Oxfam’s top 5 climate justice wins since 2008

January 14, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Tim Gore, a fellow Oxfamer who for years has contributed great pieces on climate change to FP2P, is heading off to become (deep breath) Head of the Low Carbon and Circular Economy Programme at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP). (Twitter: @tim_e_gore). Here are his outgoing reflections.

Last month I ended an epic 12-year journey leading Oxfam’s policy and advocacy work on climate, food and land. We had many highs and lows in that time. But as we begin the most important year for climate action yet, here’s a reminder that campaigning works: my top 5 Oxfam wins for climate justice.

Each was achieved with countless others. They show how together, even in the face of vested interests and a planetary-scale crisis, committed campaigners and advocates can make a difference.

1. People not polar bears

When Oxfam got serious about the climate crisis in the mid-2000s, it was still widely seen – including in parts of the organisation – as a ‘green’ or environmental issue.

We’ve relentlessly focused on the human story of climate breakdown ever since – seeing it as a grave violation of human rights – and always talked about its impacts using the present not future tense. The Guardian’s 2019 editorial shift in climate reporting felt like vindication.

And in the process we helped put adaptation – the priority of those on the climate front lines, once described by Al Gore as a “dirty word” – on an equal footing with mitigation [reducing emissions]. While political and financial support for adaptation continues to lag woefully, the Paris Agreement formally gave equal status to both, and no credible voices argue we have to choose between them any more.

2. $100bn/year for climate finance

Oxfam made one of the first estimates of global adaptation finance needs and helped drive the campaigning for a major financial commitment from rich countries at the Copenhagen COP in 2009. We pushed Gordon Brown and the European Commission to put the first numbers on the table that year, laying the ground for the $100bn/year by 2020 commitment.

We all know it isn’t enough, and that the pledge was full of loopholes. But we’ve held rich countries to account for it every year since, with regular reports tracking the flows of public finance. Media interest in those numbers has always been high, and developing countries made regular use of them in the UN negotiations, helping keep the pressure on.

There’s no question much, much more is needed – in hindsight we should have added another zero to those early estimates. But we can track substantial increases in public finance for adaptation over the years, and it’s now a high level ask of the UN Secretary General to see at least half of the resources for adaptation flow to the poorest countries. Watch for progress on that at the Glasgow COP this year.

We also played a big role campaigning for a “fair global climate fund” to channel much of that money – helping to secure the Green Climate Fund’s provisions on equal representation for developing countries, national ownership and gender. From Bangladesh to the Philippines and the Pacific, we pushed for national institutions accountable to communities to govern the spending too. There’s now an architecture of international climate finance in place that simply didn’t exist 12 years ago.

3. Food companies step off the sidelines

Increasingly we told the story of the climate crisis through its impacts on the food system. But we also successfully challenged the world’s biggest food companies to slash the huge emissions in their own supply chains, and to raise their voices for urgent government climate action. In 2014, our Behind the Brands campaign secured commitments to set science-based targets to cut Scope 3 supply chain emissions from General Mills and Kellogg, setting a new industry benchmark that led to subsequent commitments from industry giants like Mars, Nestle and Danone.

4. Challenging fossil fuel financing

Gradually we leveraged our expertise in multilateral financial institutions to challenge lending for fossil fuels. It took some years to strengthen the Oxfam position, and we were always careful to push the rich countries to move fastest. We helped secure the UK’s commitment to phase out coal by 2025, pressed French banks to publish their carbon footprints and to quit coal and took on the Australian coal PR machine for its scandalous pro-poor claims.

But after calling for no new coal plants anywhere in the world, we worked to close the fossil fuel credit lines to developing countries too. Working with others, we helped exclude coal from French export credits, strictly limit the World Bank‘s coal lending, keep coal out of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank‘s portfolio, and secured the historic decision by the European Investment Bank to end all fossil fuel lending. There’s still a long way to go, and we’re still pushing.

5. Climate equity  

Through it all we’ve held to the principle that those with most responsibility for causing the climate crisis and most capacity to address it should lead the way. We published numerous calculations of the climate action fair shares of different countries – for emissions cuts and climate finance – and showed how often it is the poorest and least responsible that are in fact doing the most.

Then in 2015 our work on inter-personal carbon inequality showed how a small minority of the world’s richest people is responsible for the majority of the world’s emissions. Our updated estimates developed with SEI last year showed how that rich minority has driven most of the emissions growth over the past 30 years – squandering the precious global carbon budget in the process. Even the EU’s emissions reductions in this time were achieved among low- and middle-income Europeans only, while the emissions of the richest kept growing.

Beyond some great media headlines and political speeches, we can’t claim many concrete wins on this front yet. The richest countries and individuals worldwide are still essentially free-riding, with climate leadership coming from the world’s most vulnerable. But perhaps in the midst of the pandemic, this once-in-a-generation chance to re-shape the global economy could be the window of opportunity to finally change that.

Despite all the climate justice movement’s many successes in recent years and decades, we are in the last chance saloon for limiting global heating to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C goal. The only way – practically and politically – to achieve the far-reaching societal and economic transition we need in the few years we have left is if it is fair and just.

My hope as I leave Oxfam, is that our work on carbon inequality helps to inform a recovery from COVID-19 that fights inequality and the climate crisis together. We should look back with pride at the difference we’ve made, and then re-double our efforts.

January 14, 2021
Duncan Green