by Katie O’Brien & Maria Alejandra Escalante 

What is Loss and Damage?

In the climate negotiations, the focus is often on mitigation and adaptation, but these two alone cannot fully address the impacts of climate change. Some climate change impacts have already been locked in from historical emissions and many countries do not have the capacity to adapt to the oncoming effects, especially the most vulnerable, developing countries. Loss and Damage encompasses how to deal with the adverse impacts of extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the economic and non-economic losses and damages suffered from them, those impacts that cannot be recuperated either through mitigating or adapting.

This is how Loss and Damage looks right now in the Philippines. Photo from the BBC News.
This is how Loss and Damage looks right now in the Philippines. Photo from the BBC News.

 History of Loss and Damage

The issue of Loss and Damage was actually part of the initial negotiations for the  creation of the Convention; the original AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) proposal included a mechanism for an insurance pool that developed countries would pay into for the developing countries most at risk. This mechanism was never created, but the issue of risk (and what would become Loss and Damage) was not forgotten. Article 4.8 of the Convention includes “funding, insurance, and transfer of technology, to meet the specific needs and concerns of developing country Parties arising from the adverse effects of climate change and/or the impact of the implementation of response measures”. 

To follow the history of Loss and Damage, one should look for the terms “risk” or “insurance” in the texts and in titles of workshops and technical papers. From 2003 to 2010 there were a number of workshops and technical papers on impacts and risk assessment and management.

In 2010 at COP16, the Cancun Adaptation Framework was approved. This decision established a work programme to “consider approaches to loss and damage associated with climate change impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change”. This is where we get the language of “extreme weather and slow onset events”. However, the work did not start then as the scope of the work programme was not decided until the next COP17 in Durban. In Durban three thematic areas are set up:

  • Thematic Area I – Risk assessment
  • Thematic Area II – Range of approaches to Loss and Damage
  • Thematic Area III – The role of the Convention

Areas I and II set up expert meetings to happen before COP18. Area II also came out with a technical paper on slow onset events and a literature review of existing information. Area III received submissions from Parties and observers. At COP18 Doha, the work programme was extended in decision 3/CP.18, which set out to produce:

  • An expert meeting to consider future needs to address slow onset events and to prepare a report on slow onset events
  • A technical paper on non-economic losses
  • A technical paper on gaps in existing bodies in and outside of the Convention to address loss and damage

Slow Onset Events

Slow onset events are mentioned in the Cancun Agreements with a footnote saying that these are events “including sea level rise, increasing temperatures, glacial retreat and related impacts, salinization, land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity, and desertification”.

A fair Loss and Damage based on Historical Responsibility and Vulnerabilities

Throughout this past century of industrialization, developed countries carbon emissions have contributed more to climate change than developing countries. Developed countries have a historical responsibility to address the impacts of increasing global temperatures, and the losses and damages associated with them.

Given the current socio-economic, political and environmental context, the countries with more risks of losses and damages due to extreme weather events and slow onset events are developing countries, those which have contributed the least to climate change and those less capable of adapting to its impacts. Since not all countries have equal climate conditions and geographic locations, their vulnerability to certain impacts differs. However, these differences are not the causes of losses and damages and should not be used as an excuse to avoid addressing historical responsibilities on emissions.

The Convention must address the issue on Loss and Damage now, before impacts of climate change escalate. The conversation of Loss and Damage must explicitly revolve around historical emissions and responsibility, be based on the legal obligation of a country to not cause harm to another’s environment and, clearly, on human rights. Talking about Loss and Damage without agreeing on compensation is unfair, and is delaying an urgent action to current and future destructive impacts of climate change on those most vulnerable.

 Last year at COP18 Doha, the youth rallied around the creation of a Loss and Damage mechanism and we allied ourselves with the Philippines delegation, whose home had just been ravaged by Typhoon Bopha. This year we come to COP19 in the wake of a new, world record breaking storm hitting the Philippines, Super Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda. As of today, 10,000 people have perished and the number might keep increasing. Climate change cannot get more real. Super Typhoon Haiyan may be the strongest typhoon ever, in the world, with winds reaching 315 km/h at its peak. The storm has also hit northern Vietnam and China. Typhoons are not the only events to worry about, many other countries are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events (typhoons but also heat waves, droughts, and floods) and the less-visible slow onset events. Those most vulnerable tend to be developing countries, who do not hold historical responsibility. Another example are the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) who are simultaneously facing extreme events such as typhoons, extreme storms and sea level rise that threatens to literally sink their islands, ocean acidification and warming which threaten their marine life and fisheries, and salt water intrusion into their fresh water sources and agricultural land.

What we might see during COP19 Warsaw

One of the big problems is that the Parties with historical responsibility over Loss and Damage (U.S., EU, Canada, Australia, among other developed countries) are not willing to compensate the victims, usually the Global South, less prepared to deal with climate change. Proper compensation will entail a massive transfer of financial resources to cover economic losses, and something, perhaps apart from money, to cover non-economic losses and damages. AOSIS supported by the G77, is pushing for a mechanism that will address compensation. The U.S. and Australia, in particular, deny the possibility of mentioning the word compensation, while Norway, for example, is still trying to figure out what loss and damage really means. In Warsaw, negotiations are probably going to revolve around the creation and implementation of ‘institutional arrangements,’ probably a weak mechanism which includes having more talk shops about the risks and the options to address Loss and Damage, and the role of the Convention on this topic. A real concrete mechanism for compensation most probably would not be agreed in these rooms.

The  message is striking and crude: we must address Loss and Damage now with a strong mechanism because Parties have utterly failed for the past two decades to mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to impacts.

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