After fighting for six years, developing countries have managed to establish this phrase in the climate negotiators’ lexicon. The real struggle comes now

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The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) started with one principle – the need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions so climate change could be controlled.

Within a few years, it was clear that climate change was out of control. Developing countries found they were spending large sums of money to adapt climate change effects – India calculated in 2009 that it had spent 2.5% of its GDP on this in the previous financial year. So developing countries started to press to have adaptation included in UNFCCC negotiations. Despite objections from some developed countries, they succeeded partially. The word started appearing with more and more frequency in UNFCCC documents.

But the developing countries could not take the process far enough. They pushed for the setting up of an Adaptation Fund under UNFCCC control, from which poor countries would get money to help them adapt. The fund is still almost empty.

Meanwhile, it became clear from the middle of the last decade that some climate change effects were too serious to be adapted to. Activists who first brought this to the notice of the world were strengthened by the 2007 report of Intergovernmental; Panel on Climate Change, which predicted a higher frequency of extreme weather events like storms, floods and droughts as a result of climate change. So from the 2007 UNFCCC summit in Bali, activists started to seek a mechanism to compensate poor countries for the loss and damage they would suffer as a result of climate change.

The idea was strenuously opposed, especially by lawyers in developed countries who were afraid that this would lead to a rash of compensation suits under the law of torts. The activists kept pushing their case for five years before government representatives from developing countries took up the issue seriously at the 2012 UNFCCC summit in Doha. It was a major victory for them when it was agreed at the Doha summit that the UNFCCC would set up a mechanism to address loss and damage at the next summit.

With a series of devastating storms preceding the 2013 climate summit in Warsaw, the issue got a lot more traction. Negotiators from developing countries now said it so many words – as a result of climate change effects, their citizens were being forced to relocate, and were losing lives and livelihoods. And these were effects that could not be avoided through mitigation or adaptation.

It may seem a no-brainer that loss and damage have to be addressed and that poor countries need help in this regard – especially from countries that have put most of the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Still, the issue remained a major sticking point.

The move to set up the mechanism developed into a tense stand-off between developed and developing countries, with a group of countries led by the US emphatic that loss and damage be placed under adaptation, saying that the responses to prevent or address “loss and damage” were similar to those for adaptation, such as disaster risk reduction. In the end a mechanism for loss and damage associated with climate change impacts was negotiated in Warsaw, but developing countries had to settle for it being placed under the adaptation umbrella.

A bureaucrat from Nepal – which is right now the chair of the Least Developed Countries group – said, “Can we just call it adaptation if people have to leave areas because they become largely uninhabitable [through drought]? What is the legal status of these people? …we need to investigate the loss and damage beyond what can be adapted to, and figure out solutions.”

The acknowledgement that the “world has gone beyond adaptation and entered an era of loss and damage,” was needed, said Harjeet Singh, ActionAid’s international coordinator for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Placing loss and damage under adaptation “might limit the scope of the mechanism to climate risk management,” he thought. “Early warning systems in disaster risk reduction are not really going to help when your country faces extinction.”

Sven Harmeling, the Climate Change Advocacy Coordinator for the NGO, CARE International, said, “If an island is drowning because of sea level rise… [and] people have to leave their entire homeland unwillingly, the term adaptation is an unacceptable euphemism, in my view.”

On the other hand, Richard Klein of the Stockholm Environment Institute and an author of IPCC Working Group II reports thought it would be “illogical” to keep this issue outside the adaptation umbrella. “Countries drawing up their adaptation plans would have to consider possible or unavoidable loss and damage, so it would be a better fit where it has been placed now. Creating another UNFCCC pillar would be confusing.”

Talks on the proposed new climate treaty that is to come into effect in 2020 have already listed five pillars: mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology and transparency.
Koko Warner, a scientist with the UN University in Bonn and another IPCC Working Group II author, said the mechanism hammered out “creates a legitimate policy space to discuss what happens if what we are doing on mitigation and adaptation is not enough, and what do we do to help vulnerable people who are already feeling the negative consequences of climate change.”

Can poor countries sue rich countries for loss and damage? Klein said, “One of the tricky aspects here is attribution. But the extent to which loss and damage occurs also depends on a country’s own level of preparedness. If the country affected hasn’t done all it could to reduce vulnerability… there is a domestic responsibility to avoiding loss and damage as well as an international responsibility… things [could get] quite ugly if the responsibility to avoid loss and damage, or to compensate for it, became a legal issue.”

Singh said, “Instead of worrying about compensation and liability, rich nations must start delivering on their commitments to reduce emissions and provide support for adaptation to poor nations.”

The three months since the Warsaw summit have been taken up by arguments between governments about who should be on the international mechanism’s executive committee, how the mechanism should operate, and what its work plan should include. The interim executive committee is supposed to hold its first meeting this March. Nobody expects a quick solution, and it is hoped that the 2014 UNFCCC summit will be able to finalize the governance structure. After that, the Warsaw mechanism will be up for review in 2016, and no one knows if it will survive beyond that, or will have any teeth.

Since the main problem that rich countries have with the concept of loss and damage is fear of compensation lawsuits, think tanks such as the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) have promoted ideas such as a fund similar to a global ‘no fault’ insurance scheme, and regional and global solidarity funds. There is a model available – the European Union Solidarity Fund that helps member states struck by major natural disasters.

Loss and damage induced by climate change effects will not fade away. There are diminishing prospects that the world will be able to reach an agreement by the next milestone – the 2015 climate summit in Paris – by which average temperature rise can be kept within two degrees Celsius. So there will be more losses, more damages, and this will become an increasingly high-priority agenda item in international climate change negotiations.

With inputs from IRIN and FIELD

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