Why loss and damage is the 'most politically contentious issue' in climate negotiations

A view of the action hub at the COP 26 venue in Glasgow. Photo: Sibi Arasu

Why loss and damage is the 'most politically contentious issue' in climate negotiations

At the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, Scotland has pledged £1 million ($1.4 million) to support the victims of climate disasters, becoming the first government to demarcate funds to compensate for loss and damage caused by climate change for vulnerable countries in the global south.

Even though the amount is relatively small, it is being seen as a big step. “While the Scottish government’s pledge is symbolic since the amount is small when compared to the costs of disasters in billions of dollars a year, it broke the taboo that many rich countries have when it comes to providing loss-and-damage finance,” Harjeet Singh, a senior adviser at Climate Action Network - International, told Devex.

Currently, the compensation and rehabilitation burden for the lives lost and the damage done due to human-induced climate change rests mostly within the realm of national governments. In the absence of concrete policy, many fear that this will soon become an untenable situation for nations to deal with on their own.

A lack of progress so far on this issue at the 26th conference of the parties runs the risk of jeopardising other wins, experts say. “The frustration we are feeling, and this shift of burden onto poor countries, is definitely not helping the negotiations process,” Alpha Oumar Kaloga, a negotiator for Guinea, told Devex.

Guinea belongs to and currently holds the chairmanship of the Group of 77 and China negotiating bloc. “While climate action in terms of mitigation such as cutting emissions is extremely important, if progress does not happen on loss and damage, it will overshadow any other success that is witnessed at the COP. It is an all-encompassing issue,” Kaloga added.

Accountability versus denial

The need to provide finance for loss and damage under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was first raised by the Alliance of Small Island States. AOSIS had proposed that the financial burden of loss and damage be distributed in an equitable manner among the industrialised, higher-income countries. But since then, any real progress on the issue has also been accompanied by setbacks.

Two great progressions on loss and damage were the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage in 2013 and the decision to set up a Santiago Network for loss and damage during COP 25. There have also been some significant steps backward; at the 2015 Paris Agreement negotiations, Article 8 — which focuses on climate change-induced loss and damage — was rewritten to say that it “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, said the reason for this “taboo” and reluctance is apparent. “Everyone knows that rich countries are afraid of making themselves open to liability and compensation. Even the term ‘loss and damage’ is, in fact, a euphemism for liabilities and compensation. They refuse to address this issue,” he said.

According to a recent paper on the issue released by the Stockholm Environment Institute, or SEI, the term “loss and damage” itself is not formally defined within the climate policy architecture, and different groups have interpreted and operationalised the term as it fits with their own agendas.

At this year’s COP, too, the reluctance is palpable. “We cannot accept anything we can’t see; we can’t accept any addition from our colleagues on the text without looking at it,” said a negotiator from a higher-income country during one of the informal sessions to finalise a document on the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage before it is sent to the various countries’ ministers and negotiators. They will then have to work out the details in COP 26’s final week.

The WIM and the Santiago Network that is part of this mechanism will effectively decide the path for the world to follow when assisting those affected by disasters attributed to human-induced climate change — both financially as well as logistically.

Breaking the deadlock

Ahead of COP26, civil society organisations, young climate activists, and some negotiators from the global south went into overdrive to bring the issue of loss and damage to centrestage.

On Oct. 26, an open letter to Alok Sharma, the COP 26 president, and other heads of states and delegates was published by the Loss and Damage Collaboration. The letter had more than 300 groups as signatories and asked for concrete measures to be taken on the issue. SEI has also released its paper on building a fair and feasible finance mechanism for loss and damage.

“Practical, pragmatic solutions exist for loss and damage finance that don’t politicise the issue and instead focus on the needs of vulnerable countries and communities,” Zoha Shawoo, an associate scientist in SEI’s U.S. center and the lead author of the paper, told Devex in an email.

The SEI paper states that finance related to loss and damage can be mobilised “on the basis of solidarity, accounting for local needs, historical responsibility and the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and the well-established notion of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.’”

“Providing finance on the basis of solidarity and in line with already established principles of historical responsibility underpinning the Paris Agreement enables us to make real, concrete progress right away,” Shawoo said.

With these concrete measures laid out on the table and a concerted push by various stakeholders, the issue of loss and damage is proving to be a critical friction point in an already tension-ridden COP.

“It’s absolutely a make-or-break issue. We had drawn a red line for loss and damage. The story of this issue so far is about climate injustice,” Sadie DeCoste of the Loss and Damage Youth Coalition told Devex. “If you continue to neglect loss and damage, even if you are increasing mitigation ambition, you are denying the dignity of the world’s poorest people who are currently experiencing and are struggling to survive the impact of human-induced climate change. Now is the time for action.”

Huq agreed. “It doesn’t matter what you profess to do 30-40 years later through your net-zero goals. [The issue of] loss and damage asks the question: What are you doing today? No matter what happens at the rest of the COP, if there is no progress on loss and damage, civil society and young climate activists will consider [the conference in] Glasgow a failure.”

This story was originally published in Devex on November 8, 2021. It was produced as part of the 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.

Banner image: A view of the action hub at the COP26 venue in Glasgow / Credit: Sibi Arasu.

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