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COP26 and the Realization of Climate Justice

COP26 Sheffield Climate March. Photo by: Tim Dennell. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0


Leading up to COP26 in Glasgow, stakes were high. In particular, ‘developing’ states highlighted the centrality of taking a climate justice perspective in the conference and the resulting pact. The notion of climate justice consists of two key aspects: recognizing both the fact that the poorest countries of the world are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and the limited responsibility of these same countries in causing environmental degradation and climate change (Pigrau et al 2014: 30). As Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate justice activist stated in the protest during COP26 "Historically, Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions and yet Africans are suffering some of the most brutal impacts fuelled by the climate crisis.” This disproportionality should be reflected in international climate policy and the climate action taken by each state Party.

Central to the realization of climate justice is the principle of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’ (CBDR). First officially recognized in the Rio Declaration (principle 7), the principle calls for taking into account the differential historical contributions of states to environmental degradation and applying the notion of global distributive justice to environmental action (Cullet 2016: 3). There are various ways in which the principle of CBDR could be translated into climate action within the COP26 pact. Firstly, it could be realized in the form of adaptation finance: supporting countries already suffering the impacts of climate change to adapt their systems and infrastructure. Secondly, CBDR could take the form of a ‘loss and damage’ mechanism: addressing the irreversible damage that has already been caused around the world. Finally, climate justice and CBDR should inform mitigation measures. This piece will explore these three aspects of the COP26 pact in order to assess whether it succeeds in taking a climate justice approach.

Recognition of climate justice and CBDR in the COP26 pact

The final version of the COP26 pact brushes upon the concept of climate justice and the principle of CBDR, but in a very limited way. In its preamble, the text declares that the concept of climate justice is important “for some”. This framing is quite vague and ambiguous, and seems to imply that the notion is only significant to those that demand it, namely historically disadvantaged states. In a similar vein, the pact mentions the principle of CBDR. However, the framing of the principle in the pact seems similarly limited. As stated, climate action must happen in the spirit of equity, “reflecting common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in the light of different national circumstances and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty” (paragraph 23). Just like the concept of climate justice, the principle of CBDR seems to only apply to ‘developing’ states, in reference to poverty and vulnerability. Nowhere in the final pact is there any mention of the accountability or historical responsibility of ‘developed’ states for climate change.

This is a very one-sided approach to climate justice and the principle of CBDR. While both concepts are mentioned, they are only used in relation to one of the two aspects that make up a climate justice perspective. The vulnerabilities and limited capacities of ‘developing’ states are recognized, but not the disproportionate responsibility of ‘developed’ states. This is quite nonsensical, since the very notion of climate justice is based on the dual and intertwined nature of these aspects. This recognition of the vulnerabilities of ‘developing’ countries, but a lacking recognition of the corresponding accountability of ‘developed’ states seems to carry throughout the COP26 pact.

Climate finance

One of the key ways of realizing climate justice and the principle of CBDR is finance. Promises of financial support from wealthier states were already made at the Rio conference in 1992. Furthermore, at COP15 in 2009, wealthier states agreed to pay $100 billion annually to low and middle income states. However, the 2020 target was missed, and much of the funding promised has been given in the form of loans, rather than grants as promised. Against this background of unfulfilled promises, the stakes for COP26 were high.

The issue of adaptation finance was particularly central for ‘developing’ states in the negotiations for the pact. Climate change is already believed to impact 85% of the world’s population, and ‘developing’ states lack the resources to adapt their infrastructure and systems for extreme weather events and shifting climate patterns. The paragraphs on adaptation finance are central and strong in the final pact. The pact “calls for a continued increase in the scale and effectiveness of climate finance from all sources globally, including grants and other highly concessional forms of finance” (paragraph 47). Furthermore, paragraph 15 on adaptation “urges developed country Parties to urgently and significantly scale up their provision of climate finance, technology transfer and capacity-building for adaptation so as to respond to the needs of developing country Parties”. The addition of the words ‘urgently and significantly’ was an addition from the former drafts, as insisted by ‘developing’ country Parties. This is one of the key victories of the pact, as it takes into account the already ongoing issues caused by climate change and allows for them to be addressed.

However, other paragraphs on finance were unfortunately watered down during the negotiations. The very first draft expressed "serious concern" regarding the insufficiency of the financial resources provided to ‘developing’ countries, but the word “serious” has been omitted from the final version. This, paired with a history of unmet goals raises doubts regarding the realization of the financial promises of COP26, including those on adaptation finance. Again, while the vulnerability of ‘developing’ states and the need for adaptation finance is recognized, it is unclear whether ‘developed’ states will be held accountable for fulfilling their promises.

Loss and Damage

Another key way of fulfilling the notion of climate justice is addressing ‘loss and damage’: the ‘unavoidable and irreversible’ damage already suffered in many parts of the world. Creating a loss and damage mechanism or fund was an issue that divided opinions during negotiations. ‘Developing’ states parties were demanding compensation and support, while ‘developed’ states were very reluctant to agree to such measures. In the final draft, there are promising mentions of the further funding and operationalization of the Santiago network. The network was established in 2019 in order to organize resources and assistance for ‘vulnerable developing countries’ in order to address loss and damage, but it still lacks staff and funding.This development has been hailed as another key victory of the pact, and could be a significant step towards climate justice.

However, there is once again an added caveat in the pact. ‘Developing’ parties had hoped for the establishment of a “facility” for providing financial aid for loss and damage. However, wealthier nations opposed this proposition, as it would have implied holding them accountable for loss and damage finance. As a result of this disagreement, the wording was changed from ‘facility’ to “the Glasgow dialogue between Parties” in 2024 to “discuss the arrangements for the funding of activities to avert, minimize and address loss and damage associated with the adverse impacts of climate change” (paragraph 73). This wording is much weaker than the one proposed by ‘developing’ states, and once again lessens the perceived accountability and responsibility of ‘developed’ state parties.

Mitigation measures

Another central sticking point in the negotiations were mitigation measures, particularly in relation to coal and other fossil fuels. From a climate justice perspective, it can be argued that it would be unfair for ‘developing’ states to be expected to decarbonize at the same rate as developed states, since they both lack the resources and are historically less accountable for emissions. The first draft of the COP26 pact was very ambitious in terms of fossil fuels: paragraph 36 called upon Parties to “accelerate efforts towards the phase-out” of coal power and subsidies for fossil fuels. This demand would have been revolutionary in two aspects. Firstly, this is the first UN document to have mentioned coal at all. Secondly, it calls for “phasing out”, which is a strong demand. However, this demand was significantly watered down in the final pact text. Paragraph 20 merely calls on states to accelerate their efforts “towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.

This watering down has been a huge disappointment for many. The discussion tends to center on India and China, the key states opposing the stronger version of the text. However, China or India cannot simply be blamed for the ‘failure’ of this provision. It is central to consider this from a climate justice perspective as well. After all, India and China are historically less responsible for emissions and climate change. Therefore it is unfair to demand the same rate of decarbonization from these states. Indeed, aforementioned paragraph 20 also calls on states to recognize the need for “support towards a just transition”. The amount of blame placed on India and China in public debate on the coal provision goes to show that the historical responsibility of high-income states for environmental degradation is not necessarily recognized or taken into account. It seems somewhat paradoxical that the vulnerability and lacking capacities of ‘developing’ countries in relation to climate change is repeated throughout the text, yet this does not seem to carry through to mitigation measures.


While the COP26 claims to pursue climate justice and to fulfil the principle of CBDR, the text of the pact suggests otherwise. Climate justice and CBDR are presented in a very limited way, as though they could only be applied to ‘developing’ country parties. This seems to set the tone for the rest of the pact as well: while promises are made in terms of adaptation finance and addressing loss and damage for ‘developing’ states, the accountability and responsibility of ‘developed’ states is never addressed or clarified. This is visible in the various added caveats and watering down of provisions between drafts. Furthermore, the discussions surrounding mitigation measures, particularly decarbonization, do not reflect a climate justice perspective. The watering down of the paragraph on coal is presented as the fault of India and China, without addressing historical, global inequalities.

There are three key developments that must occur in order for climate justice to be realized, both in the implementation of COP26 and for upcoming climate conferences. Firstly, the promises made regarding adaptation finance and addressing loss and damage must actually be fulfilled. This is absolutely crucial for the country parties that are already experiencing the devastating effects of climate change. Secondly, the issue of mitigation must be reframed. It is not fruitful for international collaboration that certain states are scapegoated in discussions surrounding mitigation. Rather, mitigation measures should also be viewed from a climate justice perspective, taking into consideration historical inequality and hence present accountability for the climate crisis. A possible way of doing so would be by applying the ‘contraction and convergence’ principle, with different rates of decarbonization applied to ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ states. Finally, the concept of climate justice and the principle of CBDR should be mainstreamed throughout international environmental law and policy. The approach taken in the COP26 pact is limited, and increased awareness of the concepts could help address this. The mainstreaming of a climate justice perspective must therefore inform the fulfillment of the two aforementioned developments as well.

This research contributes to Sustainable Youth Goal 9:

Action Against Climate Change


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Pigrau A. et al (2014) ‘International Law and Ecological Debt – International Claims, Debates and Struggles for Environmental Justice’ EJOLT Report n°11. Available online at

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, ‘Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development’ Annex, Resolution 1, UN Doc. A/Conf.151/26/Rev.1 (vol. 1) (1993). Available online at

UNFCCC ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ Decision -/CP.26 advance unedited version (13 November 2021). Available online at

UNFCC ‘Glasgow Climate Pact Draft decision -/CMA.3’ (13 November 2021), UN doc. FCCC/PA/CMA/2021/L.16. Available online at


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