COP21: Working toward a deal for the poorest and most vulnerable

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, France. Photo by: COP21

Oxfam International’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima finds herself on the front lines of the climate change talks in Paris.

Following high profile involvement at two other landmark events in 2015 — the third International Conference on Financing for Development and the Sustainable Development Summit in New York — Byanyima is once again leading a large Oxfam delegation at COP21.

Working primarily with developing country delegations from the G-77 at these negotiations, Byanyima and her brigade of policy advisors are busy following the latest draft negotiating text and proposing strategies to delegations so that they might reach compromises on key issues.

Coming straight from a meeting with the head of the Ugandan delegation and about 15 civil society organizations where she told the minister what she expected from talks this week, she gave Devex an exclusive update on the civil society agenda and progress on the COP21 negotiations.

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

What’s Oxfam’s agenda in Paris?

A deal for us is one that works for the poorest and most vulnerable people, who did not cause climate change. Success for us means several things.

First, real money for adaptation. What is on the table now is totally inadequate. Only 16 percent is for adaptation. For 1.5 billion smallholder farmers around the world, this amounts to just $3 a year, the price of a cup of coffee. What’s that for people whose crops are being wiped out by floods and droughts?

There is an African group demand of $32 billion up to 2020. We think that’s reasonable because 50 percent should be for adaptation and 50 percent for mitigation.

Second, a commitment to phase out carbon fuels during the first half of this century. This should be marked by periodic reviews. We want a review of these [Intended Nationally Determined Contributions] and we want a first review before 2020, so that 2020 can be the year to up the ambition. We want a higher commitment every five years. The 2.7 degree target is not ambitious enough. We need to come down to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We can do that! Progressively, every five years.

Finally, of course, we want a legally binding agreement. We understand that there are constraints — for example, the United States Congress. But we can make it legally binding on key issues such as a transparent review.

We also want to see human and women’s rights as part of the framework — not only in the preamble. Climate change is a justice, human rights and women’s rights issue. We don’t see why states like Norway and the United States have reservations about it. What reservations?

So how optimistic are you about getting something acceptable out of these negotiations, from your perspective?

We are following the discussions and there seems to be a strong constituency emerging around the periodic review. As to whether it is legally binding, we still need to get commitments, particularly from the rich countries.

On adaptation, we are listening. We don’t even know what we are counting. Some governments are making announcements, but they are taking money from development assistance and calling that adaptation financing. That is recycling. Others are counting loans, not grants. Adaptation should be public grants for poor people, not loans. Others are even counting money for risk insurance as climate adaptation financing.

As of now, it is not adequate. We aren’t going to celebrate a deal that does not come with adaptation financing.

What are the main stumbling blocks to an agreement and how can they be overcome?

In terms of phasing out carbon fuels, we have a big problem with the oil and gas industry. Coal can be phased out. The big challenge is how to do it equitably to give the opportunity for the poorest countries to shift gradually. We are seeing a lot of resistance from countries like Australia that export.

We know that for poor countries, as in Africa, coal isn’t really an opportunity for all people. It is primarily an industrial fuel for the grid. The solution for many people in these countries would be off-grid. Renewables. The prices for renewables has been coming down and are now more competitive. We think coal can be phased out and the blockers are the rich countries.

Oil is difficult, because it is primarily for transportation and alternatives aren’t here today. But there’s innovation. I think the [motor industry] is in a race to innovate and move on from oil.

So yes, I am optimistic. But we need that periodic review. That’s the opportunity to keep pushing the ambition up and that’s why this agreement is so important.

France is hosting this year’s COP21, the U.S. and China are other high-profile players, but which other countries have taken the lead here? Have there been any surprises?

Certainly, hearing the voices of the small island states. They are very clear that this is a question of their survival. They are standing together to demand that we raise the goal to 1.5 degrees Celsius to survive. We can’t close our ears to that, we really can’t. We must raise the ambition: 2.7 degrees warming is not success.

Where does this event fit into the context of the other two big summits this year: Addis Ababa and the SDG conference in New York?

The financing meeting was for us a disappointment. We didn’t see agreements about the resources we need to achieve the SDGs and address climate change.

One idea was that developing countries would have to primarily fund sustainable development themselves — to raise resources and attract capital from outside. To raise their own resources they need to block tax loopholes. This needs international cooperation because [companies] are moving money across borders. That failed.

As for the SDGs, we were pleased that the goals were adopted and that there was a section about the growth in inequality. Poverty cannot be eradicated without tackling rising economic inequality.

There was talk about economic inequality, gender inequality and climate change. We will not eradicate poverty without tackling climate change. So, we joined the celebrations, but we were cautious.

I went to many meetings to try to find out how are we going to get the private sector to the table for the SDGs. The private sector is very much a part of the goals. It is going to leverage public money. But there’s no agreed way to measure how the private sector is having a social and environmental impact.

There’s work to be done. We are cautious. I’ve attended many private sector forums, with the [U.N.] secretary-general and big businesses people like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and many others. I have warned them about the need to have a framework to hold the private sector accountable.

And your key message to the global development community from this summit?

We need to look at the little people who didn’t cause climate change. What’s in it for them?

Paris is just a beginning. Not an end. A time to step up to save our planet and tackle economic inequalities. They should drive one another. It is a time for businesses, governments, citizens and workers to up their game. We are just starting an ambitious journey.

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About the author

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    Bill Hinchberger

    Bill Hinchberger is a global communications professional and educator. He studied at Berkeley and has taught at the Sorbonne. Based mostly in Paris, he spends quality time in Brazil and the United States, and works extensively in Africa and Latin America. He has served as an international correspondent for The Financial Times, Business Week, ARTnews, Variety, and others. One current focus of his work is content creation for foundations, NGOs and other organizations, especially those working on issues related to international affairs, the environment and development. He also runs training programs for professional journalists, notably in Africa, and is an associate of Rain Barrel Communications, a leading consultancy for social justice projects.