for the rule book’s completion, which meant that negotiators were in a double race against time.

Given the need to balance the national interests of almost 200 countries, the many technical issues to be negotiated, the threat to multilateral diplomacy posed by growing nationalism and populism, and the current climate-skeptic rhetoric by the world’s second largest anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter (the US), the success of the talks was hoped for, but not assured. Negotiators were walking a thin rope and the negotiated outcome reflects many areas of compromise, including on areas where climate-vulnerable countries, like SIDS, would have wished more robust language to reflect the urgency of the political action needed.

What was agreed?

The majority of the rule book has been completed. The parties have decided on the rules for reporting on their mitigation, adaptation and financing efforts in a universal and transparent manner.

As opposed to a bifurcated system (separate rules for poor and rich countries), the rule book establishes a single set of rules for transparent reporting. This was one of the lines drawn in the sand by the US and the European Union (EU) to ensure, in particular, that large developing countries like China abide by the same transparency rules as they.

The rules for the enhanced transparency framework provide flexibility for “developing country parties that need it in the light of their capacities” in the implementation of the transparency provisions of the Paris Agreement. This will be on the basis of self-determination, and developing countries seeking to avail themselves of these flexibilities must clearly indicate the provision to which flexibility is applied, concisely clarify capacity constraints, and provide self-determined estimated time frames for improvements in relation to those capacity constraints.

A further flexibility comes with respect to reporting support. The rule book uses the legally binding language of “shall” for developed country parties with respect to providing information on support given, while for other parties, it uses less forceful language in the form of “should”.

Under the Paris Agreement, each party committed to progressively ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which reflect their pledges to climate action and are to reflect their highest possible ambition. Of note is that the interim public registry developed by the UNFCCC Secretariat will serve as the public registry for parties’ NDCs. The registry will be accessible for use by the parties, stakeholders and the public. From 2031 onward, parties are to apply common time frames to their NDCs. The exact time frame is to be determined later.

One of the issues at COP24 was scaling up parties’ ambitions by 2020 because when calculated, the current ambition level in countries’ existing NDCs puts global average temperature increases on track for more than 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This was noted in a Special Report on Global Warming at 1.5 Degrees Celsius released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This temperature increase would be well-above the Paris Agreement goal and towards levels that would lead to even more irreversible global warming, and would put some low-lying SIDS under water, literally.

The IPCC further warned that restricting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would limit some of the more severe climate change impacts, than at 2 degrees, confirming what SIDS were arguing under their “1.5 to stay alive” campaign in the lead up to COP21 when the Paris Agreement was signed.

How these scientific findings in the IPCC report were to be treated was a major sticking point in the COP24 negotiations. In a blow to climate activists and SIDS, fervent objection by the US and the major oil-exporting nations of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait led to a weak statement which merely welcomes the “timely completion” of the Report, but is silent on its dire findings.

Financing for developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation efforts is critically important, especially for SIDS whose climate vulnerability far exceeds their ability to self-finance their mitigation and adaptation efforts. It was agreed that the Adaptation Fund, which was established under the Kyoto Protocol, will serve the Paris Agreement. Some countries have also made additional pledges to the Green Climate Fund, another multilateral fund. Another nugget of good news is that parties have agreed to increase the collective climate finance goal post 2020 beyond the current goal of 100 billion USD per year. However, it is not yet decided by how much.

While the parties recognise the importance of capacity-building, they put off adoption of a decision on the initial institutional arrangements for capacity building to COP25.

Loss and damage due to climate change’s irreversible and adverse impacts remains a sensitive issue for developed countries, but one on which climate-vulnerable countries, such as SIDS, are particularly concerned. Indeed, climate change impacts have cost some SIDS like Dominica after Hurricane Maria in 2017 the equivalent of 226% of GDP, at a time when that country was still recovering from the devastation of Tropical Storm Erika in 2015.

SIDS fought hard for the inclusion of loss and damage in the Paris Agreement, and although ‘loss and damage’ is also included throughout the rule book, the language is less robust than desired. The transparency rules provide that countries “may, as appropriate” report on loss and damage, and the global stocktake rules “may take into account, as appropriate..efforts to avert, minimise and address loss and damage”.

