After a decade of disagreement, countries have finally agreed to discuss who pays for the losses caused by extreme weather events.
It’s an issue that had divided diplomats — the big polluters ever too nervous to take responsibility for the damage caused to communities by climate change, but at the ongoing COP27 at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, participants will be able to discuss the so-called “Loss and Damage.”
“Loss and Damage is about payments or compensation or reparation, and it is the liability of polluters,” said Sunita Narain, Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
It refers to the irreversible economic and non-economic costs triggered by such extreme weather events like hurricanes, drought, heat waves, sea level rise as well as floods.
Narran said it is about holding big polluters to account for the pain and anguish climate change has caused communities where livelihoods have been destroyed, lives lost, agricultural lands swept away, whole cultures lost, and irreversible damage caused to people’s identity, sovereignty, biodiversity, and psychological wellbeing.
The breakthrough in Sharm El Sheikh was made after two days of intense negotiations.
Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s Foreign Minister who on Sunday took up his position as the COP27 President welcomed the breakthrough, saying it reflected the empathy the international community now feels for the poor, very often those most affected by the devastating effects of climate change.
“This creates for the first time an institutionally stable space on the formal agenda of the COP and the Paris Agreement to discuss the pressing issue of funding arrangements needed to deal with existing gaps in responding to Loss and Damage,” Shoukry said. “Inclusion of this agenda reflects a sense of solidarity and empathy with the suffering of the victims of climate-induced disasters.”
The numbers on such suffering are staggering. According to Akshit Sangomba of Down to Earth, at least 10,000 people died from extreme weather conditions in the first nine months of 2022. In Pakistan, floods left a third of the country under water and killed about 1,700 people. In Nigeria, floods killed over 600 people last month, destroyed more than 200,000 homes and forced more than 1.5 million people from their homes. And in neighboring Cameroon, over 20,000 homes were destroyed by floodwaters.
In East Africa, at least 50 million people will face acute food insecurity, according to the United Nations.
“So broadly stated, approximately 560,000 women and children are displaced in search of water, food and pasture,” said Atsu Andre Agbogan, the Eastern Africa Regional Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in an interview with Timescape Magazine.
“It’s not only drought that forces displacement, but South Sudan had also its worst desert locust invasion that spread across East Africa, destroying yields of smallholder farmers’ crops, [which] coupled with water scarcity, displaced millions of people – substantially reducing smallholder farmers’ economic growth, leaving them insulated and isolated from climate resilience measures,” he added.
It is difficult to estimate the global cost of the damage caused by climate change, but Sangomba told Timescape Magazine that the 11,000 documented climate-related disasters that took place between 1970-2019 which left 2 million people dead have triggered losses estimated at $3.6 trillion.
Researchers at the Basque Center in Spain estimate climate-triggered annual Loss and Damage will be anywhere between $290 billion to $580 billion by 2030.
Akshit said these figures are quite conservative because they do not include non-economic losses like the loss of cultures, language, coral reefs, and biodiversity.
Despite these dire figures and in spite of the inclusion of the ‘Loss and Damage’ issue on the COP27 agenda, there are concerns about how developing countries should best frame the discussions, understanding that the big polluters will not want to accept liability for the damage caused.
Sunita Narrain believes it’s time for those who bear the brunt of climate change not to couch their language in diplomatic finesse.
“We have been too timid on what should be the right framing of the argument, which is why we allowed the Paris Agreement to happen, which is why we have allowed so much that is wrong to happen when it comes to climate negotiations,” she said.
“This time, developing countries must go with a clearer view, which is to prepare to call a spade a spade. We need to debate it as a matter of reparation. I think it’s very important for developing countries to assert this principle, otherwise, it would all become charity,” she explained.
The question of Loss and Damage only adds to the mounting number of issues to be discussed in Sharm El Sheikh. The about 50,000 registered delegates will over the course of two weeks also discuss issues related to climate finance, adaptation, mitigation, and issues of ‘just transition’ to clean growth.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published by Timescape Magazine on 7 November 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: The COP27 Blue Zone in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt / Credit: Killian Chimtom Ngala.