23 Nov 2023

Tired of talking about climate justice? Yes and no!

2022 Orangen Coperfam Sao Paulo Brazil scr7
Santiago Engelhardt

By Juan Pablo Solis, Senior Advisor Climate and Environment, Fairtrade International

As I prepare to head off to yet another UN climate change summit - this time in the United Arab Emirates - I have to admit to mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I am looking forward to catching up with inspiring climate and trade justice campaigners from all over the world - committed, passionate advocates for a fairer and more sustainable world. On the other, I know from bitter experience - COP28 will be my seventh - that we are in for long hours, tortuous discussions, dodgy back-room stitch-ups and endless cups of coffee (believe me, as a coffee geek working for Fairtrade, good coffee is particularly important).

So what keeps driving me - and all the other civil society activists - back to the annual climate COPs? Fundamentally, we are optimists. We believe that despite the lack of progress and the seeming indifference displayed by some governments and businesses to the fate of both people and planet, we will eventually find a route out of this mess.

Climate programmes must meet farmers’ needs

This year does feel different. In partnership with the Fair Trade Advocacy Office (FTAO) and the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), Fairtrade has drawn up an ambitious but realistic blueprint for governments, businesses and world leaders to follow in order to avoid catastrophic food insecurity and increased poverty for millions of farmers and workers.

Together, we represent more than two million producers, farmers and agricultural labourers across the world whose lives, livelihoods and very existence are threatened by the impacts of climate change. And they are just the tip of the iceberg. Countless millions more live in the most climate-vulnerable countries and deal with a crisis not of their own making.

This year, we’re going to the COP armed with a proposal for climate and trade justice which would enable global leaders at COP28 to take the lead. As UN Secretary General António Guterres puts it: “No more hesitancy, no more excuses, no more waiting for others to move first. There is simply no more time for that.”

For a start, the Fair Trade movement demands that governments honour their promises to support vulnerable farming communities with the technical tools, expertise and finance they need for climate adaptation. Much of this isn’t new - previous COPs have seen multiple pledges of funding and other support, but little of it has materialised. We’re simply asking for climate justice: that richer countries - who after all have caused much of the climate crisis in the first place - make good on promises they’ve already made.

Climate action and poverty eradication go hand in hand

Secondly, decision makers in the UAE need to understand that climate justice and trade justice are inextricably linked - there cannot be one without the other. All too often, unfair supply chains keep farmers and communities in grinding poverty, and then poverty and environmental degradation are interlinked. If richer countries are serious about their climate ambitions, they have to recognise that global supply chains must pivot away from profit-at-any-cost and towards economic and environmental sustainability.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just listen to Bayardo Betanco, a Fairtrade coffee farmer and member of the Prodecoop co-operative in Nicaragua. “There is a chain on earth that starts where the producers are. They are the ones who suffer the consequences of climate change, the ones who get the least help, and carry all of the burden. It’s not fair.”

“It’s not fair” is a refrain which will be repeated many times at COP28. Why should small-scale farmers, their families and communities - without whom much of the world would starve - suffer the most for a climate crisis they didn’t cause?

Even if governments remain unconvinced by arguments for fairness and trade justice, they’d be well advised to take heed of the risks to global food security if they don’t take urgent action. As more and more land becomes unusable due to extreme climate events, changing weather patterns and ever-scarcer water resources, both the quality and quantity of crop yields are threatened. Fairtrade predicts that, if we don’t accelerate climate actions, by mid-century up to half of all land currently used for coffee farming may no longer be usable; there could be drastic declines in bananas yields; and Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, who produce over half the world’s cocoa, will become too hot to grow the crop. Difficult though it would be, we could just about survive without coffee, bananas and chocolate - but other staple crops such as maize and rice are also under threat.

Farmers know what’s best

Climate justice also means inclusive decision-making. It is one of the many ironies of the UN climate COPs that decisions which directly impact many millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are often made without their involvement. Without meaningful participation by farmers - especially women - the transition to more sustainable food production is unlikely to succeed. I’m looking forward to standing alongside Fairtrade producers at COP28 - among them next generation farmers who are already practising sustainable climate adaptation and agroecology.

But phasing out agricultural practices based on fossil-fuels, pesticides and deforestation and moving towards sustainable food systems costs money - money which most Fairtrade producers simply don’t have, because of the unfair, unbalanced supply chains in which they operate. Climate finance instruments are paramount to enable scale and build farmers’ resilience for example by investing in new equipment and practices such as composting, cultivating pest and disease-resistant varieties, or organic farming. All these imply costs that are not reflected in market dynamics. The vast majority of small-scale farmers don’t get paid nearly enough for their crops to be able to cover the cost of sustainable production or to transition towards it, and the scenario is even worse when more severe and frequent weather events lead to accumulating loss and ecosystem damages.

The drive towards human rights and environmental due diligence (HREDD) requirements in the EU and other jurisdictions - which Fairtrade supports - also comes at a price. Smallholder farmers face increased sustainability requirements to maintain access to global markets, while often being offered no financial support or appropriate incentives to meet these requirements.

Solutions needed now

Civil society organisations - including Fairtrade - play a significant role at big gatherings of global leaders such as the climate COPs. Not only do ministers and their advisors frequently make use of our expertise, but we also act as an uncomfortable reminder to decision makers that their actions have real-life consequences for vulnerable communities around the world. But along with many of my fellow climate and trade justice activists, I am getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of action, urgency and accountability shown by global political leaders.

Of course, this year’s COP takes place in an increasingly unstable geopolitical context in which the horrific events in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere threaten to overshadow attempts to halt the climate crisis. I am deeply concerned that the constant wars over control of territories and their resources could hijack the discussions and slow any progress made at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh last year.

Ultimately, I’d like to believe we want to achieve the same end result. Farming, sustainable economic growth and the fight against the twin climate and biodiversity crises should not be mutually exclusive but mutually supportive. So as I finish my packing and head to the UAE, I urge global leaders at COP28 to accelerate climate actions, to honour their commitments, to be bold, and to work together to transform our current economic and trade system into one that is fair and prosperous for all.

Am I tired of talking about climate justice? Yes! Will this stop me from doing it? No, not until we’ve made climate justice a reality!