Another example of compromise is in the weak compliance mechanism provided for. Under the Paris Agreement, this mechanism is “to facilitate implementation of and promote compliance with the provisions of the Agreement”. The rule book makes clear that the committee is to “neither function as an enforcement or dispute settlement mechanism, nor impose penalties or sanctions, and shall respect national sovereignty”. This mechanism, therefore, will have to rely on moral suasion for ensuring compliance.

The compliance mechanism will consist of an elected 12-member committee which is to function in a manner that is “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive”. In a nod to developing countries, the committee membership is to have “2 members each from the five regional groups of the United Nations and 1 member each from the small island developing States and the least developed countries, taking into account the goal of gender balance”. It “shall pay particular attention to the respective national capabilities and circumstances of Parties.”

A critical area which remains incomplete is that of voluntary market mechanisms. Agreement on this was held up as Brazil objected strongly to rules preventing double counting. This issue has been deferred to COP25 which will be held in Chile.

What next?

The rule book is a welcomed achievement given the swirling headwinds it had to face leading up to its negotiation. But the reality of balancing varying political interests meant that the text features many areas of compromise, with the net result that the political response and ambition do not adequately reflect the urgency needed to confront the magnitude of the climate crisis.

The Global Carbon Project released a report noting that global carbon emissions are to reach an all-time high in 2018. While SIDS are undoubtedly at the frontlines of the climate change battle, natural disasters, such as the impact of Hurricane Harvey (2017) and Hurricane Katrina (2005) in the US, show that large countries are by no means immune to climate change’s most disastrous effects. Climate action is, therefore, in all countries’ interests.

Political headwinds, however, still threaten the global climate response as powerful fossil fuel interests now have climate deniers in the highest positions of political power. Brazil has withdrawn its offer to host next year’s COP25. Its incoming President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate change denier, has already signalled his support for increased agricultural production in the Amazon – the world’s largest green lung. The Trump Administration has re-emphasised a commitment to so-called ‘clean’ coal, rolled back many Obama-era emissions-cutting initiatives and has indicated earlier this year that the US is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Under the Agreement, the US cannot withdraw until 2020 and its delegation played an active role in the COP24 negotiations, especially on the issue of transparency. However, should President Trump be re-elected in 2020 and the US make good on its threat to withdraw, this will have implications for the Agreement and on global climate action more widely.

The next few years will be critical for climate action. At COP25 in Chile next year, the parties will seek to finalise the final details of the rule book. However, before this, a special climate summit will be convened in September 2019 to mobilise ambition. The deadline for current emissions commitments is 2020 and new targets will have to be set. Failure to scale up ambitions puts SIDS and future generations at risk of climate disaster. More ambitious political action will be needed to ensure a transition to a low carbon and climate resilient world which ensures that the most deleterious climate change impacts are averted.

The informal text may be found here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Advertisements

Human Rights in the context of the International Climate Change Agenda

Stefan Newton, Guest Contributor

snewton

Stefan Newton

In her address to the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Prime Minister of Barbados, the Hon. Mia Mottley, abandoned a scripted speech and made a passionate appeal to United Nations (UN) Member states to make good on their commitments to climate change under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). She urged States to accelerate mobilizing the necessary funding for climate adaptation and mitigation under The Green Climate Fund.

In thinly veiled remarks, she criticized the current position of the United States of America (USA) by refusing to acknowledge the reality of climate change, noting “For us it is about saving lives. For others it is about saving profits”. It is well known by now that the USA has regrettably withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement: which builds upon the UNFCCC and for the first time brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.

Moreover, the Prime Minister pointed to the need for UN Member States to recognize that “mighty or small we must protect each other in this world”. In closing her speech, she appealed to the international community to exercise empathy and care for those States and their citizens who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. I humbly submit that this is perhaps the most significant speech given by a Barbadian leader to the United Nations, as it impinges on Barbados’ very survival as a nation State. Indeed, if climate change ambitions are not met, Barbados and its citizens will face very certain demise due to the effects of climate change.

Climate Change is a Human Rights Problem

While climate change is most often viewed as an environmental problem, it is also very much a human rights problem. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former High Commissioner for Human Rights, has described climate change as “probably the greatest human rights challenge of the 21st century”.

