Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, has criticised industrialised nations for failing the developing world on the climate crisis, in a blistering attack at the Cop27 UN climate talks.
She said the prosperity – and high carbon emissions – of the rich world had been achieved at the expense of the poor in times past, and now the poor were being forced to pay again, as victims of climate breakdown that they did not cause.
“We were the ones whose blood, sweat and tears financed the industrial revolution,” she said. “Are we now to face double jeopardy by having to pay the cost as a result of those greenhouse gases from the industrial revolution? That is fundamentally unfair.”
She warned of a billion climate refugees around the world by the middle of the century if governments failed to tackle the climate crisis.
One of the biggest issues at the talks is climate justice – the fact that poor people are bearing the brunt of the damage to the climate, in the form of extreme weather, while rich countries have failed to live up to their promises to cut emissions and to provide finance to help the poor with climate breakdown.
Mottley, who was speaking at an event organised by Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was scathing about the World Bank, which many countries think has not done enough to focus on the climate, and on countries that offer loans instead of grants.
“We need to have a different approach, to allow grant-funded reconstruction grants going forward, in those countries that suffer from disaster. Unless that happens, we are going to see an increase in climate refugees. We know that by 2050, the world’s 21 million climate refugees today will become 1 billion.”
Mottley is working with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on an initiative to provide new means of finance to the developing world.
Macron used his speech to the Cop27 conference to insist that the war in Ukraine would not cause France to backslide on commitments to tackle the climate crisis.
More than 100 world leaders attended the conference on Monday, greeted by António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, warning that the world was on a “highway to hell”. He called on rich and poor governments to make a “historic pact” to help each other through the climate crisis, instead of being at loggerheads.
“We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing … And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.
“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”
He said the world faced a stark choice over the next fortnight of talks: either developed and developing countries working together to make a “historic pact” that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and set the world on a low-carbon path – or failure, which would bring climate breakdown and catastrophe.
“We can sign a climate solidarity pact, or a collective suicide pact,” he added.
He said the world had the tools it needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in clean energy and low-carbon technology.
“A window of opportunity remains open, but only a narrow shaft of light remains,” he said. “The global climate fight will be won or lost in this crucial decade – on our watch. One thing is certain: those that give up are sure to lose.”
Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the president of Egypt, said in his opening address to the summit that poor and vulnerable people around the world were already experiencing the effects of extreme weather. “The intensity and frequency of climate disasters have never been higher, in all four corners of the world, bringing wave after wave of suffering for billions of people. Is it not high time today to put an end to this suffering?”
Elsewhere at the conference, Boris Johnson, the former UK prime minister, said he embodied “the spirit of Glasgow”, referring to the Cop26 conference hosted by the UK last year that produced an agreement to limit global temperatures to 1.5C.
Rishi Sunak, the current UK prime minister, refused to answer a question from the Guardian on whether the £11.6bn of UK overseas aid earmarked for climate finance in developing countries would be spent within the five-year timeframe originally promised. Some fear that he could try to reduce the budget by stretching the spending over a longer period.
Sunak also announced the extension of a global initiative to reverse deforestation by 2030, originally set up at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow.
However, last night the Telegraph reported that Sunak is poised to announce a major gas deal with the US after Cop27, with talks about an “energy security partnership” in their final stages. The US is reportedly planning to sell billions of cubic metres of liquefied natural gas to Britain over the coming year.
Cop27 is likely to be a fraught and difficult fortnight of negotiations. Countries are meeting in the shadow of the war in Ukraine, a worldwide energy and cost of living crisis, and rising global tensions.
The talks got off to a slow start, with negotiators spending more than 40 hours over the weekend wrangling over what would be on the agenda. In the end, it was agreed that the vexed issue of “loss and damage”, which refers to the worst impacts of the climate crisis that are too severe for countries to adapt to – would be discussed.
Poor countries suffering loss and damage want a financial mechanism that will give them access to funding when disasters such as hurricanes, floods and droughts strike, destroying their infrastructure and tearing apart their social fabric.
It is not likely that these talks will provide a final settlement on loss and damage, but countries are hoping for progress on ways of raising and disbursing finance.
Nabeel Munir, chief negotiator for the G77 plus China negotiating block, said loss and damage was one of the principal demands for almost all developing and climate vulnerable nations.
“This is the beginning of what will be a slow and painful process, for developed and developing countries, and it wasn’t easy to get it on the agenda, but it’s there and it’s a beginning, and we wanted that to happen at a Cop hosted by a developing country,” Munir said. “It’s a big achievement that the other side is beginning to accept that what we’re saying is fair. Loss and damage is not charity, it’s climate justice.”
At most UN climate summits, activists and protesters play a key role. However, Egypt clamps down on dissent and its jails are full of political prisoners. Sisi’s government has promised that climate activist voices will be heard, but their activities have been curtailed, with protesters kept at a separate site and required to register in advance to be granted permission for even minor demonstrations.