Loss and Damage: The Critical Next Step in Global Climate Action

By Student Delegate Rebecca Kimmel

The United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) brings together the countries of the world to discuss and implement goals for global climate action. Gathering over 200 country representatives in the same room, though, consistently proves easier than uniting them in mindset.

Annual agenda items include adaptation and mitigation measures, as well as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, put forward by each country outlining their individual climate commitments. A new addition to COP conversations is the concept of loss and damage.

COP19 was the first to introduce this notion in the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. The concept highlights the loss and damage arising from the adverse effects of climate change, from extreme weather events to rising sea levels and temperatures, particularly for countries most vulnerable to climate impacts.

As we watch the global environment continue to unravel around us, loss and damage becomes an increasingly necessary addition to the COP’s formal agenda. Egypt, the host country for this year’s COP, has stated its planned efforts to “include compensation for economic losses due to climate catastrophes on the formal agenda.”

As loss and damage dialogue has evolved, the spotlight has turned towards the wealthy and developed countries, who are also historically the highest emitters. In a show of resolve based in necessity, developing and small island nations are directing that spotlight.

“We deserve to live without the looming fear of debt and destruction. Our islands are bearing the heaviest burden of a crisis we did not cause,” said Walton Webson, ambassador to the UN and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States negotiating bloc, ahead of a recent UN General Assembly meeting.

A recent IIED report found that the world’s 46 least developed countries are most at risk of climate-related loss and damage, with Burundi, Somalia and Mozambique in the lead. Lower GDP correlates with higher risk of climate impact. This is why these countries, historically among the lowest emitters, are victims of a crisis they didn’t create. And as such, those countries are demanding compensation from the world’s richest nations, the U.S. among them.

A group of vulnerable nations prepared a paper for discussion at the most recent UN General Assembly demanding urgent financial assistance for loss and damage.

The financial aid these countries propose would come from what they call a “climate-related and justice-based” global tax, whose revenue would flow to the developing world. The options for just what this tax might look like are as varied as they are creative: a global carbon tax, a tax on airline travel, a levy on fuels used by ships, fossil fuel extraction taxes, or a tax on financial transactions. This aid could fund things like infrastructure replacement, construction, and mitigation efforts to help stem future climate impacts.

At first blush, loss and damage may seem economically driven, but one need not look too hard to realize this issue is teeming with human-centered losses, too. One urgent example is displacement. The United Nations Human Rights Committee recently acknowledged the legal protection of “people seeking refuge due to the adverse effects of climate change,” those known as climate refugees.

Island nation dwellers are burdened by the fear that they may be one natural disaster away from becoming climate refugees themselves, forced to leave home in search of safer lands. And where would they go? This is another question the Alliance of Small Island States believes developed countries must answer.

At COP26, just last year, wealthy countries did agree that a framework for loss and damage should exist. This agreement, though, came absent any plan for how it would be funded or who would contribute and was never included in the final agreement produced – the Glasgow Climate Pact.

And look how much has changed in a year: a world very energy-dependent on a volatile political situation in Russia now fears for a winter without energy enough to heat the homes of its people.

What were once non-committal but at least amenable developed countries may reappear at COP27 as self-motivated nations in crisis, looking to meet their domestic needs first.

Climate change, though, pays no mind to the game of international politics or the antics of current events. Seas will continue reclaiming the coasts of island nations and natural disasters will keep leaving developing countries in upheaval. It’s time for developed countries to open not only their wallets but also their borders to the communities most vulnerable to the chaos they have overwhelmingly created.

So, though loss and damage should be permanently added to the COP agenda, the road to get there is inevitably detoured by many looming questions.

Will the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its effect on energy security influence what is expected to be an otherwise uneventful COP?

Will the ongoing devastation from climate disasters – like the flooding in Pakistan and heatwaves experienced by countries in all corners of the world – affect the urgency of the small island nations’ negotiations?

Will another year, full of all the climate change consequences scientists have been warning us about, influence the way developed countries consider their role in loss and damage solutions?

With the parties to COP convening on a continent so vulnerable to climate impacts, there seems no more fitting a time to establish concrete measures to address loss and damage.

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