Explicit mention of human rights is now being made in international climate agreements. The Preamble to the Paris Agreement to the UNFCCC calls for all States, when acting to address climate change, to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights”. The World Bank Report on Human Rights and Climate Change highlights the relevancy of international human rights law to climate change by linking particular social and human impacts of climate change to special human rights standards under international human rights treaties, thereby confirming human rights impacts. For example, the right to life is the most fundamental human right and well enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A number of observed and projected effects of climate change will pose direct and indirect threats to the human right to life. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects with high confidence an increase in people suffering from death, disease and injury from heat waves, floods, storms etc. Equally, climate change will affect the right to life through an increase in malnutrition, cardio- respiratory morbidity and mortality related climate change effects.

Despite the clear human rights implications of failure to act to combat climate change, the international community is not “grasping the baton firmly” enough through decisive policy actions to reach the ambitions of the climate change agenda. The USA- Trump led administration seems to be a lost cause with its view that climate change is a fiction. Heeding Prime Minister Mottley’s call to climate action will most likely be viewed by them as a mere courtesy, not an obligation. However, it can be soundly argued that Prime Minister Mottley’s urging of States to protect each other from the effects of climate change, are not merely aspirational or appeals to international consciousness, but are linked to and grounded in legally binding international human rights principles.

Legal Link between Human Rights and Climate Change

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has set out the essentials of the legal dimensions link between Human Rights and Climate Change. International Human Rights principles to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all people without discrimination gives rise to a wide range of duties for State in acting on climate change. I will touch on three.

First, under these principles is the duty to mitigate climate change and to prevent its negative human rights impacts. Failure to take affirmative action to prevent human rights harms caused by climate change, including foreseeable long-term harms, breaches this obligation. Second is the duty to ensure that all persons have the necessary capacity to adapt to climate change. Falling under this duty States must ensure that appropriate adaptation measures are taken to protect and fulfil the rights of all persons, particularly those most endangered by the negative impacts of climate change e.g. small islands, riparian and low-lying coastal zones. Third, under core human rights treaties, States acting individually or collectively are obliged to mobilize and allocate the maximum available resources for the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the advancement of civil and political rights and the right to development. The failure to adopt reasonable measures to mobilize available resources to prevent foreseeable climate change harm breaches this obligation.

Incorporating Human Rights into Climate Change Policy Discussions

Besides recognizing the legal implications of international human rights law as it pertains to climate change, Caribbean policy makers should also recognize the value added of incorporating human rights into discussions around climate change policy.

Among other things, a focus on human rights law may serve to locate policy within the framework of internationally agreed obligations and acceptance of certain goods, interests or goals as rights. This has the effect of establishing a hierarchy of importance among policy goals, helping to ensure that human rights are not traded off among interests lacking that status. Simply put, human rights place people before profits. This is critical as more firms and investors enter the Caribbean market whose activities may have climate and environmental impacts.

Additionally, human rights offer a normative and institutional framework for strengthened accountability and international co-operation for those responsible for adverse impacts of climate change. It may be argued that states should be encouraged to take climate action on this basis and do more in their capacity to assist and contribute to the financing of climate adaptation programs. This might be a useful bargaining chip in the realm of international relations and negotiations. For small developing states, such accountability can be used as a tool of moral suasion against large carbon emitting States like the USA which have retreated from global actions on climate change, or to spur States who are already implementing climate action targets to redouble their efforts.

Diagonal Environmental Rights

Further to policy, human rights law has an incredible potential to fill in a missing legal gap present in the international legal framework addressing climate change. The carbon emissions from large industrial States have a disproportionate impact on small lesser emitting States. Citizens of small developing States are thus marginalized and face aggravated vulnerability to human rights impacts from climate change. Yet currently there exists no formal legal mechanism for citizens to claim climate justice against large states responsible for impacting on and violating their human rights. This is referred to a Diagonal Environmental Rights; a term coined by John Knox the United Nations Independent on Human Rights relating to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment. Without going into the theory of a State’s extra-territorial human rights obligations, and proving causation, I submit that the ability to claim climate justice is well founded in the principles of international law.

