Politics at play at the UN climate talks? The LDCs don’t have time for games

There’s one year left before countries are formally held to account to their pledges under the Paris Agreement. From the COP25 climate talks in Madrid, Gabrielle Swaby sets out what the least developed countries – the poorest nations with most at stake – need from these crucial negotiations.

Gabrielle Swaby's picture
Insight by 
Gabrielle Swaby
Gabrielle Swaby is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group
04 December 2019
UN climate change conference (COP25)
A series of pages related to IIED's activities at the 2019 UNFCCC climate change summit in Spain (COP25)
A house on stilts, surrounded by flood water

Streets in the district of Satkhira, in southern Bangladesh, are flooded after months of heavy rain (Department for International Development/Rafiqur Rahman Raqu via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

This year has forced a climate change reality check on the world. A wealth of new evidence highlighting the speed and severity of the climate crisis has flooded our news feeds, the science irrefutable and sobering. We have seen the power and influence of millions of young people striking in our streets, compelling world leaders to listen and act.

And we have seen the grief and anguish of the communities that have endured thousands of deaths due to climate-related disasters this year, the loss indescribable.

People, proof and the price tag of life make it impossible to ignore the climate emergency upon us.

But what about the politics? 

This week, heads of state and government are gathering for the UN climate negotiations (COP25) to advance the global response to climate change.

Much hangs in the balance: COP25 is the last major opportunity for countries to signal their intention to submit new and enhanced climate pledges before they are held to account in 2020. Pledges currently on the table are not remotely enough to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

And there is added tension with big polluters such as the United States and Brazil backtracking on their climate commitments, and China and India still failing to signal their intention to step up action. Other high and middle-income countries could also be doing much more, and faster. 

Those with most to lose – and the ones that have lost the most already – are the 47 least developed countries (LDCs), home to over one billion of the world’s poorest people, around half of whom are children. These nations have contributed the least to climate change, have the least capacity to respond, yet suffer the most from its impacts.

To read more about why and how countries must do their fair share and support LDCs, check out this briefing I co-authored with the LDC Group chair, Sonam P Wangdi, from Bhutan.

The LDCs’ major asks from COP25

The LDC Group is actively engaged across all areas to be negotiated at COP25, but LDCs need urgent and immediate action on a few big-ticket items on the agenda:

  • Send a loud and clear signal that solidifies 2020 as the year of increased ambition. Governments will be expected to send clear political signals on accelerating ambition in 2020. In practice, this means an agreed COP25 decision calling for new and enhanced climate pledges by early 2020 that represent the most ambitious national climate action.
  • Review of the international mechanism to address climate-related loss and damage. Devastating and irreversible loss (human lives, habitats, even species) and damage (for example, to services and infrastructure) caused by climate change have left the LDCs struggling to cope.

    The run of devastating storms, floods and other disasters across the world this year amplify the urgency of the issue. The LDCs are owed solidarity and dedicated financial support – and they’ll be looking for a ramped-up loss and damage mechanism to deliver it.
  • Finalising the rules for carbon markets. There is no room in the carbon budget for a system that does not lead to real and significant reductions in global emissions. But last year’s climate talks failed to reach an agreement on how carbon market mechanisms can be set up to do this.

    The LDC Group will push to ensure the design of the rules for markets will be robust, transparent and result in real overall mitigation in global emissions, in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

To find out more about the LDC Group’s expectations for COP25, check out this policy briefing.

No solution without representation

For the LDCs to have the best chance of manoeuvring through the politics and pushing for strong results, they must have an equal seat at the table. 

But the financial and technical resources they can devote to international climate change decision-making is much lower than developed countries. LDCs’ delegations are often fewer in number and the last-minute venue switch from Santiago, Chile to Madrid, Spain – creating a logistical headache including securing new visas – has put LDC representation under added pressure.

The LDCs have shown true leadership in the global push for climate action and are impressively punching above their weight in galvanising ambition. Nonetheless, they sometimes do not have the political influence of the big global powerhouses and still have limited geopolitical sway. Multilateral forums such as the UN climate conferences are crucial spaces and key opportunities for the LDCs to make their demands on the international stage.

Politics, action, politics in action

Mass public mobilisations such as the global school strikes and Extinction Rebellion have catalysed political action at extraordinary speed. Climate politics and diplomacy, on the other hand, happen at a much slower pace. This is, in many ways, unavoidable – involving processes that require navigating differing and complex national interests of nearly 200 countries.

But we can’t allow politics to stifle action.

Governments must use COP25 as an opportunity to catch up with the world’s rapidly changing realities. The world must move further and faster to ensure the most vulnerable countries, communities and people can build their own resilience, to not only survive but thrive. Time is the critical component here – and for the LDCs, it’s fast running out.