COP28 sweeps debt under the carpet

The UN climate summit, COP28, has just taken place against the backdrop of the hottest year ever recorded in human history. World leaders and ministers have spent a fortnight in Dubai, negotiating how the world prepares for and deals with the devastating impacts of the climate crisis. In what has been hailed an historic agreement, the talks finally closed with a deal which – for the first time in its near thirty-year history – commits countries to transitioning away from fossil fuels.  

While clearly a welcome step forward, in the words of Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for the Alliance of 39 Small Island States: “We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step change in our actions and support.”  

Already, the climate crisis is happening all around us; floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other climate disasters are wreaking havoc with increasing frequency and intensity. The overwhelming injustice of the situation is that the countries which have done least to create this crisis are also the ones being made to pay for it – often pushing them further into debt.  

Photo of Abu Bakarr Kamara holding a “Cancel the Debt for Climate Justice Banner” at COP28, Dubai. Photo credit: the Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development

With fifty-four countries now in debt crisis, and lower income countries currently spending twelve times more on debt repayments than addressing the impacts of the climate crisis, there has never been a more urgent need for debt cancellation for climate justice. The COP28 summit presented a vital opportunity to raise the importance of debt cancellation, and its close and direct links to the climate crisis. That’s why, standing alongside campaigners and activists from around the world, we took the message to cancel the debt for climate justice to the UK government ahead of the summit, and to world leaders in Dubai.  

Hundreds of Debt Justice supporters sent in messages for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ahead of COP28, and as the climate summit was about to begin, we projected them onto the Houses of Parliament where they couldn’t be ignored – check out the video here. We tweeted more of these messages to him during the summit and handed in a 5,000 strong petition to 10 Downing Street calling for debt cancellation for climate justice. 

Debt Justice Director Heidi Chow was at the climate talks to protest alongside debt and climate activists from around the world (check out this video where she explains why debt cancellation is so important for climate justice). We took part in protests and speaker events where the need for debt cancellation was once again hammered home, and got a mention in the Guardian for a joint statement coordinated with allies, calling for debt cancellation at COP28 and signed by over 550 activists, organisations and academics.   

While there were some welcome developments at the summit, such as an agreement by the UK, France and World Bank to pause debt repayments when climate disasters hit, they were really just a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed. Debt was not factored into the negotiations in any meaningful way. And the agreements on climate finance – the grant-based funds that help countries adapt to and deal with the consequences of the climate crisis – were severely lacking and likely to leave countries with even higher debt burdens.  

One of the biggest pieces of news to come from COP28 was the long-awaited establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund – the result of years of incredible campaigning by activists all around the world to get the countries most responsible for the climate crisis paying for the loss and damage they have caused. The Fund, which will provide finance to countries to pay for the harm caused by the climate crisis, received over $700 million in pledges from rich countries during COP28.  

However, this is a far cry from the actual costs of loss and damage for lower income countries, which some have estimated to be as high as $400 billion per year. Deprived of the grant-based climate finance that they need, many lower income countries are being forced to turn to fossil fuels to service spiraling debts and deal with climate disasters. What’s more, the Fund will be hosted by the World Bank for at least its first four years, despite the World Bank’s problematic practice of providing loans to global south countries to finance fossil fuel projects.  

While we should take the time to acknowledge the incredible campaigning and activism of so many and recognise the huge achievements that have emerged from decades of campaigning – in the commitment to a transition away from fossil fuels and the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund in particular – we know there is a long way still to go.  

Photo of Heidi Chow, Executive Director of Debt Justice, at the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march at COP28, Dubai

For those of us in the UK, heading towards a likely general election in 2024 gives us a crucial opportunity to make politicians hear our demands on debt cancellation. 90% of global debt contracts are overseen by English law, so we’re in a unique position to force movement on this issue. We won’t let it drop – and here are three ways you can join us: 

  1. Sign the petition: https://act.debtjustice.org.uk/cancel-debt-climate-justice-3 
  1. Take action to demand a new law to cancel debt: https://act.debtjustice.org.uk/urgent-%E2%80%93-add-your-name-demand-new-law-cancel-debt 
  1. Sign up for our mailings to make sure you’re getting all the latest news: https://act.debtjustice.org.uk/get-latest-news  

You can read about the COP28 outcome in more detail in our policy blog, here 

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