As previously stated, no formal international diagonal environmental rights legal mechanism exists. Given the state of geo- political madness that has taken hold of multilateralism, I also do not see one being created and implemented by UN Member States. As the experience of the Paris Agreement has shown, it is a challenge just to get a critical mass of countries- let alone all countries- to participate in an international environmental agreement.

Therefore, the greatest hope is that existing international human rights mechanisms, such as the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR), and domestic courts are flexible enough to accommodate climate change litigation. There has been jurisprudence emerging from domestic courts that successfully incorporates rights-based arguments to climate change e.g. Pakistan in the case of Leghari v Federation of Pakistan.

Albeit these claims were made in the context of litigation by citizens against their own State for failing to respond to climate change. Nevertheless, such cases do much to add shape and contour to this emerging body of climate justice jurisprudence. They set precedents on which international, and broader litigation may find success.

Stefan Newton is a graduate of the University of the West Indies Faculty of Law.  The views reflected here are entirely his own.

IMO Member Countries adopt pathway to reduce shipping carbon footprint

Alicia Nicholls

Member countries of the United Nations specialised agency charged with regulating the shipping industry, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), adopted the first greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction framework for the shipping industry. This decision came at the 72nd session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) held in London from April 9-13.

The Initial Strategy adopted by IMO member countries has set a target of halving greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from ships by 2050 vis-a-vis emissions levels in 2008. This move brings the shipping industry closer in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed by over 190 countries in 2015, but to which the shipping industry (like the aviation industry) is not bound.

Some 80% of the volume of global trade is carried by ships. The phenomenon of mega-ships has seen a doubling in container ship capacity, and improvements in engine efficiency have increased the ability to travel longer distances in shorter time. However, the industry is estimated to account for 2-3% of global GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide and sulphur. A study entitled “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Global Shipping: 2013-2015” found that CO2 and other emissions from ships were increasing, despite increases in efficiency. Aside from the very real climate impact, emissions  from ships have public health risks for persons who live on or near the coast.

So what was decided?

Under the Initial Strategy, IMO States agreed:

  • To reduce total annual GHG emissions from international shipping by at least 50% compared to 2008
  • The peak and decline of GHG shipping emissions completely by the end of the century
  • To reduce the carbon intensity of ships through implementation of further phases of the energy efficiency design index for new ships
  • A working group will develop a program of follow-up actions to the Initial Strategy, and will consider ways to reduce shipping GHG emissions in order to advise the committee and will report at the next session of the MEPC in October 2018
  • The Initial Strategy is to be revised by 2023.

As noted by the IMO, achievement of these targets will require continued innovations in shipping design and technology to maximise energy efficiency and decarbonisation through use of alternative and renewable energy sources.

Agreement on the Initial Strategy did not come easy and reflects a compromise. Small Island Developing States, China and the European Union for example, had advocated for a more ambitious emissions reduction target of at least 70%, which scientists argue would put the sector more on track to meeting the Paris Agreement goal to limit global temperature increases to well-below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  Others like the US, Saudi Arabia and Brazil had argued for lower targets.

Some environmental groups have posited that the compromise target of 50% is not enough to bring shipping emissions in line with the target set out by the Paris Agreement.

Nonetheless, the Initial Strategy is an important milestone as, after years of delay, it represents the first pathway forward for reducing the shipping industry’s carbon footprint. In March this year, a  mandatory data collection system for fuel oil consumption of ships also came into force.

The full IMO press release may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

COP23: Five Negotiation Priorities for Small Island Developing States (SIDS)

Alicia Nicholls

In about a week’s time, delegates from over 190 countries will convene in Bonn, Germany for the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). During this round of climate negotiations, which will last from November 6-17th, the parties will continue work on implementation guidelines for the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed at COP21 in December 2015.

Despite United States’ President Donald Trump’s statement in June that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, there is some cause for optimism that this year’s COP negotiations will bear fruit. For the first time, a small island developing state (SIDS), the Republic of Fiji, has assumed the presidency of COP and brings to this task first-hand experience from the front lines of the climate change battle.

