COP’ing it Part Deux: Tracking #COP19 & Loss and Damage

Last year, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) 18th session in Doha, Qatar, as a student representative of Vermont Law School. It was my first COP and I learned so much “on the job” that cannot be taught in the classroom. I tracked mostly adaptation issues, including the National Adaptation Plans, CDM Appeals Process and “loss and damage.”

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No longer a COP rookie, this year, I am excited to be returning to COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland as a civil society observer. I’ve never been to Poland before, so I am looking forward to meeting new people, enjoying Polish culture, and eating delicious Polish food. On the word side of things, I will continue tracking these same issues. My main focus this year will be tracking “loss and damage,” this work program will deal with many problems associated with climate change, including human rights, climate justice, migration and displacement, and economic harm.

Despite UNFCCC efforts to mitigate carbon emissions, the earth’s temperatures are likely to overtake the internationally-recognized danger threshold of 2 degrees Celsius average increase in temperature, according to the IPCC AR5 Report.  Climate change has already begun to disrupt and destroy livelihoods, particularly in developing countries. The climate disruption socio-economic effects include adverse impacts to health, economic growth, water supplies, agriculture and food security, national security, and climate-forced displacement and migration. In other words, climate change will have “widespread and consequential” impacts. Even the USA is taking notice, as President Obama recently issued an Executive Order to step up US Government’s involvement in climate preparedness and resilience, including food security in America.

A memorable event from COP 18 in Doha was the impassioned plea by lead Philippines negotiator and Commisioner of Philippines Climate Change Commission, Nadarev “Yep” Saño, for Parties, particularly developed countries, to take action on climate change because it is already happening as evidenced by Typhoon Bopha and Hurricane Sandy. Mr. Saño said, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

This year the Philippines has also experienced hearbreak, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded to hit land, just steamrolled through the heart of the Philippines, leaving loss, damage, death and destruction in its wake. Thus, what will happen as States and communities fail to adapt and mitigate to climate change?

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Image by REUTERS/Erik De Castro

The international community is not so sure on how to proceed, but they are making steady progress. As the negotiations for COP 18 concluded, the final outcome document, called the Doha Climate Gateway, established the new workstream on loss and damage, with the possibility of developing a new legal mechanism. However, what exactly does “loss and damage” mean? The international community has not decided. Practitioners, such as Dr. Koko Warner from the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, advocate that “loss and damage” programs will have to operate in conjunction with adaption.

In past UNFCCC COPs and meetings, State Parties and observers, international organizations and civil society groups realized that the lack of ambition of parties to mitigate climate change would only increase climate disruption and adverse impacts to climate change. Thus, the need to address adaptation arose, as decided in the Bali Action Plan. However, mitigation and adaptation only tell a part of the climate change story. At some point, States and communities will not be able to adapt to climate change.

In Harm’s Way (IPCC SREX)

So far, the Parties to COP18 decided to consider “approaches to address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, as part of the Cancun Adaptation Framework (decision 1/CP.16, paragraphs 25-29). The Parties to the UNFCCC agreed that the Convention will have “the important and fundamental role to enable coherent and synergistic approaches.” These “adverse impacts,” defined in the Cancun Agreements decision 1/CP.16, are slow onset events that include sea level rise, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, glacial retreat and related impacts, salinization, land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity and desertification.

Discussions on loss and damage will be focused around three thematic areas: TA1: “Assessing the risk of loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change and current knowledge on the same;” TA 2 “A range of approaches to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including impacts related to extreme weather events and slow onset events, taking into consideration experiences at all levels;” and TA3 “The role of the Convention in enhancing implementation of approaches to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.” Within these thematic areas, negotiators will have to determine a variety of other means on how to deal with adverse impacts to climate change, including risk and disaster management from slow onset and extreme weather events. Additionally, any legal mechanism will have to decide on what are the concepts of “loss,” “damage,” as well as “economic” and “non-economic” losses. Non-ecoomic losses could include issues relating to the rights to culture, right to livelihood, right to identity, right to property, etc. Part of the mechanism will contain financial compensation, which would possibly include climate risk insurance.

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(RTCC via Flickr/Greenpeace Southeast Asia)

At COP19, the international community will have to work together to create a legal mechanism to address loss and damage caused by the adverse impacts caused by climate change. This platform will have to address climate adaptation planning, as well as disaster risk and management (DRR) and human rights in the climate change “loss and damage” context. Whether or not the COP19 outcome decision contains a legal mechanism on loss and damage, the international community will still have to help the most vulnerable communities deal with climate-induced disruption adversely affecting their lives. Importantly, any mechanism on “loss and damage” should include a rights-based approach in order to guarantee the fundamental legal protections.

Please follow me on Twitter at @HeatherCroshaw for real-time updates and comments at #COP19.