What COP27’s loss and damage fund means for fashion #607


In a last-minute win for the UN climate summit COP27, global leaders agreed to a loss and damage fund, which has opened up a conversation about the relationship between climate and colonialism. 

Fashion had a limited impact at COP27, but a last-minute breakthrough agreement on loss and damage could have significant meaning for the industry, its supply chain and garment workers.

On the final day of the UN climate summit, global leaders pushed through funding for loss and damage, supposedly answering decades-long calls to support the vulnerable countries hit hardest by climate disasters, despite having contributed the least. Details are yet to be finalised, but governments agreed to create a transitional committee to make recommendations on how the fund will work, with a concrete financial structure for the fund to be established by COP28, due to be held in the United Arab Emirates next year. Their first meeting is expected to take place before the end of March 2023.

The total amount of funding and where exactly it will go is yet to be agreed, but earlier COP27 commitments give an idea of what is to come: the UK committed £65 million to support developing economies with green technology, Austria pledged €50 million in the next four years to loss and damage, and New Zealand announced plans to donate NZ$20 million (around £10.3 million).

This marks the first time loss and damage has had a place on the official agenda, after push-back from wealthier nations. However, some experts say the agreement does not go far enough, and risks deepening inequalities instead of alleviating them.

“This COP has taken an important step towards justice,” UN secretary-general António Guterres said of the announcement. “I welcome the decision to establish a loss and damage fund and to operationalise it in the coming period. Clearly this will not be enough, but it is a much-needed political signal to rebuild broken trust.”

In total at COP27, participating countries pledged $230 million to future climate adaptation, including cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and investment in finance, technology and capacity building in developing countries. The loss and damage fund goes further, looking to pay for climate impacts that developing countries — mostly those formerly colonised — are already experiencing, despite having contributed the least to climate change. Whether or not it goes far enough depends on the execution, according to activists.

“The declaration of the fund is just the beginning,” says Mexican climate justice activist Xiye Bastida. “We must now decide who gives money to the fund, which nations count as vulnerable, what loss and damage actually means in practice, who will manage the fund and whether the money will be given as grants or loans. Depending on the answers to these questions, we will either have a justice-oriented, efficient, and comprehensive fund, or a body that pushes the Global South further into debt and climate breakdown.”

There are concerns that a loss and damage fund will not ultimately equate to climate reparations, says Keston Perry, political economist and assistant professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. “The last-minute games that Global North countries were playing to diminish its establishment offers a cautionary tale.”

He warns that investor interests should not be prioritised over the needs of harmed communities, and the scope of loss and damage talks has already been dramatically narrowed. “It has been refreshing to see climate movements centring climate reparations, but we should be careful that this new fund is not a placeholder for a much larger scale transformation.”

Climate change and colonialism

Bastida’s question about whether support will come in the form of grants or loans taps into a larger conversation about climate finance and the ongoing legacy of colonialism. Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley has been vocal about the relationship between climate change and colonialism, renegotiating the country’s debt to invest in better infrastructure and conservation as increasingly extreme weather events loomed. Then, in November, Belize signed a debt-for-nature swap with environmental organisation The Nature Conservancy, cutting the country’s external debt by 10 per cent of GDP in exchange for improving marine protection. “The climate debt that developed countries owe developing countries is much more than the actual debt of countries that have taken out loans,” says Nigerian activist Adenike Oladosu.

Historically, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC’s) Green Climate Fund has avoided language that implies reparations, compensation or accountability in favour of discussion of financial insurance, academics say. “The text around loss and damages excludes liability for past harm and focuses only on payments for unavoidable climate impacts,” says Leah Temper, director of the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice and the Foss Fuel Ad-Ban Campaign at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “The concern is that the fund was won at the expense of stronger language in the agreement on phasing out fossil fuels. This means that instead of emissions actually being reduced, they will continue to rise, further exacerbating impacts and the need for further payments for loss and damage. Such a scenario potentially further entrenches colonial relations.”

Keston also argues that the outsized role historical emitters were given in discussions continues to reinforce colonial and imperial power structures, and a more just agreement might have been reached if Global South countries were given more sway.

Colonial history and emissions are related but not necessarily the same, says Murray Scown, assistant professor of geographies of sustainability at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies. Colonial states such as the UK, France, Netherlands, Spain and Belgium colonised the Americas, Africa, Asia Pacific and South and Southeast Asia, creating vulnerability in those regions, but countries like China — which isn’t usually considered a colonial state — must also be taken into account, as should the US, Russia and Japan, which have imperial but not necessarily colonial histories. “Language around historical emissions will be more useful for loss and damage in the UNFCCC regarding who should contribute to the fund (i.e. historical emitters), whereas language around colonialism will be useful for who are recipients of funds (i.e. vulnerable states),” he says.

Restorative justice

For the fashion industry, the first step is to acknowledge its colonial roots and the ways this legacy continues to show up in today’s supply chains, adds British-Ghanaian author and educator Frederica Brooksworth, founder of the Council for International African Fashion Education (CIAFE). “In Ghana, you can see the impact of the Global North’s overproduction and overconsumption,” she explains. “It’s right there on the beaches, impacting drainage systems and landfills, causing flooding and illnesses. Maybe if fashion understood its impact fully, it would develop an industry-level loss and damages fund to redress this.”

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