Secondly, recent natural disasters worldwide have brought increased international attention to the devastating effects of climate change and the need for urgent action on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. This point was well-made by President of Fiji, Mr. Frank Bainimarama, who stated at a Pre-COP Ministerial Meeting held on October 17 in Fiji that:

“We can no longer ignore this crisis. Whether it is fires in California, Portugal and Spain. Flooding in Nigeria, India and Bangladesh. The dramatic Arctic melt. Ice breaking off the continent of Antarctica. The recent hurricanes that devastated the Caribbean and the southern United States. Or the hurricane that has just struck Ireland and Scotland – the tenth hurricane of the Atlantic season this year. It’s hard to find any part of the world that is unaffected by these events.”

Thirdly, except for the US, political will among the world’s most powerful nations has coalesced on the side of climate action. The 19 other G20 countries reaffirmed their “strong commitment” to the Paris Agreement, calling it “irreversible” in their Summit Declaration following the Hamburg meeting in July.

Below are five key likely priorities for SIDS as they go into the negotiations:

  1. Scaling up Climate Finance to SIDS

At COP15 in 2009, developed countries committed to jointly mobilise USD 100 billion annually by 2020 to meet the mitigation and adaptation needs of developing countries. According to an OECD study, climate-related concessional finance has increased in both absolute terms and as a percentage of total concessional development finance, however annual commitments for 2014 were still 20% of the USD100 billion goal.

SIDS often find it difficult to attract private financial inflows for development purposes due to their small size and economies, and current financing levels do not meet their current needs. Moreover, current graduation criteria have made some middle and upper income SIDS, like those in the Caribbean, ineligible for certain types of concessional financing.

Pledged contributions, whether to the Green Climate Fund or otherwise, also do not necessarily always lead to timely disbursement, and there is the need for guidelines and protocols for incorporating the Adaptation Fund established at COP7 into the Paris Agreement’s framework.

Finding innovative and effective ways to attract and increase financial flows, including from both public and private and bilateral and multilateral sources, will be key. For example, Fiji became the first developing country to issue a sovereign green bond, with technical support from the World Bank, to support the country’s mitigation and adaptation efforts.

  1. Loss and damage

Loss and damage was one of the most contentious topics in the negotiations leading up to the Paris Agreement and was strongly lobbied for by SIDS and LDCs as they are the least culpable but most vulnerable to the harshest impacts of climate change. The concept recognises that there is some irreversible damage which cannot be avoided through mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The Paris Agreement has recognised the concept of ‘loss and damage’ as a distinct concept of climate action and has made the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage permanent. It, however, does not deal with liability or compensation, something which developed countries were adamant they did not wish to be included. The softer language used in Article 8, which, inter alia, itemises areas for cooperation and facilitation, is reflective of these developed country concerns.

The costliness of this year’s Atlantic hurricane season is an important background against which SIDS should call for greater discussion on concretely addressing loss and damage, including the successful launch of the Clearing House for Risk Transfer which is slated to take place at COP23.

  1. Adaptation and Mitigation

Developed countries’ continued and increased support will be necessary to assist SIDS in implementing national climate action plans, policies and projects in order to build climate resilience. This support for adaptation and mitigation includes not just financial support, but technology transfer and capacity building and technical assistance.

Certain groups within societies are particularly vulnerable to climate change, including women and children, the disabled and indigenous and rural communities. As such, the COP23 negotiations will involve operationalizing the Gender Action Plan and the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platforms.

  1. More ambitious NDCs

Some 163 parties have already submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions which outline their emission reduction targets toward meeting the goal set out in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement of keeping average global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius. These NDCs may be found at the interim NDC registry.

However, the May 2016 synthesis report on the aggregate effect of INDCs showed that a higher level of ambition will be needed in order to reach the goal in Article 2.

SIDS will want all parties to communicate to more ambitious NDCs after 2018 in order to meet the temperature goals in the Agreement and in keeping with the Article 4(3) commitment of communicating successively progressive NDCs.

  1. Preparations for Facilitative Dialogue 2018

The Facilitative Dialogue which will take place in 2018 will be the first initial opportunity under the Paris Agreement to take stock of parties’ collective progress in a transparent manner towards meeting the Agreement’s long-term goal and inform the preparation of NDCs. It will be a precursor to the Global Stock Take, the first of which will take place in 2023 and will occur every five years thereafter.

