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COP27 includes ‘loss and damage’ in main agenda: History of, debate around, demand

What is the issue of loss and damage for climate change, why are rich countries resisting the demand, and what efforts have been made on this front so far? After COP27, what is next?

COP27, LOSS and damage, what is loss and damage demand, COP27 news, what you need to know COP27, pakistan floods, express explained, indian expressPoorer nations have made negligible contribution to pollution but are more vulnerable to extreme climate events — for example, the devastating floods in Pakistan recently. (Photo: AP)

The ongoing climate change conference, COP27, made a promising start on Sunday by including the issue of ‘loss and damage’ — as it is referred to in the climate negotiations — in its formal main agenda for the first time ever.

The official COP27 website lists among its targets, “Action to clarify support for loss and damage, with the increasing impacts of more frequent extreme weather events and speeding slow onset events, it is time to respond to the calls and needs for effective mechanism that delivers on the needs for action and support in particular for those who are most vulnerable to the climate change impacts.”

So far, loss and damage had been discussed in a separate channel, with very little progress made on it.

What is the loss and damage issue, why are rich countries resisting it, and what efforts have been made on this front so far?

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What is ‘loss and damage’?

Put simply, “loss and damage” refers to costs the rich and developed countries, who are majorly responsible for industrial emissions that pollute the environment, should pay to poorer nations that have made negligible contribution to pollution but are more vulnerable to extreme climate events — for example, the devastating floods in Pakistan recently.

While the vulnerable countries have been asking for climate damage finance for decades now, the rich countries have resisted it. Also, it is difficult to define and assess damage caused purely due to climate change.

History of the demand

At its heart, the demand for compensation for loss and damage from climate disasters is an extension of the universally acknowledged “Polluter Pays” principle, that makes the polluter liable for paying not just for the cost of remedial action, but also for compensating the victims of environmental damage caused by their actions.

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In the climate change framework, the burden of responsibility falls on those rich countries that have contributed most of the greenhouse gas emissions since 1850, generally considered to be the beginning of the industrial age.
The United States and the European Union, including the UK, account for over 50 per cent of all emissions during this time. If Russia, Canada, Japan, and Australia are included, the combined contribution goes past 65 per cent, or almost two-thirds of all emissions.

Historical responsibility is important because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and it is the cumulative accumulation of this carbon dioxide that causes global warming. A country like India, currently the third largest emitter, accounts for only 3 per cent of historical emissions. China, which is the world’s biggest emitter for over 15 years now, has contributed about 11 per cent to total emissions since 1850.

Warsaw International Mechanism

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 1994 international agreement that lays down the broad principles of the global effort to fight climate change, acknowledges the differentiated responsibility of nations. It makes it clear that rich countries must provide both the finance and the technology to developing nations to help tackle climate change. However, the UNFCCC does not mention loss and damage.

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In 2009, developed countries agreed to provide US$ 100 billion every year from 2020 to help developing nations fight climate change. However, they are struggling to fulfill this promise.

It was after much struggle that developing countries and environment groups managed to establish a separate channel on loss and damages. The Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for Loss and Damages, set up in 2013, was the first formal acknowledgment of the need to compensate developing countries struck by climate disasters.

But WIM was more about kicking the can down the road than any real intention to address the problem. The discussions under WIM focused on enhancing knowledge, strengthening dialogue, and building technical expertise. No money was on offer.

However, the WIM did make some gains. As Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said, the key was to develop frameworks that would not only do justice to the poor countries but would also be realistic enough for the developed world to support.
“One of the first challenges was to show that it was possible to establish the extent to which climate change had contributed to a natural disaster. Attribution science has made remarkable progress in the last few years. In most cases, science can tell us, with fair bit of certainty, whether an event was the cause of climate change, and to what extent,” Singh said.

Why rich countries are resisting this

It is not hard to understand why the developed countries are dead against compensation claims. Loss and damage claims can easily spiral into billions of dollars, or even more. According to a recent report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Efforts (UNOCHA), prepared for the UN General Assembly, annual funding requests related to climate-linked disasters averaged $15.5 billion in the three-year period between 2019 and 2021. The economic loss from cyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh in 2020 has been assessed at $15 billion.

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The report said that the United States alone is estimated to have “inflicted more than $1.9 trillion in damages to other countries” due to its emissions. Then there are non-economic losses as well, including loss of lives, displacement and migration, health impacts, and damage to cultural heritage.

However, a few countries have made small funding commitments for loss and damage. These include Denmark and Scotland, and the Belgian region of Wallonia.

Estimating the quantum of loss

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There are practical difficulties in estimating how much a country has actually suffered due to the actions of others.
There is the step about assessing how much of the losses are due to the event itself, and what could be attributed to misgovernance. For example, the flooding witnessed in Bengaluru recently could, to a large extent, be attributed to poor urban planning, even though a heavy downpour could be the result of climate change.

What now

While including loss and damage into the COP’s formal agenda — instead of the WIM — is a good beginning, it is just the first step. It might be several years before money actually begins to flow in to compensate poorer countries. Also, past record suggests that the quantum of money put on the table for climate change purposes is never commensurate to the requirements.

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Apart from efforts at COP27, a Group of states, including Antigua & Barbuda, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Federated States of Micronesia, Morocco, Mozambique, New Zealand, Portugal, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Uganda, Vanuatu, and Vietnam, are planning to bring a draft resolution in the UN General Assembly in December, requesting an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on climate change.

First published on: 07-11-2022 at 15:10 IST
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