On climate change, current and historical emitters must act responsibly

Residents of Oloirien village in search for water. [Sandra Ruong'o, Standard]

People in the global south are aware that they are living in a climate-changed world as the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) concludes in Cairo, Egypt. There has been an increase in the severity and frequency of droughts in Eastern Africa since 1999. Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia are currently experiencing famine. Among the most vulnerable countries to climate change is Kenya.

Since the industrial revolution in the 1800s, human activities have been the main cause of climate change. China, the European Union, and the United States contribute 41.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In contrast, only 3.6 per cent of global GHG emissions come from the bottom 100 countries. Over two-thirds of global GHG emissions are accounted for by the top 10 emitters. Besides reducing their current emissions, what can high-income countries do to make reparations for the harm their emissions have caused, both historically and currently?

There has been a slow development of international law on climate change over the last three decades. In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was the first treaty to establish a framework and principles for international cooperation to combat climate change by limiting average global temperature increases and resultant climate change, as well as dealing with the inevitable consequences. The Conference of Parties (COPs) that stand out include the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (COP3), which committed 37 major emitter states to reduce GHGs against 1990 levels. However, the largest emitters, USA and China, did not ratify, thus leaving the world in flux.

Following the perceived failure of Kyoto, the world looked to COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009. However, all hopes of a binding framework were dashed when China, USA, India, Brazil, and South Africa reached a non-binding agreement. COP16 in Cancun, in 2010, produced discussions that rich countries (historically high emitters) would establish a $100 billion fund by 2020.

Due to the failure of Kyoto and Copenhagen and Kyoto's expiration in 2012 for those that remained, the Paris Climate Agreement was sparked. A second protocol was also ruled out by Canada, Russia, and Japan.

A legally binding Paris Agreement was finally achieved in response to scientific and political consensus as well as pressure to keep global temperatures within 1.5 degrees. President Donald Trump sadly rescinded the treaty in 2016. The other COPs were mostly technical, marred by little media attention, absence of high emitters, unwillingness of fossil fuel-dependent countries to reduce GHG emissions, and disagreements on land use and seas.

Last year's COP26 in Glasglow, Scotland, was praised for specifically mentioning fossil fuels. Although coal was the dirtiest fossil fuel, the final agreement called for phasing down, rather than phasing out. The world's wealthiest countries have failed to commit to keeping global temperatures within 1.5 degrees despite evidence and effects of climate change. Climate change will be a global issue, according to scientific reports. In spite of this, the effects of climate change will be much worse in poorer countries and communities due to a lack of resources and capabilities to cope and adapt.

If we do not drastically cut emissions, we will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future. In addition, we need to significantly increase spending on adaptation and compensation for the permanent negative effects of climate change, such as loss and damage. Likewise, losses and damages can be either economic or non-economic, such as damage from a flood versus biodiversity loss from slow onset climate change. Trying to determine who is to blame for what or determining that X's actions caused Y's loss is the challenge.