The Facilitative Dialogue 2018 will be launched at COP23 and parties will need to organise and decide on the procedures, events and expected outcomes in time for its convening. The President of Fiji, who must be commended on his country’s excellent work on preparations for COP23 to date, has indicated that these talks will approached on the principle of ‘talanoa’, a Pacific concept which values inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue.

A copy of the negotiating agenda for COP23 (current as at this date) may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

 

Caribbean leaders place spotlight on climate change at UNGA

“To deny climate change is to deny a truth we have just lived” – The Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica

Alicia Nicholls

These powerful words uttered by Prime Minister of Dominica, The Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit were perhaps the most memorable from the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) seventy-second session. It was against the tragic backdrop of the devastation inflicted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria on several Caribbean islands that successive Caribbean leaders made their addresses during the UNGA general debate, highlighting the urgency of the need to address climate change in a meaningful way.

There were many moving addresses, but the most impactful  was the address by Mr Skerrit, whose country was severely battered by the Category 5 power of Hurricane Maria just days before. Reiterating that he was “coming from the front line of the war on climate change”, Mr. Skerrit reminded participants of the horror which Tropical Storm Erika had inflicted on the island back in 2015 and the tragedy currently unfolding due to Hurricane Maria where the confirmed death toll is 27 and several other persons remain missing.

In the space of a couple of hours, Dominica’s iconic mountains, once resplendent in coats of green and through which flowed clear rivers, had turned brown with mud and rubble. Some 95% of homes have reportedly lost their roofs in some places. Every one of the Nature Isle’s 70,000 inhabitants has been affected in some way.

Proclaiming that “Eden is broken”, he declared that Dominica was faced with “an international humanitarian emergency”. A fortnight before Maria hit Dominica, Barbuda, the smaller of the two main islands of the country of Antigua & Barbuda, was hit by Category 5 Hurricane Irma, leading to a complete evacuation of the entire island after the crisis. Hurricane Irma also did not spare Cuba or the island of St. Martin, split between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of France.

But besides the human and infrastructural losses, the economic toll will be equally enduring for those countries affected. A recent report estimates that Hurricane Irma caused $45 billion in damage in the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion in Puerto Rico.   With Maria, this toll will be expected to rise. A rapid damage and assessment had found that Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 had inflicted loss and damage on Dominica of US$483 million, equivalent to 90% of the island’s GDP. Hurricane Maria was much worse.

While climate change is not the cause of hurricanes, warmer waters in the Atlantic is believed by scientists to be the cause of stronger, more powerful hurricanes during this hurricane season. Hurricane Irma and Maria both rapidly developed into Category 5 hurricanes and the back to back pummeling of several Caribbean islands by two Category 5 hurricanes in such a short space of time is certainly not an everyday occurence, but one which may become a more frequent reality as global temperatures increase.

It is these realities which led Caribbean countries and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to be at the forefront of climate change negotiations which eventually led to the historic Paris Agreement being signed in December, 2015. It is why the decision by US President Donald Trump to declare that the US, the world’s largest polluter, would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement was extremely unfortunate.

As Hurricane Harvey and Irma potently showed in the US states of Texas and Florida, wealthy nations like the US are not immune to the more deadly effects of climate change. However, Caribbean countries, like all SIDS, are poorly equipped, both geographically and economically, to confront these disasters. Their fragile economies are dependent on industries which are among the first economic victims of storm devastation, tourism being the clearest example.

Moreover, their generally high  GDP per capita and “middle income” designation makes most concessionary loans and certain types of development aid beyond their reach due to outdated notions that GDP per capita is a good measure of wealth for countries. This point was raised in the address by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Barbados, Senator the Honourable Maxine McClean. Barbados was spared the devastation of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria and has been among the forefront of relief efforts in Dominica.

As was eloquently put in a recent World Bank blog, hurricanes can seriously turn back the developmental clock. This is certainly the case with Dominica which was still in many ways recovering from Tropical Storm Erika and will face a much longer recovery following Hurricane Maria. It is also the case with the US territories of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands which are also facing tremendous human suffering after being pounded by both Irma and Maria. Puerto Rico’s economy was already fragile due to the huge debt crisis being faced and is now faced with many places without drinking water or electricity.

