India sides with rich nations on climate damage compensation

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The Third Pole, Delhi, India

Indian environmentalists cannot understand why their government is not making common cause with the developing world on the crucial issue of climate damage compensation

Typhoon Haiyan has devastated large parts of The Philippines. Its government is seeking compensation from rich nations for the loss and damage. A cyclone has killed over 300 in the Horn of Africa. The governments there are following the Philippines’ lead.  India, however, is walking another track. Though flash floods in Uttarakhand have killed thousands in northern India and Cyclone Phailin has caused damage worth billions of dollars in the east of the country, the Indian government is not seeking any compensation for the loss and damage.

Indian environmentalists gathered at the ongoing UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) summit at Poland’s capital Warsaw cannot understand why.

“India, which has faced two mega climate disasters in the last few months –Uttarakhand disaster and Phailin in Orissa – and perhaps suffered greater impacts (than the Philippines), has so far failed to even raise the issue in the Warsaw meeting,” Chandra Bhushan of the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment pointed out.

Typhoon Haiyan occurred the week before the summit, the death toll has crossed 4,000 and is still going up, the financial cost is still being counted. As a result, loss and damage was very much in focus during the first week of the November 11-22 summit. A senior member of the Philippines government delegation not only came to tears when describing his country’s plight, he is still on hunger strike over the issue.

In contrast, all that an Indian government delegate could say was that they would “not go beyond what has been stated in the cabinet note regarding loss and damage.” It says compensation for loss and damage should come under the Green Climate Fund(GCF), which is meant for all forms of combat against climate change and its effects. The fund hardly has any money anyway.

India’s stand pits it against the rest of the developing world, and on the side of rich nations led by the US, which has long opposed any formal talk on loss and damage, fearing that it will lead to legal compensation claims. Despite that opposition, at the 2012 climate summit in Doha poor nations brought the question of loss and damage on the climate agenda. They pointed out that much of the UNFCCC negotiations had been concentrated on mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while climate change gathered pace. That was why developing countries had earlier introduced the question of adaptation to climate change effects into the negotiations. Since last year, most developing countries have been insisting the loss and damage caused by global warming is beyond their capacity to adapt to, so they must be compensated by rich countries that have placed most of the GHG in the atmosphere today.

Scientists say they cannot ascribe individual storms or floods to climate change. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did say in its latest report this September that climate change makes storms more intense. Typhoon Haiyan packed peak wind speeds of 315 km per hour, the highest recorded on land. Cyclone Phailin crossed the 200 km per hour mark.

In this scenario, Indian environmentalists watching the Warsaw summit cannot understand why their government has chosen to make common cause with rich countries instead of the developing world. “All these (developing) countries have been demanding a separate institutional process under UNFCCC for loss and damage; while developed countries led by United States want it to come under already existing climate funds,” said Sanjay Vashisht of Climate Action Network South Asia, an umbrella group of many green NGOs.

Harjeet Singh, an activist with ActionAid India, has been struggling for years to place loss and damage on the UNFCCC agenda. He said, “India’s position can put it in a lone zone. Firstly loss and damage is all about already incurred damages and hence beyond adaptation; and secondly if it comes under existing climate funds then it will have to compete with already earmarked funds.”

GCF is supposed to have US$100 billion a year from 2020, but at the moment it has just about enough for its office and a small secretariat. There is no clarity on how much money it will have between now and 2020.

India’s stance at Warsaw is in line with its long-held position that it does not need outside help to deal with natural disasters. On top of that, its bureaucrats struggle with conflicting orders on whether to project the country as developing, or an emerging economy that needs no help.

“Be it in Copenhagen or Durban (during earlier climate summits), India has all along been found to be ineffective with its negotiation position and always seems to be one step backward than required. It seems that history is going to be repeated in Warsaw,” observed an analyst. “India’s negotiation generally gets tangled in two opposing pulls; though on one side it needs (a) lot of support for reconstruction (after disasters), on the other it does not want to take global support for such disasters since it wants to be tagged as an emerging economy,” explained another.

Other emerging economies – notably China – are however making common cause with the developing world in this case.

NGOs are demanding a separate institutional structure for loss and damage, which should start working by the end of 2015. Green NGOs ActionAidCARE and WWFhave recently come out a report, Tackling the Climate Reality, that provides a framework for the institution.