Climate change: Here’s how to tell which countries are doing the right thing – Dr Richard Dixon

Smoke fills the sky near Katoomba, Australia. It is estimated that 20 per cent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area has been affected by bushfires. (Picture: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)
Smoke fills the sky near Katoomba, Australia. It is estimated that 20 per cent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area has been affected by bushfires. (Picture: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)
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At the UN climate change summit in Madrid, countries are awarded the ‘Fossil of the Day’ for the worst interventions but can also win a ‘Ray of the Day’ if they writes do something worthwhile, writes Dr Richard Dixon.

One of the bright spots in the hard slog of the annual UN climate conferences is the ceremony to announce the ‘Fossil of the Day’ awards, organised by a network of 1,300 non-government groups and presented at every climate conference for 20 years.

The awards are given to countries or groups of countries which have been particularly obstructive or disingenuous in the climate negotiations. The US has been a recipient many, many times.

In the talks’ rarefied atmosphere, the Fossil of the Day awards are a simple, clear and somewhat humorous message that is popular with the media and delegates alike. There are costumes, flags, skits and a regular appearance by a dinosaur. With journalists looking to justify having been sent to some far-away place they provide great copy if their home country gets a mention.

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But they have a serious purpose and can pile the pressure on countries to behave better. Getting a Fossil of the Day can spark a flurry of communications between capitals and their negotiators, as they try to work out how not to get another one. It is often said the Japanese government is particularly sensitive to being shamed like this at an international meeting. It is possible the current US administration think winning a Fossil of the Day is a sign of success.

Some Rays of sunshine

Occasionally there is a Ray of the Day award – for ray of sunshine – for a country which has done something particularly positive. Not surprisingly, Rays are much rarer than Fossils.

In the first week of the current climate conference in Madrid, the top Fossil recipients have been Australia with three, the US with two, including the special one for worst participant of the week, and Japan with two.

The US won jointly with Russia for trying to weaken rules for giving financial support to vulnerable communities which are hit hard by climate change. These so-called ‘Loss and Damage’ rules go beyond just trying to help countries to adapt to climate change but would instead recognise that some things are already irrevocably lost and many more will be, and that the big polluters should help out.

Australia and Japan also got a dishonourable mention for pushing the idea that communities among the poorest in the world should be taking out insurance against climate damage.

Blame and credit where it’s due

Brazil won a Fossil for the government policies which have seen deforestation in the Amazon return to levels not seen since the 1980s.

Japan got one for refusing to even consider phasing out coal burning, Slovenia for planning to finance more coal burning in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Belgium for being far off track on climate targets.

As unprecedented, disastrous fires burn across Australia, it was given a Fossil for their Prime Minister’s denial there was any connection to climate change and that doing more on climate change would make no difference. Australia is the world’s third largest fossil fuel exporter.

Paradoxically, Australia also won a Ray of the Day, along with a group of other countries, for working to include human rights in the discussions of (potentially disastrous) carbon markets.

In the often baffling, always frustrating and sometimes hopeful atmosphere of the UN climate talks, the Fossil places the blame squarely where it belongs and the Ray gives credit where it is due.

Both fun and serious, the awards are an important weapon in holding countries to account for what they do on climate change.

Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland