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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo The city of Derna, Libya after it was hit by Storm Daniel in September 2023

Loss and damage: The complicated quest to help countries hit hardest by the climate crisis

A two-week UN conference starting today faces important decisions about setting up a new fund to support developing countries affected by climate change.

THE QUESTION OF setting up a fund to help countries that have been hit by devastating effects of climate change made its way onto the agenda of a UN climate conference for the first time in 2022 after 27 years of meetings.

With most of the heavy lifting on figuring out the details left until this year’s conference, the COP28 summit commencing in Dubai today is expected to make important decision’s about the world’s first dedicated loss and damage fund.

What does the concept of loss and damage mean? How have countries suffered because of the climate crisis – and why has a seemingly simple idea taken so long to be put on the table?

It’s one of the major issues that arose last year and will be put to the test again next week. Other important topics include the results of a ‘Global Stocktake’ expected to show how far behind the world is on preventing temperatures from rising and whether countries will make any significant promises to phase out fossil fuels.

What is loss and damage?

The term loss and damage refers to the way that countries, particularly ones most vulnerable to climate change, are being affected by the climate crisis – the losses and damages that they have suffered.

The United Nations explains it as: “Loss and damage arising from the adverse effects of climate change can include those related to extreme weather events but also slow onset events, such as sea level rise, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, glacial retreat and related impacts, salinisation, land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity and desertification.”

The term is also often used as a shorthand to refer to measures that can be taken to provide support to those vulnerable countries. When a report says something like “campaigners were calling for loss and damage to be prioritised”, it means they were pushing for countries to do something to help fix the problem (not, as it might seem at first glance, to make it worse).

What are some of the impacts of climate change the world has seen?

The scale of recent changes to the climate is “unprecedented” over hundreds and thousands of years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and many parts of the world are already feeling the effects of those changes.

Heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms, crop failures, land degradation – the ways that the climate crisis is hitting developing countries are multifaceted. While there are parts of the world that have long been more exposed to extreme weather events like heatwaves, climate change has been shown to make these incidents more likely to occur, more frequent, and more intense.

Countries in eastern Africa have gone five seasons without rainfall, which has led to severe droughts and hunger, while countries like Pakistan and India have been hit by devastating floods in recent years.

In the last few months alone, climate change has been found to have caused or exacerbated:

All of these extreme weather events cause damage and disruption to lives, livelihoods, nature and communities.

In financial terms, research published this week by the University of Delaware estimated that the impacts of climate change knocked 1.8% off the world’s GDP last year, or 6.3% if weighted according to the size of the populations affected.

The losses were due to events like climate-caused disruptions to agriculture and manufacturing, reduced productivity in some places due to high heat, and knock-on effects on global trade and investments.

Lead author James Rising said that the world is “trillions of dollars poorer because of climate change and most of that burden has fallen on poor countries”.

He said the findings showed that the impacts of climate change were “concentrated in “low-income countries and tropical regions that typically have more population and less GDP”, with southeast Asia and southern Africa most affected.

What happened at COP27 last year?

COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt marked the first time that loss and damage appeared on a COP agenda. Even getting it on the agenda wasn’t a sure bet, with some countries reluctant to agree to putting it on the table.

When the agenda was adopted with loss and damage included, climate justice campaigners welcomed that it was finally up for discussion but cautioned that decisions should be made by listening to the countries who are most vulnerable to the affects of the climate crisis.

Throughout negotiations, contention centred around questions of who would pay into the fund who would benefit from it, with questions in particular about whether China should be contributing to or drawing down from the fund – once squarely considered a developing country, it’s now one of the world’s heaviest emitters, but has millions of people living in poverty at risk from climate threats.

US-China relations play a big role in that: the Biden administration is adamant that China should be putting money into the fund, whereas China argues that the US has more responsibility historically for climate change.

After two weeks of ups and downs, negotiators agreed on setting up a dedicated fund to address loss and damage, but the specifics were put off to the COP28 cycle.

Over the last year, a Transitional Committee – on which Ireland shared a seat with Germany — worked on developing, refining and compromising on how the fund would actually work.

A tentative agreement was reached on a text at the start of November. It sets out that countries would be “urged”, but not required, to contribute. Some initial negotiating drafts had specific targets for the level of funding, but these were subsequently removed.

The fund would be administered by the World Bank for at least four years.

The text says the fund should be launched in 2024 and would require that developing countries have a seat on the board that oversees it.

What about this year?

The Journal understands that Irish delegation would like to see the text signed off on in the early days of this COP, both so that countries can start making pledges but also to set a positive tone for other matters being discussed at the conference.

However, that will all depend on whether negotiators agree on the text or not. It’s also possible the matter could be re-opened and battled out once again.

In a joint statement with the UAE’s COP28 President Sultan Ahmad Al-Jaber, EU Commissioner for Climate Wopke Hoekstra announced that the EU will make a “substantial” contribution to the fund, though he did not provide a specific sum.

“The COP28 Presidency and the Commissioner emphasised the importance of operationalising the Loss and Damage funding arrangements at COP28 including early pledges,” the statement said.

The EU’s position is that China should pay into the fund, not benefit from it.
Hoekstra has said that “with all that affluence and with all that economic power also comes responsibility, and that is the case for China”, adding it “is also for others”.

He also said he believes the fund should pay out money to “only a limited number of countries, rather than for whoever experiences climate disasters”.

However, negotiating blocks for developing countries and many climate justice campaigners have called for a much wider scope applied to who can receive help from the fund.

The UN has estimated that by 2030, $2 trillion will be needed every year to fund measures to adapt to climate change and provide relevant aid to developing countries, including loss and damage.

A report published by Christian Aid Ireland and Trócaire earlier this month estimated that Ireland’s fair share of contributions to loss and damage finance will be at least €1.5 billion per year by 2030.

The other side of the coin is mitigation – taking actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent climate disasters in the first place. Crucial to this COP’s mitigation discussions will be whether countries agree on any significant measures to drive down the burning of fossil fuels.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be in attendance on Saturday and Sunday alongside around 160 other world leaders.

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