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Climate-vulnerable countries demand concrete results from COP26

A coral reef in the Maldives that has gone through bleaching due to heat-induced stress in May 2016. Coral reefs are key for the survival of the Maldives and other island countries. They not only sustain marine species people depend on for food and work but they act as barriers against storms, waves and floods. (Credit: Keystone/The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey via AP)

Debt restructuring and an in-person conference are among the demands of a group of countries vulnerable to climate impacts ahead of the COP26 summit.

With key climate talks less than two months away, countries particularly at risk from climate change are challenging wealthy countries to step up their game. The Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), composed of 48 countries, has issued a list of actions that they would like to see emerge from COP26, including a restructuring of their debt and more oversight on rich countries' financial support for the developing world.

The call comes as world leaders prepare to gather in Glasgow in November to determine how they will address the climate emergency. Expectations are high. Climate experts have warned that the planet is heating up at the fastest rate in at least 2000 years, threatening the lives of millions of people if emissions are not dramatically slashed. 

Severe weather disasters this past year, including violent floods in Europe, scorching heat waves in Canada and devastating droughts in Madagascar – which is on the brink of the world’s first climate-induced famine – also indicate that many of the worst climate impacts are already here.

Countries that are especially vulnerable, like low-lying islands, have to invest in infrastructure and other nature-based barriers to hold off the impacts of worsening weather events. But the CVF claims that these countries are too crippled by debt to make the necessary investments.

In 2020 developing countries owed up to $10.6 trillion in debt, the highest level ever recorded, making up 30 per cent of their gross domestic product, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

“The money that they took in loans was to build roads and bridges, housing projects, schools, hospitals, infrastructure of all sorts of types,” CVF Ambassador and former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed told reporters in Geneva on Thursday, noting that worsening extreme weather events were turning such investments into “stranded assets”.

“We are under stress to the extent that we might not have an island or a country [in the future]. So it [will be] hard for us to pay the debt when [we won’t be] around,” he added. 

One of the proposals the forum has made is a debt swap for climate resiliency projects. Nasheed said that the group will be raising the issue at the summit in Glasgow.

But uncertainty still looms over whether the conference will take place. Rights groups and academics have called for it to be postponed, citing unfair conditions for participants from the developing world, affected by the UK’s harsh Covid-related travel restrictions.

On its part, the Climate Vulnerable Forum has pleaded with the host-country to carry on with the meeting. “The planet is coming to an end. We are in an emergency,” Nasheed said, urging the UK to extend the financial support it is providing for delegates, who will have to quarantine, to other civil society and media participants.

The group of countries has also called for a delivery plan for the $100bn a year pledge made by advanced economies 12 years ago to help poorer countries protect themselves from climate risks. To avoid another default, the International Monetary Fund or some other independent financial institution should be in charge of monitoring it, Nasheed said.

Most governments have largely failed to deliver on their promise year after year and again missed the mark in 2019 by over $20bn, according to a new analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Ursula Von der Leyen announced this week the EU would commit another €4bn [CHF4.4bn] in climate finance and urged the US to “step up too”. A number of high-level meetings are taking place next week, where new funding announcements are likely to be made.

Aside from funding, governments have also slacked off in reducing their domestic contribution to climate change. States committed in 2015 to submit every five years their plans to bring down their carbon emissions, also known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). 

However several big polluters, including China and the US, missed the deadline and 70 countries have yet to submit them. To avoid repeating the same scenario in 2025, when the window to cut emissions has shrunk further, the group of vulnerable countries would like to see NDCs revised every year instead of every five years.

Asked if countries had reacted to their demands, Nasheed told Geneva Solutions and reporters in the room that they had said “nothing”. “No one is preparing for the COP. It's just the CVF who has a plan,” he said.

“We have a manifesto that (...) if countries would take it up, deliberate upon it, and have a discussion on it, then we might come out of the COP, saying that it was reasonably okay.”