Ensuring Equity: The Path of Climate Funds to the Most Vulnerable

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Inequality, injustice and discrimination, which marginalise communities and people, are entirely the results of human construct in much the same way as human activities have caused global warming. Marginalised people and communities now also disproportionately bear the climate impacts of global warming.

Clean energy technologies could be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming. Adaptation and resilience measures could assist people to cope with a warming world. But how will these solutions reach vulnerable and marginalised people and communities?

Structures that have perpetuated inequality, injustice and discrimination have cemented over decades and centuries. These structures persist and remain deeply endemic across the governments of many poor and developing countries. They continue to deprive marginalised and vulnerable communities of essential social services, economic growth, developmental benefits and political decision-making.

Will the international order on climate change rely on the same governments, many of whom are not always responsive to the needs of marginalised and vulnerable communities, to deliver clean energy, adaptation, and resilience solutions to those most in need?

Establishing a fund to help the poor recover from the loss and damage of climate impacts is one part of the solution. Finding the gateways to reach them is another.

Climate choices

The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly called the Conference of Parties or COP28, held in Dubai between 30 November and 12 December, brought together approximately 80,000 people from across governments, businesses, non-governmental organisations and media, as it did activists and curious onlookers.

Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal attended the conference, leading a large delegation of ministers, secretaries, senior government officials, and representatives from non-governmental organisations, development agencies, think tanks and businesses.

A day after COP28 began, Dahal chaired a high-level event where UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Prime Minister of Andorra Xavier Espot Zamora and representatives from several other countries also participated. Titled “Call of the Mountains: Who saves us from the climate crisis?” the session sought to highlight the climate change impacts on hills and mountains.

The UN Secretary-General said Nepal had “lost close to a third of its ice in just over 30 years—a direct result of the greenhouse gas pollution heating our planet.”

The ice melting from Nepal’s glaciers is swelling lakes, which are increasingly at risk of bursting from the water pressure building within.

“Melting is accelerating, and unless we change course, we will unleash a catastrophe,” he warned. An avalanche, earthquake or breach would result in devastating floods downstream that wipe out entire communities.

Experts speaking at Prime Minister Dahal’s session noted that there are approximately 21 glacial lakes in Nepal at high risk of bursting. One way to deal with such risks is placing warning systems within these glacial lakes, which could inform downstream communities in the event of a flood. It wouldn’t entirely prevent the damage but would give communities enough time to get out of the way.

Across the 21 glacial lakes at risk of bursting, only two are monitored. Monitoring systems are currently being installed in another two. Why haven’t warning systems been installed in the 17 remaining glacial lakes at high risk of bursting? This illustrates how historic inequality, injustice and discrimination influence the choices that governments make on climate.

The failure to install warning systems on the high-risk glacial lakes in Nepal isn’t due to a lack of resources. On average, each warning system could cost about $1 to $2 million. Even if it were double that, the total cost of installing warning systems across all of Nepal’s high-risk glacial lakes would be well below $100 million.

For comparison, consider the following. Nepal spent approximately $305 million to build the international airport in Pokhara, borrowing approximately $265 million for it. Another $80 million was spent on building the Bhairahawa airport, borrowing approximately $48 million. Both airports are currently stranded, operating at far less capacity than projected.

Over the last decade, Nepal has spent approximately $42 million, borrowing half of that, to develop project reports for the 1,061 megawatt (MW) Upper Arun Hydro Power Project. Over the next few years, it expects to borrow about $2.5 billion to build large hydropower projects so that Nepal can benefit from electricity exports to India.

Nepal has borrowed approximately $150 million to underground Kathmandu’s electric distribution system with the aim of reducing electricity losses, improving reliability and beautifying the city.

In the meantime, the UN Secretary-General and Nepal’s Prime Minister are calling on the world to heed Nepal’s “Call of the Mountains” and asking “who saves us from climate change.” In this case, Nepal could save itself or at least protect its people with warning systems on all high-risk glacier lakes.

The resources to protect vulnerable communities from glacial lake outbursts are within Nepal’s resource capabilities. But they have not been installed.

“Nepal, and other vulnerable mountain countries, are being pounded by a crisis that is not of their making,” the UN Secretary-General said at the session. Climate change and its impact are certainly not of Nepal’s making. But the decision to leave many high-risk glacial lakes without warning systems and expose communities to the risks of devasting floods is certainly of Nepal’s own doing.

Whose voices?

Nepal has many development needs: Airports, hydropower plants, underground power distribution lines, warning systems on high-risk glacial lakes and many more. All these projects offer tremendous development benefits. But in poor, resource-constrained countries like ours, choosing what to build depends on whom you ask and who selects the priorities.

Vulnerable and marginalised people and communities are not the ones determining those priorities. In Nepal and across many other developing countries, vulnerable and marginalised people and communities do not yet have a voice that can influence decision-making.

Inequality, injustice and discrimination persist, and governments and political systems are not always responsive to these.

At COP28, the international community agreed to establish a loss and damage fund to support poor, vulnerable and high-risk communities suffering from the impacts of climate change. The fund had garnered commitments of approximately $700 million by the time the conference ended. These resources, and at much higher levels than what was committed, are urgently needed. However, these funds must be able to reach vulnerable and marginalised people and communities that are most in need.

Climate finance must not embolden the same inequalities, injustice and discrimination that have left people and communities vulnerable and marginalised in the first place.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a framework for measuring key development metrics, provides a basis for evaluating how countries are performing against these goals. The loss and damage fund must be better integrated with the SDGs. It must also require governments to be more responsive and accountable to those who have historically been left behind.

It isn’t sufficient for the world to hear the call of the melting mountains and rising seas. The call of the people living in the melting mountains and the rising seas must also be heard.

Source: The Kathmandu Post- Bishal Thapa