Taking stock: how the LDCs became masters in climate activism and optimism

As Achala Abeysinghe moves on to a new role at the Global Green Growth Institute, she reflects on her time at IIED and shares how – as legal, technical and strategic adviser to the Least Developed Countries – she has seen this dynamic group turn climate diplomacy on its head.

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Achala Abeysinghe is the country representative for Papua New Guinea for the Global Green Growth Institute
29 July 2019
UN Climate Action Summit 2019
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Delegates from the LDC Group, including chair Gebru Jember Endalew, IIED's Achala Abeysinghe and Tuvalu environment ambassador Ian Fry discuss the revised APA text, Bonn, May 2017 (Photo: IISD/ENB/Kiara Worth)

Climate activists and optimists are on the rise. On behalf of a new generation, Greta Thunberg has taken the climate baton from Sir David Attenborough; a ‘green new deal’ setting out radical plans to decarbonise the economy alongside bold social reforms is gaining momentum. Meanwhile, the Extinction Rebellion movement continues to grab global headlines as it mounts pressure on governments to declare a climate emergency.

The political will needed to tackle the climate crisis still falls short. But we are seeing positive shifts, such as the UK’s recent decision to go carbon neutral by 2050 – the first industrialised country to do so.

Climate activism and optimism are not new for me. Both have been at the core of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) Group’s strategy in the UN climate negotiations.

A new approach

It was the 2011 UN climate negotiations that marked the beginning of a dramatic shift in gear for the LDCs. The group arrived in Durban with a new strategy anchored by four key elements:

  • Robust arguments: using evidence-based research to strengthen the LDCs’ line of argument at the negotiations
  • Capacity building: training a strong collective of future negotiators to engage effectively in spaces where international climate decisions are made
  • Strength in numbers: building strategic alliances with like-minded, progressive countries and coalitions, and
  • Stepping up communication: hosting press conferences, penning opinion pieces and working with the media in other ways to get the LDCs’ messages out.

Setting direction in Durban

The strategy worked: the LDCs quickly became a group that was listened to. As a negotiating bloc it was instrumental in shaping the Durban decision which, crucially, set the mandate to negotiate a legally-binding deal in Paris. Throughout the Durban talks the group led from the front and urged other nations to follow.

In the words of then LDC Group chair, Pa Ousman Jarju from The Gambia: “The ship is ready to take off in Durban. To those not ready to come on board we say 'please do not try to sink the ship. The LDCs will stand firm and not allow this ship to be sunk!'”

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Pioneering in Paris

In Paris, at the eleventh hour before the deal was struck, the COP21 president called on the LDCs to name the three things they “couldn’t go home without”. The group insisted on the 1.5°C temperature target, provisions for addressing loss and damage, and compliance issues in a legally binding treaty.

Without the LDC Group, these critical provisions would have been much weaker or left out of the agreement completely. It was a momentous achievement: through their diplomatic leadership the LDCs became architects of the landmark Paris treaty.

And the LDCs continued to lead as the Paris Agreement ‘rulebook’ – the rules and processes for turning the ambition of Paris into action – was negotiated. At COP24 in Katowice, under the leadership of Ethiopia, the LDC ministers rallied to ensure the rules were comprehensive and robust. Without the LDCs, the rules on transparency, compliance, loss and damage, finance, adaptation as well as mitigation would have been much weaker.

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The battle ahead

The fight is far from won. Yes, the LDCs have made the the dramatic shift from victims to leaders and turned international climate diplomacy on its head. But much remains to be done.

Going forward, the LDCs must get their collective power behind three fights:

  1. Activism and optimism on science

    Scepticism surrounding the IPCC 1.5°C Special Report risks muffling the loudest of alarm bells from world’s leading climate scientists. As the LDCs expressed in an open letter to the UN Secretary General and the UNFCCC’s Executive Secretary, “science is not up for negotiation”. The group expressed its deep frustration that parties to the Paris Agreement have failed to unanimously welcome the report. In upcoming negotiations, the LDCs must push hard for scientific knowledge on the 1.5°C goal to be the basis for every decision made.
  2. Activism and optimism on implementing the Paris Agreement

    The climate clock is ticking. 2020 is the make-or-break year for the Paris Agreement, by which time countries must set out further concrete action for how they will fulfil their Paris commitments. The 2020 lead-up will be a crunch period for global diplomacy, kicking off with the UN Secretary General’s climate summit in September. Ahead of the summit, the LDCs, under Bhutan’s chairmanship, will urge countries to match the LDCs’ ambition – both in adapting to climate threats and reducing emissions – to implement the Paris Agreement.
  3. Activism and optimism on ratcheting up

    LDCs must push for all parties to dramatically enhance their Nationally Determined Contributions. They must be 1.5°C compatible, equitable, ready for implementation and informed by science. Countries need to set goals to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and invest in 100% renewable energy. And there needs to be a just transition – where people whose livelihoods depend on carbon intensive industries have genuine alternatives in low carbon sectors.

    LDCs need to push all nations to set ambitious and implementable targets for carbon neutral economies by 2050 and, to do that, halve CO2 emissions by 2030. Their fight for getting wealthy and more capable countries to move faster in assisting developing countries must continue.

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Standing firm

There is a strong political sequence ahead, providing key opportunities for the LDCs to show leadership and urge the rest of the world to match their ambition. Starting at the September summit through to COP26 in 2020, the LDCs must stand firm as climate frontrunners and push the world to deliver transformative action.

As I move to my new job that focuses heavily on climate action on the ground, I can see a bumpy road ahead. Slow and steady just won’t do when we’re trying to honour the landmark Paris treaty we have created together to fight the climate emergency.

The LDCs’ commitment to activism and optimism is needed now more than ever.

About the author

Achala Abeysinghe is the country representative for Papua New Guinea for the Global Green Growth Institute. She was formerly principal researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group and legal and technical adviser to the chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group for the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

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