Rich nations won’t fight climate change until more of their own die: Gabonese minister

As It Happens6:29Rich nations won’t fight climate change until more of their own die: Gabonese minister

Rich countries may never do their fair share to fight climate change until more of their own citizens’ lives are on the line, says Gabon Environment Minister Lee White.

White is heading to the United Nations climate conference in Egypt next week, and he wants to know what happened to the billions of dollars that wealthy countries pledged last year to help developing nations like his.

The Conference of Parties, or COP, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up to implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in the 1990s, and other climate agreements that followed.

At last year’s conference in Glasgow, developed countries — which contribute most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — vowed to spend $100 billion US to help developing countries facing the brunt of climate change’s devastating effects.

  • What questions do you have about COP27? We want to hear from you ahead of the climate conference. Send an email to ask@cbc.ca.

So far, the developed countries have fallen short on their promise, delivering an estimated $83 billion this year, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

White says Gabon and other African nations haven’t seen their fair share of those funds. As he gears up for COP27, taking place in Egypt from Nov. 6 to 18, he says he’ll be asking for a detailed accounting of that money. Here is part of his conversation with him As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

I’m wondering how optimistic you are that you will actually see meaningful action, meaningful change, from rich countries at this summit?

What’s going to happen in Egypt is that we have multiple two- or three-year work programs that were started [at COP26 last year] inGlasgow. So there aren’t any big negotiation issues that are coming to a head in Egypt.

So there’s going to be a stocktaking on whether or not promises that were made have been kept. Everybody’s a bit worried that we will discover that they haven’t. And that risks souring the flavor of the COP. But time will tell.

You do sound skeptical.

I’m partly skeptical … because I’m not really seeing it on the ground.

If you just hypothetically spread $83 billion across the 152 developing nations and sort of do a simple arithmetic of surface area, you know, size of countries and roughly how much you might expect them to receive, then I would expect Gabon to receive maybe $200 million per year to fund our adaptation [and] to reward our mitigation efforts.

And I’m really only seeing about [$10 million]I think, of climate [financing] coming in. So yeah, it feels to me that we’re about 20 times off.

Developing nations are asking a lot of questions about the transparency of the $82 billion that have been made available by developed nations this year. Who has given how much? Where is it? Where was it deposited? And, particularly, where has it been spent?

When I talk to my colleagues, ministers from Congo, from Cameroon… they’re all of a similar viewpoint to me that we’re not really seeing money hitting the ground.

And if, once again, we get confronted by false promises, it just changes the sentiment of the negotiations. It sours things and old frustrations come out. And then it becomes difficult to make commitments going forward.

We’ve certainly seen heat waves, forest fires [and] flooding in those developed nations—in case, you know, that they weren’t convinced that climate change was having an effect all around the world. But what do you think it will take to get rich countries to act?

I happened to take my son on holiday in the French Alps, and it was scorched. It was shocking how many trees were dying, and that shepherds would have to walk 14 hours with their sheep to find grass.

So we’re starting to feel that we’re at the tipping point, where catastrophe after catastrophe hits us. So we’re seeing 22 million people starving in the Horn of Africa. We’re seeing Pakistan under water. We’re seeing forest fires and so on.

But yet the sad reality is that until more people are being directly impacted by climate change in developed and G20 nations — you know, it’s tragic to say, until more people are dying in the countries that are responsible for the problem — things are not going to change quickly enough, is my worry.

What kind of leadership would you like to see from countries like Canada, for example?

I would like to see climate treated in the same way we treated COVID-19, or the same way we treated HIV/AIDS. The world has to understand that it’s an imminent threat.

We keep saying that climate change is something we’ll deal with later.

I happen to be a minister who is a climate scientist. The longer we wait, the worse it’s going to get, and the harder it’s going to be to pull things back out of the fire. And there’s going to come a point where ecosystems will implode, the glaciers will melt, the ice caps will melt. And we risk getting to a point where we really cannot predict the severeness of what’s going to happen. But we know that it’s going to be very, very, very bad.

Two men in orange uniforms, hard hats and safety masks saw down a big tree in the forest.
A team of tree cutters is seen at work on March 29, 2022, in the forest near the village of Bambidi in the Ogoue province of Gabon. (Steeve Jordan/AFP/Getty Images)

Your country gets about 60 per cent of its state revenue from oil. What is Gabon doing to address climate change?

We know that over the next 20 years, we will lose those revenues that come from oil because people will no longer be buying oil.

Gabon is a forest nation. We’re 88 per cent forested. Over the last five decades, we’ve had very strong environmental leadership…. Current President Ali Bongo Ondimba was elected on a sustainable development platform.

We’re managing our forests. Even where we harvest timber, we harvest timber in a carbon-positive way. The forest grows quicker after we’ve harvested it.

We offset all of the oil that we sell. We offset all of our industrial emissions. And we net absorb just over 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, which is about a quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions.

Gabon is actually one of the best in class when it comes to fighting climate change. We’ve achieved the Paris goal of carbon neutrality, and we’ve gone far beyond that. And we continue to try and do better.

Back to the summit you’re about to attend. You know, there’s criticism of it already. The young climate activist Greta Thunberg is amongst those criticizing COP27. She’s going so far as to call it “greenwashing” and says she won’t be attending. And I wonder why it’s important for you to be there?

The climate negotiation at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is the only venue we have for talking about these issues and making collective decisions across all of the members of the UN on how we’re going to fight it.

So Iike it or hate it, it’s the only place that we can make these agreements and, you know, hope to encourage countries to stick to their commitments.

I’ve been a negotiator for 15 years. I find it an incredibly frustrating process coming to a consensus with almost 200 nations with very different viewpoints. It’s very, very difficult on many issues. So I fully understand the frustration of young activists who are going to suffer the brunt of the effects of climate change, are going to have to pick up, you know, and clean up the mess that our generation has made.

But if you leave your chair empty… if you’re not there to keep pushing, then we definitely won’t find solutions.

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