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'Fossil fuel industry should pay for climate damage'

Big fossil fuel companies should compensate poor countries for loss and damage caused by climate change, according to the NGO Climate Justice. Julie-Anne Richards says 90 entities account for 63 percent of emissions.

DW: During the ongoing UN climate talks in Bonn (04.-15.06.2014), you put forward a controversal proposal - as laid out in your report " Carbon majors funding loss and damage'".What exactly do you mean by that?

Julie-Anne Richards: Since the Industrial Revolution began, the products of big, largely fossil fuel entities - such as Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell - have been responsible for 63 percent of the world's emissions. So more than half of the emissions in the atmosphere right now are there because of these 90 carbon majors.

These emissions have led to the climate change we are feeling, which is affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people most, through loss and damage. We are talking about extreme impacts like Typhoon Haiyan last year, which killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines, left four million people without houses, caused $2 billion (1.48 billion euros) worth of damage. We propose that these carbon majors - the corporations that have been making profits selling fossil fuels - should pay a levy into the new UN mechanism for Loss and Damage, so that those poor and vulnerable people facing the worst impacts of climate change have funds to deal with those impacts.

What is going to motivate those companies to agree to that?

Our proposal is for an international agreement at government level. There are precedents and examples of this happening in other fields. Take the oil spill regime, for example. Or the scheme to deal with nuclear accidents. We need to apply the best elements of examples happening around the world to climate change and ensure that governments, who already monitor how much coal or gas is extracted so they can charge royalties to these companies, would apply an additional levy that they then pay in to the UN Loss and Damage mechanism.

Is there anything stipulated in international law which would back this up?

Yes, there are a couple of principles in international law we are applying here: the "no harm" and "polluter pays" principle. If you emit pollution that causes harm somewhere else, you should be the one [having] to pay for that.

[But] it doesn't happen in this case. We have the big fossil fuel companies making trillions of dollars in profits, while the harm from their product - climate change - is essentially being paid for by the poorest and most vulnerable. Within international law there are some recommendations as to how to deal with that, which have been applied in these other fields: oil spills, nuclear accidents.

Demonstration in Bonn for a switch in energy policy (photo: B.Arnold/Greenpeace)

NGOs in Bonn are in favor of renewable energy sources and made sure their voices were heard

How have the carbon majors been responding?

We've only just made the idea public. It is a discussion paper, so we are looking forward to lots of people engaging with it. We think it's very important for the idea to be part of the overall climate agreement to be reached in Paris in 2015, so we have a year and a half to work out how it will be embedded in that. We are looking forward to the carbon majors and the fossil fuel corporations engaging with it, but as of yet we haven't had a lot of response from them.

Who supports the move so far?

A range of parties, including a lot of the vulnerable countries. In fact one reason we have the Loss and Damage Agreement that was agreed in Warsaw last year is because [chief negotiator] Yeb Sano from the Philippines made such an impassioned plea about the impacts Typhoon Haiyan had on his country.

Julie-Anne Richards (photo: Irene Quaile)

Richards has presented Climate Justice's working paper at the ongoing UN climate talks in Bonn

So the Philippines are championing the idea. We hope to talk to other countries, which will probably have a range of views about whether the idea is good or bad. We want their ideas on how it might work. We don't have answers to all the questions, we are also talking to NGOs that work in the area.

You are based in Australia, a country feeling impacts from climate change, but that has a government that does not take climate change seriously. How does that affect your message?

The proposal is very relevant to the Australian situation. Our present government is trying to repeal good climate legislation because it is too close to the fossil fuel industry. We want to make it very clear that the fossil fuel industry is the reason we are suffering from climate change, and that poor people are facing the worst impacts.

They have a legal and a moral responsibility to pay for the damages their product is causing. Our proposal is a way to make that work. And by identifying them very clearly as the people who are causing climate change, we hope to drive a wedge between the over-influence the fossil fuel industry has on governments around the world, including the Australian government.

Julie-Anne Richards is an international policy manager with Climate Justice, an Australian-based NGO trying to make the wealthiest economies and companies pay compensations to those who are facing the impacts of climate change.

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