Activists call for 'climate justice' at COP22

Activists call for 'climate justice' at COP22
5 min read
14 November, 2016
In-depth: Not all countries are equally to blame for the mess the planet is in, argue campaigners.
Activists have called for climate justice, to recognise varying responsibilities for the catastrophe [Anadolu]

In the lead up to this week's COP22 climate talks, activists from across Africa have been meeting in Morocco to discuss how to present a united front and spotlight their continent's suffering in the face of climate change.

With this year's conference taking place in Marrakech, the region's activists are optimistic that their demands for climate justice will be taken seriously. 

"Developed countries must assume the responsibility of what's happened," said Mohamed Leghtas, of the Moroccan Coalition for Climate Justice. "Rich countries have created pollution and poor countries are paying for it."

Although Africa accounts for just four percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the continent is expected to warm 1.5 times faster than the global average, reports the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - the recognised global authority on climate science.

In Morocco, there are now three times as many people without access to safe drinking water as there were in 1960, according to a 2016 UN report.

But to achieve climate justice, developing countries should assume responsibility for their future contribution to climate change, says Leghtas.

After a meeting in Casablanca in September, his group released a statement: "African people are not responsible for global warming, and as such, our commitment is not only in the name of climate justice, but also social justice."

While the main COP22 agenda is to build on achievements made during Paris talks last year, tensions surrounding "justice" are likely to be resurrected.

During the 2015 climate talks in Paris, one phrase - "common by differentiated responsibilities" - resonated with the developing world.

While all countries are responsible for climate change, this wording implies they are not equally responsible; in other words, the developed world should be held accountable for exploiting fossil fuels to get rich.

Leghtas believes part of that accountability should be financial. What's more, how money is transferred from the developed to the developing world is also important, he says.

"Countries should not behave as if [reparative funding] is gift, they should behave as if it's a debt owed," Leghtas says. "They [should] not give the money to be nice - it is a question of assuming responsibility."

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But Thomas Hale, associate professor in global public policy at Oxford University, believes compensation is an unlikely outcome of this, or any, COP discussion.

"I just don't think the politics are there," he told The New Arab.

Instead, Hale thinks it more productive to focus on other forms of climate justice, such as the growing finance flowing towards adaptation measures. 

In Paris, developed countries pledged to set up an annual fund of $100 billion by 2020, to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.

However, where this money should come from has yet to be decided. 

"It's important to ensure African countries have the means to be able to adapt and mitigate," says Hoda Baraka, communications manager at 350, the global climate NGO.

But she's concerned there is a lack of ambition to realise the financial support pledged in Paris.

Based in Cairo, Baraka has witnessed firsthand Egypt's struggles with rising sea levels - the IPCC predicts a "sizeable proportion" of the country's Nile Delta area will be lost, potentially displacing millions of people. But as water stresses loom in Egypt's future, the country's population is becoming more engaged with climate concepts.

"Climate justice as a term it is not necessarily part of everyday language, but as the impact of climate change becomes more prevalent, the notion is being discussed more and more," says Baraka.

Activists have been engaging people who have already been affected by global warming - and bringing their voice into the COP process is key to their work.

"It's very important that the collective voice of the global south is heard," says Baraka. 

Many on the continent agree that African countries must work together.

"If Africa is to succeed in the fight against climate change we must unite in this fight because it is the only way we will make progress," Salaheddine Mezouar, Morocco's foreign minister, said earlier this year.

In this spirit, the Moroccan Coalition for Climate Justice - which was set up in February - has been leading a series of pre-COP22 meetings, uniting climate organisations from Kenya to Sudan.

In September, the coalition set up a commission to work on the concept of COP Africa - a new initiative to represent the continent's interests at future COP summits.

"COP Africa is an event that will take place every year, so that Africa can make sure its voice will be heard," explains Leghtas. "We strongly believe that, because Africa is very vulnerable to climate change, it should be in the heart of the discussions and negotiations of the COPs."

But unifying such a diverse collection of countries is not simple. Simon Ilse, programme coordinator in the Henrich Boell Foundation'ss Tunis office, says: "It is not easy to say the Maghreb countries are all speaking with one voice - there are different demands and situations."

Compare Tunisia and Morocco, for example.

"For a start, they are competitors in the new race for renewable energy investment," says Ilse. "But there are also big differences in governance. Morocco is a monarchy where investment and reform is decided in the palace. Tunisia is a nascent democracy, since 2011, with debates in parliament and civil society and decision-making divided up between different bodies to struggle for the best energy and climate policies."

Whether or not African unity in this field can be achieved, some people remain sceptical as to whether climate justice is possible. While Oxford University's Hale agrees with the notion in theory, he questions its viability:

"The reality is that what's needed to save the world is not necessarily compatible with this idea of justice."

Morgan Meaker is a British journalist reporting on the COP22 Marrakech Climate Change Conference. Follow her on Twitter: @MorganMeaker