Loss and damage: What next for the “Russian Doll” of climate change action?

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Developing countries were deeply disappointed that proposals for a ‘Glasgow Facility’ to help them cope with the devastating effects of loss and damage caused by climate change were dropped. The road to COP27 needs to make significant headway on this thorny issue – which has made little substantial progress since 2013. 

Why have small island developing states (SIDS) and other countries at the frontlines of climate change pushed so hard to get this far? What were the key disputes over loss and damage at COP26? And what needs to happen next? 

What is “loss and damage” in the UN climate negotiations?

Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to climate change are being outpaced by the speed and scale of impacts. From the melting of Arctic ice to salinisation in the Bay of Bengal, the devastating impacts of climate change are already here. In 2017, the tiny island of Dominica was hit by the strongest tropical cyclone on record in the Atlantic, wiping out assets worth 226% of GDP. Every year when hurricane season comes around, islanders are terrified of another Hurricane Maria – or worse. And they may be right – the latest IPCC report warns that the next 20 years will see global temperatures reaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels leading to more intense tropical cyclones.

Within the climate negotiations, ‘Loss and Damage’ (L&D) refers to the effects of climate change where adaptation is insufficient or no longer possible. Indeed, we may already be moving into what Prof Saleemul Huq calls the ‘third era’ of climate action, when neither mitigation or adaptation will be enough to prevent human suffering, loss of livelihoods, homes and cultural heritage.

Why was loss and damage a key issue at COP26?

Loss and damage was integrated into the climate accords at COP19 in 2013, when the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) was set up to enhance ‘understanding, action and support’ on a range of measures for ‘averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse impacts of climate chance’ – from early warning systems to risk insurance. But support does not constitute a financial commitment and there has been little progress on loss and damage financing within the UNFCCC system since.

The UK President laid some groundwork before COP26, adding; ‘Loss and Damage’ to the title of the ‘Adaptation Day’, hosting a Presidency event promoting dialogue on loss and damage, and releasing a discussion paper setting out a range of measures for dealing with loss and damage.

In the opening COP26 plenary, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley underscored the plight of small island developing states, noting that “failure to provide enough critical funding to small island nations is measured in lives and livelihoods in our communities. This is immoral, and it is unjust”. Loss and damage has become a rallying call of activists seeking climate justice for the actions of wealthy, polluting nations that will have devastating consequences for young people and future generations in small islands and poorer countries.

Barbados PM Mia Motely addressing COP26 climate change meeting in Glasgow in November 2021. Credit: Thomas Tanner

Between the speeches at the World Leaders’ Summit, demands from protestors at the gates of the COP26 venue and the insistence of negotiators from the SIDS and LDCs, L&D moved even further up the agenda at COP26.

What progress has been made on loss and damage at COP26?

External funding pledges were made to address L&D during COP26 from the Scottish government, a group of philanthropists and a Belgian regional government. These pledges are relatively small but significant in two ways: firstly, they break the resistance of the richer nations to explicitly pledge money to tackle loss and damage in poorer nations; and secondly, their operationalisation bypasses the UN system completely. 

"We can lead by example" says Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on pledging £1million to tackle Loss and Damage caused by climate change. Credit: Scottish government on Flikr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/scottishgovernment/51628571680

Another ‘win’ for developing countries was the agreement reached on the functions of the newly established Santiago Network on Loss and Damage. The Santiago Network will coordinate technical assistance to developing countries, including on accessing finance to help prepare for extreme weather events. The Network is expected to be operationalised at the next COP (which will be held in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt) and the UK, US and other developed countries are broadly in favour of creating a technical facility to help developing countries access the technical and financial assistance they need.

But for many, this does not go far enough. The idea of setting up a facility to provide technical assistance, which will in turn help countries access finance for technical assistance was likened by a negotiator from the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to a layered “Russian Doll”. Instead, AOSIS proposed a ‘Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility’ under the UNFCCC that would provide new financial support directly to developing countries to address loss and damage. Costa Rican negotiator, Pascal Girot, echoed this, stating that loss and damage support needs to “address the multi problems associated with slow-onset events, displacement, and need for different kinds of finance including insurance.” 

Three key challenges ahead for loss and damage

1) Ensuring that the Santiago Network captures diverse voices and views.

The “call for submissions” issued by the COP26 decision on the Santiago Network is aimed at national governments. But a broad range of “organisations, bodies networks and experts” (as noted in the decision) including emerging youth leaders, will need to be engaged to ensure a fair, transparent outcome. What, then, can be learned from other related international processes about what works best? And how can this new initiative harness knowledge and resources in related disaster risk management and humanitarian communities? Widening participation beyond the narrow confines of the climate change community will be important, given the spectrum of loss and damages identified.

2) Focus on the most vulnerable, and least served by conventional financing mechanisms.

The national processes that drive inequality and exclusion within a country are often the same processes used to determine how adaptation finance is used. Compensation must be centred in climate justice, delivering assistance to those least responsible for climate change who have experienced its irreplaceable losses and damages already. Other multilateral funds have not done a good job at this. The Glasgow Facility must buck the trend, enabling citizens and communities to monitor and evaluate the use of loss and damage funds.

3) Securing new finance for loss and damage from the countries most responsible for climate change.

Most importantly, more finance is needed to deal with the adverse consequences of climate change in developing countries. This needs to be additional to the $100 billion per year promised (but not yet received) for mitigation and adaptation by 2020. The money should come from the wealthy, polluting nations. It should be easy to access and use, and targeted at the most climate-vulnerable communities in the world.

This blog was co-written by Emily Wilkinson, Senior Research Fellow at ODI and Dr Thomas Tanner, Director of the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP) at SOAS.
A version of this blog was originally published on the Overseas Development Institute COP26 analysis site, read it here. 

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