UK climate debt contributions: paying for reparations, loss and damage

In light of the UK Government’s decision to reduce Overseas Development Assistance earlier this week, Georgia Taylor highlights how consumption in the UK harms the climate, the environment and populations in the Global South and 'undermines its leadership in the upcoming COP26'.

Georgia Taylor (with contributions from Max Farmiloe, David Flint and Tony Firkins)

“We have all read the sermons. We could write them ourselves. But we are vain and ambitious all the same, and we never do live quiet, because we rise in the morning and we feel the blood coursing in our veins and we think, by the Holy Trinity, whose head can I stamp on today? What worlds are at hand for me to conquer? Or at least we think, if God made me a crewman on his ship of fools, how can I murder the drunken captain and steer it to port and not be wrecked?” Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light

Just three months before hosting world leaders for a crucial COP26, the UK’s Parliament voted in July to reduce the UK Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) budget by £4 billion to 0.5 per cent of GNI. It did this in the middle of a pandemic, when the poorest countries' need is greater than ever. The UK’s ODA budget includes important allocations to help developing countries towards climate mitigation and adaptation. 

The UK’s decision shocked people across the political spectrum and throughout the international development community. This ‘Britain First’ move undermines the UK’s leadership of the coming COP26 and also sends a strong message that the UK is not serious about recognising its global climate debt. 

While the UK accounts for just 0.87 per cent of the world population, we have produced 4.71 per cent of total historical global emissions and have the largest historical emissions per capita in the world. As one of the major colonial powers, we are also responsible for many historical abuses of human rights and economic injustice. 

Meanwhile, while the UK’s Government is turning its back on its debts, the Green Party of England and Wales is developing policy that specifically addresses our current and historical obligations. The proposed policy, outlined towards the end of this article, provides a coherent approach for paying down our climate debt, enabling international climate justice, and substantially increasing our contributions to low and middle income countries (LMICs).  

My background is in international development. I have worked in Nigeria on and off since 2009, mostly in the North of the country, supporting UK aid programmes in the health and agriculture sectors. During my last visit in 2019, I was told that due to climate change there are no longer two planting seasons, only one, meaning food production was reduced. 

The climate crisis is also exacerbating the decade-long conflict in the North East of the country, which is now spreading westwards. Lake Chad, on the border with Niger, Chad and Cameroon, has shrunk to a tenth of its size over the past 50 years. At the end of 2020, nearly 3 million people in Nigeria were categorised as displaced, with more and more fleeing their homes due to flooding and climate events, and due to the escalating climate-driven conflict in the North. 

The UK aid programme is a drop in the ocean of what is needed to fund climate adaptation and mitigation in the country. While the UK spent the equivalent of US$ 355million on ODA in Nigeria in 2019, the same year it imported US$ 1.6billion worth of goods from Nigeria – and over 90 per cent of that was petroleum in various forms. 

Our consumption of fossil fuels is not only driving climate breakdown in the North of Nigeria, but also causing environmental chaos in the south. The oil industry in Nigeria is responsible for decades of pollution that has decimated nature and communities in the Niger Delta, especially in Ogoniland. Hundreds of thousands of Ogoni people face serious health risks, struggling to access safe drinking water, affected by oil contaminated fish and toxic fumes, and unable to earn a living. The United Nations Environment Programme set out urgent recommendations for clean-up in 2011. No clean-up has been completed and work has only begun in 11 per cent of polluted sites. 

This example highlights how consumption in the UK harms the climate, the environment and populations in the Global South. We import (either directly or indirectly) and consume multiple products that cause human rights abuses, and lead to increased emissions and damage to nature in LMICs. While we give with one hand (often through paternalistic and politically directed “aid”), we take with another (and we take a whole lot more than we give). 

Much of this international trade is driven by our addiction to consumption and throw away consumerism. On average Europeans possess five times as many connected devices per capita as those in low-income countries. Take, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s cobalt and copper trade, essential for small electronic devices, and Nigeria’s oil trade – both cause the very human rights abuses and climate and ecological damage that the UK aid programme claims to prevent. Something must be wrong.

