This year, like the past so many, has been defined by unprecedented weather extremes and climate impacts in both scope and scale. According to The Global Climate 2015-19 report published by the World Meteorological organisation, just 88 extreme weather events that occurred in the four-year period had caused 20,400 deaths and economic damages worth a mammoth $672 billion- with losses in Asia and North America accounting for over 80% of that amount. With this sombre backdrop, it was natural that deciding the path forward on addressing the losses and damages of climate impacts was one of the most prominent issues on the table at COP 25 being held in Madrid, Spain. Today, on the last scheduled day of the COP, a decision seems close to being arrived at, ending two weeks of negotiation stalemate. While progress in talks has been welcomed, the draft decision has drawn flak from civil society to failing to address the urgency and scale of the requirements.
Negotiations on how to address the devastations of climate impacts are carried under the auspices of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) which was created in 2013. The mechanism was established under the UNFCCC in acknowledgement of the fact that adverse climate impacts, including slow moving impacts such as sea level rise, are not fully addressed by adaptive measures alone, and require special channels to be addressed. The current round of negotiations surrounding WIM are a part of the first five-year review of the mechanism which is to due to deliver an agreement on how the mechanism is to be governed and financed. Deliberations leading to the decision on loss and damage at COP 25 followed talks that happened earlier this year in Bonn at the intersessional meeting where the terms of reference for the review of the WIM were agreed upon but progress on finance was hindered due to objections from developed nations.
First, the good bits- the long-awaited decision on the formation of a task force to evaluate long-term risks of slow onset events such as sea level rise and the melting of glaciers finally came through. With the passage of the decision, the Executive Committee has now been charged with launching expert groups on slow-onset events and non-economic losses that would include cultural and biodiversity impacts.
Another welcome development on the matter has been the establishment of the Santiago Network as a part of the Warsaw International Mechanism to provide the required technical assistance in for the implementation of relevant approaches of addressing loss and damage due to climate impacts, particularly in developing and vulnerable countries.
“The establishment of an expert group to assess slow onset events and non-economic losses is a welcome step, even if it has come four years after the demand was first raised. Progress on the proposed Santiago network to provide technical assistance to vulnerable countries is also a positive development, at least now we can get out of our chairs,” said Harjeet Singh, XX of Action Aid commenting on the progress in loss and damage negotiations.
But what little relief was brought on by these positive developments dissipates when it comes to assuring the availability of finance to tackle the devastations of climate impacts. Replacement of the phrase “addressing loss and damage” with “averting, minimising and addressing” in the text of the decision has deeper implications than the simple semantics at play, as it relates to the sources and availability of finance. Much to the ire of civil society observers and several developing countries that have long been demanding a separate financial arm to ensure timely financial interventions, the phrasing in the decision text bundles financial requirements to address loss and damage with funds meant for mitigation and adaptation actions. The final decision thus saw the demand for a separate financial entity ignored in favour of including loss and damage finance to the mandate governing existing entities of the financial mechanism such as the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund.
“Unfortunately, in relation to the demand for a separate funding channel towards loss and damage, all we have got is broad statements about needing more money, but no proposal on any concrete system to ensure the same. While there is no new finance on the table, the decision has made do with simply “urging” developed nations to scale up finance. Diverting funds for Loss & Damage from GCF means cutting the same cake into more pieces which would also eat into adaptation finance, exposing more people to climate disasters,” Singh added.
Apart from the usual haggling that mars any negotiation on finance, the added implications of historic responsibilities on loss and damage finance once again left a bitter taste in the mouth. According to sources, the demand for a separate funding channel to address loss and damage was blocked by the US, Canada, the EU and Australia- developed countries with big historical roles in the climate crisis who are mandated to provide financial and technical support to vulnerable and developing countries under the UNFCCC guiding principle of common but differentiated responsibilities according to historical contribution to GHG emissions and climate change. The scenario is almost a replay of what played out in Bonn earlier this year, and indeed several times over the two and a half decades long UNFCCC negotiation process. While developed countries seem to have got their way with no dedicated funding channel mandated in the decision, the question of where funds will actually come from remains unanswered with existing financial entities such as the GCF and the adaptation fund already stretched thin and deemed insufficient for the scale of action required.
“The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is a governing principle for all negotiations. Some countries are asking for greater finance to deal with increasing climate losses, which is a fair demand for them to move forward. But at this moment we have to see how much finance will be needed and where we can get it from,” said Andres Landerretche, coordinator for the COP presidency, while giving an update on the status of negotiations on the final scheduled evening of the conference.
Interference in the process by the US has been a particularly thorny issue. Despite the world’s largest emitter historically being in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the US has been jostling to remain eligible to sit on the governing committee of loss and damage talks to which several developing countries have expressed deep reservations and opposition. According to sources, the US has been holding the loss and damage decision ransom with a proposal that would include a waiver on the liability to mentions of loss and damage in decision texts which would see it excused from bearing any responsibility towards damages inflicted by climate change. Currently, the US is responsible for about a third of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “The US has been a global embarrassment and has been uniquely disappointing despite our low hopes from them. They have played a damaging role in discussions on loss and damage and have attempted to mask their failures with proclamations of ‘other humanitarian aid’. Demands for greater finance is not a demand for compensation or for liabilities- these are red herrings to distract from their right to financial support from developed nations,” said Rachel Cleetus, the policy director with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US.