By the midpoint of the two-week marathon of negotiations at the United Nations climate change conference in Sharm-el Sheikh, Egypt, it has become clear that the most difficult tension to resolve is between developed nations — most of all the United States — and their poorer counterparts over compensation for the effects of climate change.
Developing countries disproportionately suffer the worst climate change-related natural disasters, in part due to geographic location and vulnerable infrastructure. These countries for years have been calling for compensation for the effects of climate change, known as “loss and damage,” in climate diplomacy-speak. As the impact of climate change becomes more severe, those demands have intensified.
After a year of linked to climate change, such as record-setting heat waves and droughts and tropical hurricanes, representatives of developing nations — including Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry, who is serving as president of this year’s conference, COP27 — that a successful outcome this time will have to include a loss and damage fund. In fact, small island nations have threatened to walk out on the conference if the text does not include a fund for loss and damage.
Until this year, rich countries — fearful that accepting responsibility for climate change-related disasters could make them liable for damages in developing countries that, , could reach $400 billion per year by the end of this decade — refused to provide compensation for loss and damage.
But a handful of have recently opened their wallets just a crack. Denmark offered for loss and damage compensation in September. Last week in Sharm-El Sheikh, Austria $50 million and Belgium committed about $2.6 million to help Mozambique recover from the devastation of that hit it earlier this year. Scotland, which had previously pledged over $2 million, added roughly $6 million to that. And Ireland that $10 million of the $225 million it already has committed to climate finance will now go to paying for loss and damage.
On Monday, the G-7 — a coalition of the richest countries — launched a new to provide aid after climate-related disasters in developing nations including Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Fiji, Ghana, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Senegal. The fund will start with $200 million, most of which comes from a $170 million pledge from Germany.
“What is happening here in Sharm-el Sheikh is a recognition that we are experiencing climate devastation that is uncontrollable,” Eddy Perez, international climate diplomacy director at the Climate Action Network Canada, told Yahoo News. “There was a wake up call, and pressure is coming from everywhere for this process to deliver. It’s the litmus test for a successful COP this year.”
The pressure is coming not only from activists outside the meeting halls. In the wake of this year’s massive flooding in Pakistan, which left one-third of the country submerged and was caused in part , U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has insistently called for climate compensation.
“The deadly impacts of climate change are here and now,” in his opening address to the conference. “Loss and damage can no longer be swept under the rug. It is a moral imperative. It is a fundamental question of international solidarity – and climate justice. Those who contributed least to the climate crisis are reaping the whirlwind sown by others.”
Until recently, John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, appeared likely to continue the U.S.’s refusal to consider paying for loss and damage. “In all honesty, the most important thing that we can do is stop, mitigate enough that we prevent loss and damage,” at a New York Times event in September. “The next most important thing we can do is help people adapt to the damage that’s already there. And we have a limited, you know, we’re not — you tell me the government in the world that has trillions of dollars, cause that’s what it costs.”
Developing nations responded with increased pressure. In October, the V20, lower-income countries that are especially vulnerable to climate change paying off their debts to lending institutions like the International Monetary Fund, offering instead to use their money to deal with climate change.
The U.S. subsequently softened its opposition to addressing loss and damage, agreeing — in a first-ever concession — to include discussion of the subject on the official schedule.
A draft text of the potential agreement released Monday evening, offered two options: a plan to create a loss and damage fund by late 2024, or two years of study as to how the issue should be addressed. The United States is opposed to the former, but open to the latter, according to observers who have attended the negotiating sessions.
“The U.S. has said, ‘We want a mandate for two years, where we’re assessing the current financial landscape in loss and damage and identifying the gaps, what’s not being supported, and then identifying the priorities that need to be addressed,’” Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA, an international social justice advocacy group, told Yahoo News. “Essentially, what they’re saying is we need to do a bunch of studies. Developing countries are saying, ‘we’ve done enough studies, we’ve had years of studies and what we need now is a fund.’”
A spokesperson for the State Department would not comment directly on whether the U.S. will support the immediate creation of a loss-and-damage fund.
“We are pleased that the Parties were able to agree on an agenda item related to loss and damage,” said the spokesperson, Chadwick Houghton, in an email to Yahoo News. “This will ensure that there will be an outcome to the discussions, and we look forward to working towards that outcome.”
Even though Germany is providing most of the funds for Global Shield, President Biden’s only mention of loss and damage in to COP27 last week was a sentence touting the program, which he said the U.S. is “supporting.”