Platitudes and best endeavour promises do little to allay the reality that there is little time left to reverse the damage which has been done and reverse course towards more severe temperature increases. The Paris Agreement was an important step but there needs to be stronger commitment, ambition and meaningful action by all nations, especially those which are the most responsible for atmospheric pollution, to take steps to meet and go beyond the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets they set for themselves.

There also needs to be greater support for SIDS which bear a disproportionate brunt of the consequences. The issue of climate finance was raised by Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua & Barbuda, who mentioned debt swaps as a possible option, and the need for greater finance for building resilience, as well as reminded participants of the economic vulnerability of countries which were faced with high debt, large trade deficits and small, undeveloped financial markets.

As Prime Minister of Dominica, Mr. Skerrit rightly stated, “we need action and we need it now”.

Mr. Skerrit’s full speech may be viewed here.

The CTLD Blog extends our heartfelt sympathy to all our Caribbean brothers and sisters affected by the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma and Maria.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

 

New Trump Executive Order Reverses Obama-Era Climate Change Policies

Alicia Nicholls

Less than one hundred days into his presidency, President Donald Trump has started a major rollback of Obama-era climate policies. Surrounded by an ensemble of coal miners, the US President today signed his Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.  Touted as necessary to liberalise energy production, promote economic growth and job creation, the Trump Executive Order takes aim at several executive actions implemented by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, as part of the US’ then response to the global climate change challenge.

For fellow pro-environmentalists today’s executive order is a blow to the global climate change fight and a sad confirmation of the policy change which Trump had promised. Why? Firstly, the US is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (16% according to 2015 figures), which means US action or inaction on climate change has a non-negligible impact on global efforts to reverse course before it is too late. Secondly, environmental regulatory rollback by the US could provoke a domino effect on other large emitters who may decide to rollback their own so-called ‘job killing’ environmental regulations in order to be competitive. Thirdly, US climate change inaction is not just a blow for small island developing States which are the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, but it further endangers those parts of the US which are feeling the ravages of climate change, such as sea level rise and more powerful storms.

The name  of the executive order is a misnomer as it does nothing to promote energy independence. Instead, it mandates, inter alia, departments and agencies to immediately review, suspend, revise or rescind existing regulations that “potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources”. It rescinds Certain Energy and Climate-Related Presidential and Regulatory Actions, including a 2013 executive order urging the federal government to prepare for the impact of climate change and a 2013 presidential memorandum on Carbon Sector Carbon Pollution Standards. It also lifts moratoria on Federal land coal leasing activities. His Head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, a known climate sceptic, reportedly hailed the regulatory rollback as “pro-jobs and pro-environment”.

This 360 degree reversal of US Climate Change policy comes days after President Trump’s proposed Budget which slashed budgetary funding for the EPA by 31%, but saw an increase in military spending.

Though denounced by environmentalists, the executive order has been praised by the US Coal Industry. Mr. Trump constantly blamed President Obama’s Clean Power Plan for the loss of coal mining jobs. However, though it is true that coal mining jobs have been on the decline in the US, most have been lost to automation as well as the shift to cleaner energy sources as opposed to clean energy regulations. Therefore, even some coal industry leaders, who have denounced climate action, have noted that coal jobs may not be coming back, regulatory rollback or not.

Moreover, the equation of climate change regulation with job losses is a false comparison as it ignores the growth not just in renewable energy industries and the green economy, but also specifically of green jobs and green goods and services.

President Trump is currently the only major world leader to deny the anthropogenic origin of climate change, and while he has often vacillated in his views on other subjects, on climate change he has been a consistent denier. Almost as a warning salvo that it would not be business as usual,  the Whitehouse.gov site had been scrubbed of any information relating to climate change immediately after President Trump’s inauguration.

Mr. Trump was also a fierce critic of the Paris Climate Agreement which had been concluded and signed by over 190 countries at the UNFCCC’s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21). Parties to the Agreement, which the US had ratified under President Obama via executive action, pledged, inter alia, to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.”

In the absence of being able to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (which the US cannot do until 4 years after ratifying), President Trump has, as expected, chosen to ignore and reverse emission reduction commitments made by his predecessor. It is also expected that under President Trump the US will renege on the pledge made by developed countries to mobilise $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020 to assist developing countries with their climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

« Older Entries