The US is using this year’s global climate summit to try to ensure it will never have to pay for the damage climate change is doing to poorer countries, according to participants at the meeting now underway in Madrid.
The Madrid meeting, the 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25), is working on an update to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in which countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions so the Earth warms no more than 2 degrees Celsius. President Donald Trump recently triggered the yearlong process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which will be finalized Nov. 4, 2020.
The US is allegedly trying to blow up one of the top priorities the world’s poorest nations are working to achieve at the meeting: a mechanism for developing nations hurt by climate change to seek compensation from the wealthy nations that emitted the largest share of greenhouse gasses.
“The US is using its last chance to cover its ass,” said Taylor Billings, press secretary for Corporate Accountability, an NGO that organizes against corporations threatening health and the environment. “The US is seeking to protect itself, other polluting countries, and potentially even the corporations based there, from having to pay for the loss and damage they have caused.”
BuzzFeed News obtained a draft proposal concerning climate change liability that multiple NGO sources confirmed the US is circulating. The proposal suggests ways to limit the power of something known as the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM). The WIM was created to study what climate change is costing affected nations. Although developing nations succeeded in getting “loss and damage” included in the Paris Agreement, wealthy nations included a provision to ensure its work could not be used to “provide a basis for any liability or compensation” in the future.
This document asks that COP25 reaffirm that wealthy nations are protected from compensation claims. It also suggests that the US should remain eligible to sit on the WIM’s governing body even after the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is finalized in 2020.
Frustrations boiled over Wednesday, 10 days into the summit, when about 200 activists stormed the meeting with calls for “climate justice.” They were led by indigenous people and student activists with the Fridays for Future movement, sparked by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, that has organized climate strikes around the world. The protesters also included representatives of several major NGOs who are accredited observers of the summit. Because of their participation in Wednesday’s protest, some of those observers have been told they may not be allowed to return to any meetings for the rest of the summit.
Harjeet Singh from the group ActionAid was one of the NGO observers who participated in the protest. He told BuzzFeed News that developing nations had come to the COP25 “expecting to see something very concrete on how people facing the climate emergency can be helped.” After more than a week of negotiations, he said that “the reality is that nothing concrete is happening.”
The US has emerged as the main obstacle for poorer countries to reach a climate change compensation deal, according to Singh and other activists observing the negotiations.
“The obfuscating and delaying tactics of the US in particular are designed to ensure we get nothing,” said Alpha Oumar Kaloga, a diplomat from Guinea who sits on the WIM’s executive committee. “Other rich countries — the EU, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada — must stand apart from the US. It is not acceptable to hide behind this climate criminal.”
The US State Department did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
The US has aggressively opposed any kind of climate compensation scheme for years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. That opposition has historically been shared by other wealthy polluters like Australia and member countries of the EU.
A fight over compensation during the 2013 COP grew so heated that a coalition of 132 poorer countries walked out of talks in protest. Wealthy nations agreed that they would contribute a combined $100 billion per year starting in 2020 to a fund helping poorer countries adapt to climate change, but as of 2019, contributions only totaled $9.8 billion and included none from the US.
The issue of compensation is not the only contentious issue in this year’s meeting. One of the negotiators’ most important tasks is to set rules for trading carbon emissions credits, but they have so far failed to hammer out a framework that environmentalists are confident will actually lead to lower CO2 emissions.
It was clear at the outset of this year’s meeting that the world will have to go much further than what was agreed to in the 2015 Paris agreement — greenhouse emissions have continued to grow since it was ratified. The UN warned just before this year’s summit that the Earth has already warmed more than 1.1 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, and greenhouse emissions would have to be slashed more than 7.5% each year for the next decade if the world has any hope of keeping warming below 2 degrees.
Here’s the full text of the draft proposal NGO sources say the US is circulating to block compensation claims:
The Decision Package for the WIM to serve the COP in addition to the CMA could have the following components:
Serves both the CNA and COP as a single constituted body with a single agenda, in accordance with past COP decisions/Paris Agreement
The agreement in Paragraph 51 of 1/CP.21 on liability and compensation applies to the work of the WIM serving the CMA and the COP
All Parties to the Convention (including those that are not Parties to Paris) are eligible to serve on the Excom
Annual report by the Excom to the COP and CMA considered Jointly by the SBI and SBSTA in a single joint contact group.