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Saleemul Huq: if climate talks were democratic, vulnerable countries ‘would have won already’

Saleemul Huq (left) says the world’s vision should be to help everyone with climate change - even the very poorest. IIED/supplied, CC BY-SA

Saleemul Huq: if climate talks were democratic, vulnerable countries ‘would have won already’

Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, is an expert on how climate change affects poorer nations.

With many “climate-vulnerable” nations calling on the Paris climate summit (COP21) to adopt a global warming limit of 1.5℃ rather than 2℃, will these concerns be acted upon? And if not, how much help will they get to cope with the consequences?


Matt McDonald: Your research has examined developing countries in the context of climate change – what is your role here at COP21?

Saleemul Huq: At COP21 and at previous COPs – this is my 21st, I’ve been to all of them – my role has been as an advisor to the group of least-developed countries. They are a bloc of 48 countries, currently chaired by Angola. I advise them on issues related to the negotiations, particularly on issues related to adaptation and loss and damage.

Matt McDonald: There’s been a significant focus on the “loss and damage” agenda in these negotiations. How would you characterise this issue and the interests of the countries you represent?

Saleemul Huq: This issue is about the evolution of the problem. We started off thinking about climate change as a greenhouse gas emissions problem and the solution was to reduce emissions. So in all the original negotiations and agreements under the UNFCCC process, including the Kyoto Protocol, we were treating climate change as that one problem and the solution was that one solution: mitigation.

We have failed to prevent global warming, and therefore we now have a second generation of impacts of climate change: inevitable and unavoidable impacts for which we now have to adapt.

So we have mitigation – we haven’t done enough of that and we still need to do more – but we also have adaptation because we failed to prevent the problem. Now we have a third-generation problem. We failed to mitigate; we failed to adapt; so we are going to have loss and damage: there will be inevitable losses and damages attributed to human-induced climate change, no question about that.

The question is, what are we going to do about it? The vulnerable countries say we need something in the Paris agreement to deal with it, which is different from adaptation. That’s what we’re fighting for. We’ve agreed some text, because we had an agreement in Warsaw – there’s something called the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. At the Paris agreement we want it to be permanent, because it wasn’t permanent in Warsaw. In Warsaw it was under the Cancun Adaptation Framework, we want to take it out of adaptation and put it as a separate issue. We’re still fighting that fight.

Matt McDonald: How optimistic are you that we’ll see a strong international agreement here in Paris?

Saleemul Huq: I’m absolutely certain there will be an agreement – how strong it is, we will see. I think at the moment we are actually moving towards the better end of the spectrum – we’re not at the lowest end, it’s at the more ambitious end. And I think that 1.5°C goal is a very good test of the strength of this agreement. It tests whether we’re concerned with pragmatism or idealism. This isn’t the place to be pragmatic. This is the place to have a vision, and the vision should be to save everybody on the planet.

The vision should not be to say “well, we’re sorry but we’re not going to able to save you poor guys living in the poor places; we’re going to save the rich”. That’s what a 2°C goal in Paris will be saying. It’s effectively saying to 100 million poor people living on planet Earth “we’ll save 7 billion, but we’re not going to save you”. It’s a very bad message for the leaders of the world to be sending, and they know that.

So they’re willing to give some type of uplifting, goal-oriented language – then the hard work will be delivering on it. It’s not going to be easy.

Matt McDonald: What are the other big issues for the countries you represent?

Saleemul Huq: The least-developed countries are recognised by the UNFCCC [the body that runs the UN climate negotiating process] as being particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, both because of their geography (and associated vulnerability to various kinds of climatic effects) and their poverty.

Their concern is with support for adaptation, which involves funding, and also reducing temperature rise to a level that they can actually adapt to. That boils down to a demand for a 1.5℃ long-term goal in place of the current 2℃ goal.

There are two other groups of vulnerable countries: small island developing states, which negotiate as the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), and the Africa Group. These three groupings of countries – or negotiating blocs – are the vulnerable countries. There are overlaps between them and they make up roughly 100 countries.

They have a common position on the 1.5℃ goal, and that – in the context of the negotiations and beyond – is a new grouping, an umbrella grouping of vulnerable countries called the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which was started before the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. On the first day of these talks, on November 30, they had a meeting demanding the 1.5℃ goal. They are not a negotiating bloc, but this is a shared single demand. We now have 126 countries supporting that goal, including many developed countries.

The main opposition comes from Saudi Arabia. So you are seeing a difference from the usual grouping – developing countries of G77 and China versus Annex 1 [developed] countries – not applicable to the 1.5-degree goal demand.

Matt McDonald: How significant is this shift in terms of the dynamics of negotiating blocs, in particular in challenging the traditional prominence of the “North-South” divide in international environmental negotiations?

Saleemul Huq: This is a very significant change because it brings in a new dynamic in the process, particularly for the vulnerable countries. There are 105 countries in these three groups, so they’re actually the majority of the UNFCCC, which has 195 countries. If this was a democracy they would have won already.

But it’s not a democracy and these countries don’t count, normally. So their ability to assert their demands against the views of both the rich countries and the powerful developing countries is very important. This is one of the issues that distinguishes their demands from what other people want.

Their ability to advocate for the 1.5℃ goal, to get civil society support for it, is crucial. We’re getting a lot of support from civil society, a lot of countries now beginning to support the goal, even Australia. This is about doing the right thing, having the right long-term goal. It’s not about how you’re going to reach it – that’s a second-order and later question. It can be done. It’s going to be very difficult to do, but it’s not impossible. And as long as it’s not impossible and it’s the right thing to do, we want it to be agreed here.