The US says ‘no’ to climate reparations despite COP27 agreement

John Kerry, the US special climate change envoy, has said that “under no circumstances” will the US pay climate reparations to countries vulnerable to climate change. This has re-stirred conversations about where the responsibility for climate change action lies.
July 27, 2023

Source: BBC

The United States’ commitment to the loss and damage fund may change by COP28

At the House of Representatives foreign affairs oversight subcommittee hearing on the 13th of July, the US special envoy on climate change, John Kerry, said that “under no circumstances” will the US contribute to climate reparations[i]. The climate reparations referred to are those paid into the loss and damage fund agreed upon at the COP27 climate summit last November. The idea behind the fund is that developed nations and other private and public sources like international financial institutions will contribute money to help vulnerable countries facing recurring climate disasters. According to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change[ii]. However, the agreement on the loss and damage fund was unclear on who would pay into the fund and how the money would be distributed.

Who holds the responsibility?

At COP27, the EU and the US demanded that whilst China and other major emerging economies are not initially required to contribute to the fund, they have a financial responsibility as large polluters, and so their contribution to the fund must be renegotiated in the future. Shortly after the hearing on the 13th of July 2023, John Kerry flew to Beijing to speak with Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy on climate change, about the climate crisis. The US and other developed countries also pushed to include a footnote in the COP27 agreement that did not place liability on historic emitters and excluded the idea that countries harmed by disasters should be compensated[iii].

Figure 1: Annual carbon dioxide emissions

Source: Our World in Data

When looking at annual carbon dioxide emissions, China’s contribution to climate change is significant. However, the picture looks quite different when cumulative emissions (historic emissions added to current emissions) are considered.

Figure 2: Cumulative carbon dioxide emissions

Source: Our World in Data

Furthermore, per capita emissions also place the most responsibility on the United States. Per capita emissions are often used in arguments that consumption is the primary driver of climate change rather than population.

Figure 3: Annual carbon dioxide emissions per capita

Source: Our World in Data 

This data has formed the basis of the US Climate Fair Share project’s calculation of how much the United States should be reducing their emissions. The project uses a methodology created by the Climate Equity Reference Project to quantify what individual countries’ share of global climate action should be based on their cumulative emissions and capacity to pay. Accordingly, they argue that by 2030, the US must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 195% below 2005 levels[iv].

Figure 4: Infographic on US fair share emissions targets

Source: The US Climate Fair Share

However, Kerry has previously questioned the United States’ as well as other developed countries’ capacity to pay the loss and damages fund: “You tell me the government in the world that has trillions of dollars, cause that’s what it costs”[v].

Mitigating the impacts of climate change before they happen versus adapting to the effects already in motion

Since 2022, Kerry has made a distinction between the fund, which he views as a humanitarian donation, and the notion of reparations[vi]. He also said that “In all honesty, the most important thing that we can do is stop, mitigate enough that we prevent loss and damage”[vii]. Mitigation is reducing and stabilising greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere rather than adapting to the effects of climate change that will happen. However, the problem is that the impacts of climate change are already happening, which has increased adaptation on the climate agenda. It is estimated that $40bn a year is needed for vulnerable countries to adapt to the effects of climate change that are now inevitable[viii]. The IIED report that in 2025, the US will likely spend $1.4bn in adaptation support despite a $3bn pledge for 2021-2025 and a fair share of $11.6bn[ix].


[i] Independent- John Kerry says US will not Pay Climate Reparations

[ii] IPCC- Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

[iii] ABC- John Kerry says United States will not Pay Reparations to Countries Hit by Climate-Fuelled Disasters

[iv] The US Climate Fair Share

[v] The National News- Cop28: John Kerry says 'no' to US Agreeing to Pay Climate Reparations 

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid 

[viii] IIED- Least Developed Countries get Less than 3% of Money Needed to Transform to Face Climate Change

[ix] IIED- Rich Countries on Track to Give Little More than Half of Climate Adaptation Finance Promised at COP26

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Gemma Drake
Research Analyst

Gemma recently graduated with a degree in International Development. She is currently studying for an MSc in Sustainable Urbanism, which examines urban planning and urban design through a sustainability lens. “I’m passionate about addressing sustainability challenges in a holistic and pragmatic way. Zero Carbon Academy's diverse range of services targets many of the areas that need support if we are to transition to a liveable future. I’m excited to see the impact that the Academy makes.”

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