No climate justice for Western Sahara at COP28
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As leaders, businesses and civil society from all over the world gather for climate talks in Dubai, one people remains basically unrepresented.

09 December 2023

PHOTO: Before the war resumed in 2020, Mouloud used to herd his livestock in the part of Western Sahara that is not under occupation by neighbouring Morocco. “I want freedom for my entire people”, he said. The conflict means that knowledge of people such as of Mouloud, which will be critical for tracking and managing changes in climate and environment in the event of independence, is at risk of being lost. Those few Saharawis that do still practice mobile herding have their movements constrained by the Moroccan wall that divided Western Sahara, minefields and unexploded munitions and, since November 2020, renewed conflict. Photo by Anette Karlsen.  

From 30 November to 12 December, countries are meeting in Dubai to discuss the existential climate crisis that the world is facing. The COP28 summit will address how the world can limit global warming, fund adaptation to the impacts of climate change, and compensate countries for losses and damages associated with those impacts.  

The United Arab Emirates, which is hosting this latest COP, claims that it “strives to make COP28 the most accessible and inclusive COP to date by proactively and authentically engaging with numerous constituencies and diverse groups, including women, people with disabilities, indigenous people, and youth, to amplify their voices and grant them a seat at the table.” 

However, one group that is not granted “a seat at the table” is the Saharawis.  

COP stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’ to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Only recognised UN member states can be Parties to the UNFCCC, and signatories to the Paris Agreement that frames national and global action on climate change. Only Parties to the UNFCCC and signatories to the Paris Agreement can submit national climate plans or ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs) to the UNFCCC Secretariat.  

Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, and its blocking of a referendum on self-determination, mean that the decolonisation process in this UN-designated non-self-governing territory has never been completed. As a result, the republic that the Saharawis created – a member state of the African Union – has not yet been recognised as a UN member state.  

This, in turn, means the Saharawi republic cannot sign or ratify either the UNFCCC or the Paris Agreement - and it is therefore locked out of climate negotiations and effectively excluded from global climate governance and finance mechanisms. These include mechanisms established to help countries reduce their emissions, adapt to the impacts of climate change, and pay for losses and damages resulting from those impacts. Consequently, the Saharawi people, its UN-recognised national liberation movement and the republic they have established cannot formally participate in the COPs.

In contrast, Morocco has been active in the climate arena, hosting two COPs and establishing two Nationally Designated Authorities through which it can access finance from multilateral climate funds. According to the Climate Funds Update website, Morocco has received over $293 million dollars in climate finance from these funds. The Saharawi government and people, of course, have received nothing.  

For the Saharawis, the unfairness of the UN system of climate change governance and finance does not stop there.  

Morocco’s two NDCs include emissions reductions activities and goals that are highly dependent on the development of renewables in occupied Western Sahara. For Morocco to meet its own climate targets, it therefore needs to continue and further entrench its occupation. This leads Morocco to submit climate plans to the UNFCCC that include projects and figures from the territory it holds under occupation. Western Sahara Resource Watch has asked the UNFCCC how it can accept Morocco’s reporting on projects that are located outside of its national borders, in occupied territory. In response, UNFCCC simply states that it is not in a position to reject a country’s NDC. 

As such, the UNFCCC is effectively endorsing Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. Consequently, it is complicit in the Moroccan colonialist project in a UN-designated non-self-governing territory, in which the UN is mandated to facilitate decolonisation. 

As if these contradictions are not bad enough, accepting an NDC whose targets are dependent on actions in an occupied territory outside the relevant Party’s borders is contrary to multiple principles enshrined in the Paris Agreement. These are intended to promote a ‘just transition’ away from fossil fuels, and include the principles of accuracy, clarity, comparability and consistency, equity, and “environmental sustainability and transparency, including in governance.”

This de facto support by the UNFCCC for Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara has real impacts for the Saharawis, particularly those living in the refugee camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert.  

“The Saharawi refugees have been displaced to areas in the desert interior where the impacts of climate change are more severe than in the areas nearer the coast from which they have been forced by the occupation”, stated Nick Brooks, Visiting Research Fellow at University of East Anglia, and specialist in climate change and international development. 

Brooks explains that these differential impacts include many more days in which the temperature exceeds 40°C, and exposure to projected combinations of heat and humidity that could be unsurvivable by human beings under global warming exceeding the Paris Agreement threshold of 1.5°C.

Even as conditions become drier in this part of the Sahara, individual extreme rainfall events are becoming more intense, increasing the risk of flash floods. Such floods periodically devastate the refugee camps, destroying homes, infrastructure, schools, food stocks and medical facilities.

Added to this existential risk are more familiar risks including increasing water scarcity driven by higher temperatures and more intense evaporation. The concentration of the Saharawi refugee population in the refugee camps, the fragile nature of the infrastructure, and limited resources and finance, mean that the refugees are much more vulnerable to flooding than they would be in their homeland. Exile and forced sedentarisation also mean that most Saharawis cannot practice their traditional nomadic livelihoods, which evolved to enable them to cope with a marginal environment and a challenging climate.

As the world fails to take the necessary action to stabilise global temperatures at a level that is just about manageable, the conflict in Western Sahara is increasing climate change risks and undermining people’s ability to address these risks.  

“The UNFCCC was established to address – and to reduce - the risks from climate change. When it comes to Western Sahara, the actions of the UNFCCC are contrary to its purpose, and to widely accepted principles of climate justice. It is effectively endorsing a military occupation that has increased the exposure and vulnerability of those displaced by the occupation. It is privileging the occupier, while denying those who are victims of the occupation both a voice in climate negotiations and access to support that could help them cope with the impacts of climate change. Western Sahara – and the way it is treated by the global climate governance and finance architecture represented by the UNFCCC – is an exemplar of climate injustice operating at multiple scales,” stated Brooks.  

“As a minimum standard, the UNFCCC should not allow UN Member States to include in their NDCs activities that take place outside their international borders, particularly in occupied territories. COP28 should be challenging, not endorsing, this behaviour, but this is unlikely as long as occupied peoples are locked out of negotiations. As the system is built now, it is unlikely that there will be any climate justice for the Saharawis”, Brooks stated.

Western Sahara Resource Watch and 101 other international NGOs on 28 November 2023 issued an appeal to the UNFCCC and the state parties at COP28. Read the statement here. 

 

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