Climate risks are now development issues and vice versa – it is no longer useful to distinguish between them. More and more development programmes are integrating climate mitigation and adaptation, responding to evidence that climate risk is affecting all areas of human development. An example: recent guidance for the UK government recommends integrated strategies that deliver on both climate resilience and peace. However, UK aid policy hasn’t completely caught up with this reality. 

‘Climate Finance’ funds allocated by international donors like the UK do not necessarily take into account the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals, even though this should be essential. The Green Climate Fund, an international funding mechanism, measures success in relation to reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (mitigation) and number of “beneficiaries” (adaptation). This approach does not necessarily facilitate contribution to the SDG outcomes needed. However, Green Climate Fund adaptation areas do overlap significantly with SDG work – for example, increased resilience of health, food and water systems; infrastructure; ecosystems; and enhanced livelihoods of vulnerable people. 

We also still see global domestic public funding for emergency situations directed towards projects that are harmful for the environment. Of the $4.8 billion spent globally to keep economies afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, $3 trillion was spent in ways that would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions and harm the natural world, outweighing the $1.8 trillion spent on Green projects such as renewable energy and low-carbon transport. We clearly don’t yet have a clear global contract to heal the planet. 

Quite a lot of UK wealth has come from the horrific injustices of slavery and colonialism and has been generated through over exploitation of the natural world (in the UK and overseas) to such an extent that we have overspent our global “fair share” of carbon emissions. The UK continues to act as a clearing house for money laundering and investment from all over the world, thereby leaching wealth from countries that need it more.  

While the Paris agreement (and before that, Rio) requires that Climate Finance should be additional to ODA, the UK has always taken its Climate Finance out of the ODA pot. Thereby reneging on promises to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), and consistently under-funding the UK commitments to Climate Finance and ODA (both!). And now the UK government has decreased the ODA commitment from 0.7 per cent of GNI to 0.5 per cent of GNI. This 0.5 per cent apparently also includes all Climate Finance monies that are to go to LMICs. 

Post Brexit, the UK government is shamelessly using its aid programme to build trading relationships by stealth, and the term “soft power” is used liberally. I don’t think other countries' governments fall for it, nor should they. And I have been in meetings where there is a seriously embarrassing engagement going on between the UK Embassy and middle-income country governments (e.g. Mexico). It reveals our arrogance as a country that thinks it is still a colonial power, but also our naivety about the rest of the world, and how the world has moved on – most countries no longer need or want the UK, and their economies certainly don’t rely on our trade. 

Climate Justice and avoiding climate and ecological disaster depends on all countries taking part in a way that is appropriate for their situation. Low-income countries don’t stand a chance of meeting the SDGs and enhancing their people’s quality of life, health and wellbeing, unless they have access to the latest green energy and sustainable building, ICT and engineering technology, massive forest and eco-systems regeneration and soil rehabilitation, family planning, education and women’s health to name just a few. The UK can’t invest successfully and sustainably in these kinds of initiatives with the UK commercial interests at the heart of UK Aid. The interests of the countries in the global south needs to be at the heart of UK Aid and the UK’s foreign and trade policies. The UK may not be the global power that it thinks it is, but still has an important role in international institutions and as a trusted partner. 

The Green Party is considering a policy, which aims to resolve the contradictions and shortcomings of the current government’s foreign policy by re-framing ODA and Climate Finance so that the whole funding pot is focused on paying climate debt and supporting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The funding will no longer be a “nice to have” or at the discretion of the high GHG polluter countries; but will rather be an obligation, ideally enshrined in an international treaty. The Climate Debt SDG contributions overall will increase to 2.5 per cent of GNI by 2030. In addition, our international aims for planet repair, achieving the SDGs and paying for loss and damage, will frame our trade policies and regulations, and incentives to the private sector. Trade rules and relationships will reinforce global objectives to achieve the SDGs and climate and nature goals – banning dirty energy and goods produced using it.  

Under this policy, the UK would redirect all international contributions to LMICs with the greatest need – either conflict and climate risk affected, and those needing finance in order to fund a just transition to zero carbon. As part of this transformation the UK would support reform and rationalisation of international institutions so that there is a complete focus on climate and ecological justice, prioritising investment in an equitable Green New Deal in every country and delivering the SDGs.