- The success of the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow will be judged largely on how it acts on the issue of irreparable loss and damage due to climate disasters and slow onset events like sea-level rise.
- Vulnerable nations and communities urgently need finance to support their recovery from the adverse impacts of climate change in addition to the funding required for mitigation and adaptation activities.
- Rich nations are reluctant to accept responsibility for loss and damage but that must change if the annual climate talks are to retain any credibility, said activists and experts.
As the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow nears its end and negotiators wrangle over the minutiae of the proposed consensus document, pressure is mounting on them to act on loss and damage brought on by the impacts of climate change.
Impatience at the glacial pace of progress at the annual UN summits for the past quarter-century has placed the credibility of the negotiations at the Glasgow on the dock, experts said. Trust between nations, organisations, corporations, NGOs, and activists has become hard to find. The mistrust runs so deep that each new initiative at the 26th edition of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (CoP26) in Glasgow is dismissed as soon as it’s announced.
In such a scenario, the success of the conference will depend on the action promised on climate finance, experts and activists said. The summit will also be judged on how it addresses the urgent issue of loss and damage, which is defined as the impacts of climate change that were not averted or minimised through adaptation and mitigation measures.
Unavoidable climate-related disasters, such as severe cyclones and recurrent floods in India and Bangladesh, have already disproportionately affected some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, which are typically some of the least responsible for the catastrophes.
Vulnerable countries and communities urgently need finance to support their recovery, protect human rights and development gains, and prepare for future displacement and livelihood losses, experts said.
There is a need to break the stalemate on international loss and damage support and what can be done to shore up higher-income countries’ responsibilities, according to an October report of the Stockholm Environment Institute.
At Glasgow, “countries can take a first step by pledging bilateral finance for loss and damage,” the research institute said. “Given the scale of global needs, a formal, dedicated loss and damage finance mechanism should remain the long-term goal.”
Loss and damage at COP26
Although loss and damage is explicitly mentioned in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, it has never been on the official agenda of the negotiations at the annual climate conferences, said Saleemul Huq, director at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh. “It is heartening that the issue is been for the first time talked about seriously at COP26,” he said. “But much more needs to be done.”
Countries in South Asia are among the most vulnerable globally to the impacts of climate change, according to the Climate Risk Index developed by Germanwatch. It is the poorer nations that are most affected in its long-term index, as eight of the 10 countries most affected in the past two decades are developing economies, the Berlin-based environmental organisation said in its 2021 report.
India was ranked as the seventh most affected country due to extreme weather events that result in loss and damage. In 2019, massive floods due to excessive rainfall during the monsoon season claimed 1,800 lives across 14 states and led to the displacement of as many as 1.8 million people. Overall, 11.8 million people were affected, with economic damage estimated at around USD 10 billion.
South Asia has been affected by severe tropical cyclones in the recent past. For instance, in 2019, there were eight cyclones in the region, six of which intensified to what weather offices termed as “very severe.” The worst was Cyclone Fani, which in May 2019 affected 28 million people, killing 90 in India and Bangladesh, and causing losses worth USD 8.1 billion, Germanwatch said. Bangladesh is ranked seventh in its long-term risk index.
“As extreme events like tropical cyclones are likely to increase in quantity and severity with ongoing climate change, it is extremely important that more emphasis be put on the issue of loss and damage,” Germanwatch said in its latest report.
For many developing countries, delivery on loss and damage finance will be a key indicator of COP26’s success. The demand is getting louder in Glasgow. “Where is the support to help people forced to pick up the pieces after climate disasters?” asked Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator at ActionAid International, an international NGO. “Where is the action to meet all this talk of urgency?”
Millions of people in vulnerable countries in Africa and Asia are already suffering irreparable loss and damage not only due to extreme weather events but also the slow-onset phenomenon like sea-level rise. “There is very little (at the climate talks) on the key demands of vulnerable countries,” said Mohamed Adow, director at Powershift Africa, a Nairobi-based think tank. “The discussions are very fuzzy and vague on helping these countries adapt to climate impacts and deal with the permanent losses and damage.”
Demanding finance for loss and damage
A group of over 300 NGOs has written an open letter to world leaders, demanding finance for loss and damage. The projected economic cost of loss and damage by 2030 is estimated to be between USD 290 and USD 580 billion in developing countries alone, they said.
“Scaled up finance at a level commensurate with the need is therefore essential for vulnerable countries and communities to recover from the climate impacts they are already facing to rebuild their livelihoods and economies,” the letter said.
Rich nations are jumpy on the issue of loss and damage, and they are often seen as reluctant to make any commitments because they do not want to accept liability and risk being sued later by those affected. Poorer countries, on the other hand, say that the developed world is mainly responsible for the impacts as their historical emissions have resulted in climate change.
The collective has demanded that negotiators at COP26 must provide for sufficient and needs-based loss and damage finance, which will have to be in addition to the USD 100 billion per year committed for mitigation and adaptation. The earlier commitment has already been delayed by three years.
It has asked for a process to identify the scale of funding needed to address loss and damage, as well as suitable mechanisms to deliver the money to developing countries. There is also a need for developing national-level systems to distribute loss and damage finance.
“This delivery system that we’re asking for is similar to social protection measures like compensations paid to families in the event of loss due to natural disasters that are already in place in many countries such as India, although they need to be strengthened to ensure transparency and equity,” said Harjeet Singh, senior advisor to the Climate Action Network International, a platform of civil society organisations that is a signatory to the open letter.
The red lines at the COP26 climate talks are therefore quite clear. “If developed countries don’t put their money where their mouths are, then this is all just hot air,” argued Agnes Hall, spokesperson for 350.org, a US-based advocacy group. “It is critical for countries if they are to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change that we see significant movement on finance.”
Banner image: For people living at the edge of the sea in the Sundarbans in India and Bangladesh, sea level rise is an alarming reality. Photo by Soumya Sarkar.