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A call for accountability

  • Published at 12:00 am December 10th, 2019
Climate change-COP25
Photo: REUTERS

Demystifying loss and damage in the climate change regime

The idea of loss and damage comes into play when coping with the impacts of climate change -- Adaptation, and reduction of greenhouse gases -- mitigation are no solution to address the impacts of climate change.

To make it clearer, sea-level rise induced salinity intrusion in many parts of coastal Bangladesh has made agriculture impossible. 

Clearly, mitigating climate change by reducing the Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emission will not desalinate the lands.

Development of salt-tolerant crop varieties, a form of adaptation, will not solve the problem because there is a limit to the level of salinity they can withstand. 

Furthermore, how do you deal with the loss of a sense of place when a farmer’s family is forced to migrate to an informal settlement in Dhaka in quest of new means of living as their lands are no more arable?

Loss and damage conceptually has been in the discussions around the international climate change regime since its inception in the early nineties. Vanuatu -- a member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), on the group’s behalf proposed the establishment of an international insurance pool, in 1991, during the negotiation which would result in adoption of the UNFCCC the following year.

The proposed insurance pool with contributions from the industrialized nations calculated, based on a modality drawn from the “Brussels Supplementary Convention on Third Party Liability in the field of Nuclear Energy 1963,” would insure the island nations and the low-lying developing nations against the loss and damage resulting from sea-level rise.

In the end, no international insurance pool as proposed by Vanuatu was established under the convention. However, the plea did not end in smoke. The UNFCCC referred to the insurance in its article 4.8 as an action that may be necessary “to meet the specific needs and concerns of developing country parties arising from the adverse effects of climate change.”

Loss and damage appeared explicitly for the first time in the Bali Action Plan, during the 13th session of the UN climate change conference (COP13) in 2007, when consideration of the means to address the issue was launched. After more than two decades of Vanuatu’s proposal, loss and damage anchored in the UNFCCC’s architecture through the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism for loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM) in 2013.

The issue has always been highly controversial in climate negotiations. Because it is a matter of survival for them, the Island Nations and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have been at the frontline pushing for its recognition at the international level. In 2014, Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean purchased land in Fiji, located 2,147 km away from it, because sea-level rise may require its 116,000 citizens to relocate.

But relocation, if it becomes inevitable, will be a daunting task that the government of this small economy with a GDP of only $188 million will not be able to undertake with its domestic resources. Our South Asian neighbour Maldives also has a similar plan.

On the other hand, industrialized countries have never been comfortable in bringing the issue of loss and damage to the international policy discourse. The reason is obvious, they have become “developed” by emitting GHGs. But, the poor countries like Kiribati, whose share of GHG emissions is almost invisible in the historical emissions pie-chart, are the ones bearing the brunt. Now, if the latter claims compensation for that, that is a legitimate one in a hypothetical just world. 

The discomfort of the developed countries with loss and damage is because acknowledging the liability for causing climate change would naturally entail the point of compensating for the loss and damage the vulnerable countries have been facing.

After a tug of war between the developing and the developed country parties that lasted until the last minute of negotiations, a stand-alone article on loss and damage was incorporated in the Paris Agreement. However, paragraph 51 of the decision adopting the agreement rules out any provision of getting compensation, stating that it does not form the basis for any liability. 

Developed country parties’ stance echoed through the then US Secretary of States, John Kerry’s statement that inclusion of loss and damage as a basis for liability and compensation in the Paris Agreement would “kill the deal.”

In the pre-Paris Agreement period, loss and damage was subsumed under adaptation. Apart from being conceptually distinct, developing countries wanted it separated also because nesting it under adaptation would crowd out the already insufficient funds available for adaptation. Skeptics might argue that emphasis on loss and damage is the developing countries’ ploy to claim more money from their developed counterparts.

It is not.

If it was, Kiribati would not have purchased land with its own money, Bangladesh would not want to establish a National Mechanism on Loss and Damage with its domestic resources.    

Progress on the specifics to address loss and damage at the international policy level is elusive. No international financial mechanism for addressing loss and damage is in place. Discussion on insurance as a measure for addressing loss and damage is not going on in a way AOSIS envisaged in 1991. All other noted measures are also ex-ante palliatives for avoiding loss and damage.

With the terms of reference for reviewing the WIM agreed in Bonn Climate Conference in June this year, all eyes are on COP25 now on the loss and damage negotiation. Bangladesh, as a member of LDC group, are looking forward to concrete outcomes from the review, particularly, in regard to establishing a finance mechanism.

Md Fahad Hossain is a former National Adaptation Plans and Policy intern at the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat (UNFCCC) and currently works at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).