McMaster expert puts climate justice at the centre of the conversation at COP28 

A stylized image of Bonny Ibhawoh in a suit outside a plaza in Dubai with COP28 banners.

Vice-Provost and UN expert Bonny Ibhawoh is at the massive global climate summit to talk about the need to ensure vulnerable communities are equitably treated when it comes to the impact of climate change and mitigation. (Graphic by Kayla da Silva)

Bonny Ibhawoh, McMaster’s vice-provost (International) is at COP28, a two-week international conference on climate change, to present his work on climate justice as a United Nations expert on human rights, and to forge stronger bonds and partnerships with other institutions.

On the first day of the massive annual summit, state delegates agreed to contribute money to a fund to help compensate vulnerable countries coping with loss and damage caused by climate change — a significant breakthrough in the global response to the climate crisis, Ibhawoh notes.

Ibhawoh is the Chair-Rapporteur of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Right to Development.

He spoke with us from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where he, along with DeGroote School of Business Dean Khaled Hassanein and about 90,000 registered attendees, are at this year’s conference.

On his dual role 

I’m here as a UN observer in my capacity as a UN expert on development, which is the UN-managed site at the conference, open to accredited party and observer delegates.

I come as someone who wants to present findings but also hear from others who are on the ground — it’s very important to me.

I’m doing a report due in a year or two on climate justice and what is called the Just Transition for the United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHCR). As part of that, I do a call for input and I’m trying to balance it, so I hear from not only states, but also civil society groups, NGOs, indigenous groups, the private sector and others. They’re all here at COP28, so this is an ideal place to talk to many people in one place.

I am also here representing McMaster University as Vice-Provost (International). I will be meeting with senior leaders from other universities who are here at COP to share ideas on sustainability and Sustainable Development Goals. Dean Hassanein of the DeGroote School of Business is also here and together, we are visiting several universities in the region to explore research partnerships and student exchange opportunities.

On his work on Climate Justice 

There have been many actions and initiatives to address climate change, rising emissions, pollution and other issues. But not enough attention has been paid to the uneven impacts on societies around the world.

My presentation is on climate justice, which is the fair and equitable distribution of the burdens and benefits of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In other words, climate justice recognizes that vulnerable communities — especially in developing countries — bear the brunt of climate impacts despite contributing minimally to greenhouse gas emissions. I argue that global climate mitigation interventions such as climate financing must account for these disparities.

For instance, Africa contributes about 3 per cent of global emissions, but is tremendously affected by climate change. Things like this are not unknown, but they been a footnote. I want to put it at the centre of the conversation.

I always emphasize that it’s not a blame game, but it is a global problem, and to get all parts of the world equally invested, there has to be evidence that the burdens and benefits of the mitigation plans are equitably shared.

If you want to achieve climate justice, it has to be part of larger policy decisions: Political, economic development, financial, global trade — it’s everything.

On the Just Transition 

Another aspect is the Just Transition, which involves moving away from fossil fuels in a way that is fair and just to those whose lives and economies have depended on them — coal miners, for instance.

Some of the people most interested in my work are not from global south; they are workers from the global north who work in fossil fuel industries and see their opportunities dwindling. So this is a global problem, with global ramifications, and we all have to work at it.

There are many perspectives on what constitutes a Just Transition. My task is really to account for all these perspectives. My report in a few years will end with a set of recommendations for best practices to achieve climate justice, and I look forward to providing those.

On what sets COP summits apart 

COP is unique in the way academic and global policy work converge at such a global level. Politicians and leaders make policy decisions, but you need social scientists, scientists and other researchers to inform those decisions. Many countries come here with academics as part of their delegations.

And this year, on the first day, they made a big commitment to a global fund. This has been a long-standing demand of developing nations impacted by climate change and coping with the cost of the devastation caused by extreme weather events such as drought, floods and rising seas. A total contribution totaling around $400 million was announced, fulfilling a long overdue commitment.

It tells me that politicians and leaders are listening. They can feel the pulse of their citizens and communities and it is encouragement to anyone who doubts this work or questions whether an impact can be made.

On academia and COP28 

Engagement at COP provides a unique opportunity for researchers to communicate their knowledge to a diverse and global audience of policymakers, activists and private sector actors.

It also offers an opportunity for academics to understand the key questions and global challenges this audience faces, guiding the direction of our research to make our work more impactful with real-world significance.

One takeaway for students from COP28 

Students can make an impact with their research and advocacy. Much of the progress that I have seen at COP over the years has been the result of the campaigns and advocacy by citizens and young people, including students who have raised awareness of the climate crisis and conducted research that provides solutions. Research and advocacy from citizens and civil society organizations have pushed governments to take the concrete steps we see at COP28.

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