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Trust deficit hangs over COP28, where humanitarians aim to play a bigger role

‘It’s no longer about how to avoid this crisis, but how to manage the crisis.’

A man in traditional Emirati clothes walks across a large poster that reads Global Climate Action as he attends the first day of U.N.'s COP28 climate summit, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 30, 2023. Amr Alfiky/Reuters
A man in traditional Emirati clothes attends the first day of the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on 30 November 2023.

The COP28 climate summit opens today in Dubai with phasing out fossil fuels, new funding for the energy transition, and loss and damage among the urgent issues – while campaigners warn that a crisis of mistrust threatens to divide countries at a crucial time.

Humanitarians head to the UN-backed summit in unprecedented numbers and under the long shadow of Gaza: Israel’s siege of the Palestinian territory “will be front and centre”, said Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network International (CAN-I).

“Levels of trust have not been doing well in these [climate] negotiations between the Global South and the Global North”, and the war “certainly will play into what is a growing divide”, Essop said at a pre-summit press briefing.

Like major crises before it, the conflict also brings into sharp relief one major difficulty: The resources required to address climate change – political, social, and financial – are delivered through fragile and complex multilateral processes that are frequently diverted to other urgent and immediate concerns.

Some humanitarians travelling to COP28 have been so consumed by responding to the Israel-Gaza fallout that they’ve have had little chance to think of the task ahead in Dubai. Others, with more breathing space, have been preparing for months, hoping to make climate programming more conflict-sensitive and to secure more climate finance for fragile regions.

More humanitarians are expected in Dubai than at any previous COPs, reflecting the event’s growth outside the environmental movement – from specialist talks to one of the biggest global diplomatic gatherings of the year. 

But this year’s backdrop is grim: Latest predictions suggest the world has only a 14% chance of limiting global warming to the relatively safe limit of 1.5°C this century – even under the most optimistic scenarios.

“As we get deeper into this [climate] crisis, these COPs become more relevant to work that we do,” said David Nicholson, chief climate officer at humanitarian response NGO Mercy Corps. “It’s no longer about how to avoid this crisis, but how to manage the crisis.”

And as the climate crisis pushes up the humanitarian agenda, some observers say its institutions face key strategic decisions around how best to respond and position themselves for a future set to be dominated by extreme weather events, and finite funding.

“It's about human lives being lost as a result of the loss of finance,” said Iskander Erzini Vernoit, director of the Imal Initiative for Climate & Development, a Morocco-based think tank. “It's about whether the high-income countries, the historic polluters, fundamentally care. It’s about how much value is accorded to lives of folks in developing countries. This is very personal for many of us in the developing world.”

A heavier humanitarian footprint

While previous summits have seen similar issues discussed, the number of events in Dubai dedicated to humanitarian issues that intersect with climate – ranging from displacement to powering crisis response with renewable energy – indicate a strong effort to bring a humanitarian footprint to COP.

For the first time, a “humanitarian hub” run by the UN’s emergency aid coordination arm, OCHA, and by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee – the highest-level humanitarian policy-setting forum – will see more than 40 events involving at least 20 organisations.

But the main COP28 attraction for many humanitarians is a thematic day – distinct from the official negotiations – dedicated to the intersection of climate with “relief, recovery and peace” on 3 December. The key moment, as exclusively reported by The New Humanitarian, will be the launch of a declaration by countries and institutions highlighting the need to tie climate funding to conflict, and an accompanying “package of solutions”.

Also on 3 December, the host United Arab Emirates will “stocktake” Early Warnings for All. This scheme was launched by UN Secretary-General António Guterres last year, but is lagging in its goal to cover the planet with disaster warning systems by 2027.

Another event on anticipatory action, the donor-favoured shift to better predict and plan for crises, aims to launch a “charter’’ for collaboration, to capitalise on “momentum” on disaster risk financing, and to set out how institutions “can put this ambition into practice”, according to a UAE briefing document also obtained by The New Humanitarian.

Moving forward on loss and damage

Among the crucial issues prioritised by the Least Developed Countries group – a negotiating bloc of 46 climate-vulnerable nations – is progress on a fund for loss and damage to finance responses to the destruction caused by climate change. Long a contentious project, governments agreed to create a fund at COP27 in 2022, sparking a year of difficult talks culminating in a last-minute compromise deal forged by negotiators in early November.

In a major win for the UAE’s incoming COP presidency, the fund received early approval today from COP28, along with a raft of pledges. Approval hadn’t been expected until the end of the summit. Pledges included 125 million euros from the EU, and $100 million each from the UAE and Germany. Smaller donations were made by Britain (£60 million) and Japan ($10 million). The United States pledged just $17.5 million.

“This is a hard fought historic agreement,” said Avinash Persaud, one of the key negotiators. “It shows recognition that climate loss and damage is not a distant risk but part of the lived reality of almost half of the world’s population, and that money is needed to reconstruct and rehabilitate if we are not to let the climate crisis reverse decades of development in mere moments.”

But concerns remain over the role of the World Bank as an interim host, a lack of funding obligations from higher income countries, and the fund’s longer-term financial sustainability.

There are also fears among observers that the pledges – which critics said were far too low compared to need – could see money be taken from budgets previously earmarked for other purposes.

“I think none of these [possible pledges] are really, actually, genuinely new,” said Vernoit. “Some of these will just be taken out of existing adaptation finance budgets or development finance budgets.”

Broken promises breed mistrust

As has become routine with COP negotiations, “the big elephant in the room is climate finance”, said Mercy Corps’ Nicholson. 

A major reason the talks have become riven with mistrust is the failure of high-income countries to deliver $100 billion a year to the Global South – as promised in 2009 – to help transition their economies to renewables and prepare for climate change.

“There is this growing discontent – nowhere more marked than the totemic 100 billion commitment,” said Vernoit. He added that there is still not “proper evidence” the target has been met, as claimed by Germany and Canada, who were tasked with chasing the money.

What climate finance has arrived has often been in the form of loans, which increase national debt burdens, or as development aid, which is supposed to be separate from climate finance, according to the 2015 Paris Agreement that sets the ground rules and current global targets for climate action.

Climate finance has also been heavily skewed toward projects focused on mitigation – reducing emissions – rather than adaptation, which is focused on adjusting to climate risks. Mitigation projects often offer a return on investment, while adaptation projects tend to require grant financing.

For many observers, there’s a crisis of trust around climate finance. “There’s a lot of concern among developing countries about the solidarity that developed countries have for folks in the developing world, and also the emergence of the political far-right that wants to cut international aid,” said Vernoit.

In early November, the UN Environment Programme’s flagship Adaptation Gap report starkly warned that adaptation financing is falling far short of what is needed. And the bigger the deficit, it cautioned, the more widespread climate-related loss and damage is expected to be in the future. Adaptation funding is also needed to pay for the conflict-sensitive climate programming the UAE has been promoting. 

Addressing fossil fuels

Amid COP28’s many competing strands, climate campaigners like Essop – who advocated for many years for loss and damage financing – are keen that humanitarians going to the summit with specialised interests do not forget the overarching reason they are there.

“This year, we must really address the main causes of climate change,” said Essop, describing the “clear litmus test for success” as “an outcome that delivers an ambitious energy package”, including an agreement on phasing out fossil fuels.

Many observers privately think that outcome is unattainable this year, particularly since the UAE’s Sultan Al Jaber was reported to have been pursuing oil and gas deals in diplomatic meetings ahead of COP28.

But they still want results.

The summit “represents a critical juncture for bold action, where the priority should be on people rather than corporate interests”, said Harjeet Singh, CAN-I’s head of global political strategy. “Rich nations must acknowledge their role in this crisis and lead the charge, both domestically and globally, by financing a just transition in developing countries." 

Whether ending the use of fossil fuels, paying for loss and damage, or funding adaptation programmes in places riven by conflict, climate finance is the thread that connects all aspects of the global warming response. Without the money, nothing happens. “Fundamentally, it's a matter of justice,” said Vernoit.

Edited by Irwin Loy.

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