To date, the majority of finance for dealing with climate change from developed countries has been for developing countries to reduce their own emissions, which is called mitigation, with money for adapting to climate change to prevent losses and damages as the second most-subsidized purpose. Developed countries pledged to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 for climate finance, with half for mitigation and half for adaptation. That promise has not been completely fulfilled, though. In 2020 $83 billion went to developing countries, of which was for adaptation.
What developing countries want is a new fund — sometimes called a “facility” in U.N. jargon — dedicated to recovering from the losses and damages that they suffer.
“We’re not talking about typical climate finance, which typically takes a lot of time to access,” Perez said. “We’re talking here about immediate relief. We need an architecture to coordinate funding and distribute as quickly as possible. Developing states are just asking for the architecture, we don’t need to start funding projects right away.”
“We will not support any facility that has an inbuilt legal structure on liability,” . “But we are ready to deal with the issue of loss and damage and are discussing alternative financing options for such a facility.” Instead of saying the U.S. and its peers are on the hook for damages, Kerry is offering ideas like funding loss-and-damage payments through credits to companies seeking to offset their climate pollution.
Other leaders present have floated similar ideas. In their speeches to the conference last week, Guterres and Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, who is also chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), suggested funding climate change compensation with a windfall profit tax on fossil fuel companies. But Browne said, setting up a loss-and-damage fund of some kind is a “critical success factor” for the conference.
Some activists blame the United States and a few of its allies in particular for the possibility that a loss and damage fund may not be included in the conference’s concluding document. “The EU appears to be starting to listen to some of the demands from developing countries, while the US, New Zealand, Norway and … Australia, among others, are the most visible blockers,” Greenpeace last Saturday.
In a Sunday interview with , Australian Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen denied Greenpeace’s accusation, but he wouldn’t commit to agreeing to creating a loss and damage fund. “Let’s just see how the internal discussions go,” Bowen said. “But I mean, I doubt very much it’ll be a full agreement on that at this COP.”
“Countries like Australia and New Zealand are being a little more careful,” than the United States, Wu said. “They’re not saying outright, ‘we’re not going to agree to this.’ They’re saying, ‘we recognize the need, but it’s not our preference to have a set up like this and for it to happen so quickly.”
Since all decisions made at a U.N. climate change conference — also known as a “conference of parties,” or COP — must be unanimous, Shoukry is trying to find a compromise that will work for everyone.
Different parties want different things, however. Some small island states, including Antigua and Mauritius, are arguing that China and India — because they are top greenhouse gas emitters — should contribute to loss and damage funds, even though they are not developed countries.
“We all know that the People’s Republic of China, India — they are major polluters, and the polluter must pay,” Browne, the Antiguan president, said last Tuesday. “I don’t think there is any free pass for any country.”
Due to its population of 1.4 billion, India is the third-largest carbon emitter after China and the United States. But, with a gross domestic product of per person per year, according to the World Bank, India has far lower emissions per capita than rich countries in North America and Europe. So it rejects the notion that it should have to pay for damages it is also suffering. “It has to be realized that India itself is a victim of emissions of developed countries and we are paying for our adaptation and loss and damage,” an Indian government source last Thursday.
China, which is considerably wealthier than India, has staked out a middle ground: China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said only developed countries should be obligated to pay into an official fund for loss and damage, but China but that it will voluntarily contribute directly to affected countries.
Even the developed countries that have agreed to contribute money for climate change compensation are only offering token amounts in comparison to the scale of destruction. The floods in Pakistan have caused more than $10 billion in damage and will result in an estimated in lost economic activity. In June, the V20 — a coalition of climate-vulnerable countries that includes nations such as Bangladesh, the Philippines and Ethiopia — issued estimating that its members have lost roughly $525 billion because of climate change. This includes not only extreme weather events, but more gradual problems such as declining crop yields due to changing rain patterns.
And even if the United States agreed to the creation of a loss-and-damage fund, that doesn’t mean Congress, which is likely to see Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, would appropriate any funding for it.
Developing nations, however, make the case that climate change compensation is not just a moral obligation, but in the interest of richer countries who don’t want to face a wave of climate refugees in the years ahead.
As Conrod Hunte, deputy chair AOSIS, the small island nation group, put in a speech in Sharm-el Sheikh last week, “We are here so that we can go back to our own homes, and not become climate-displaced people in yours.”