“Loss and Damage”

Observations and Reflections from COP27 (Part 4)

January 12, 2023

(Photo: Misbahul Aulia, via Unsplash)

“Loss and Damage” was a major focus of COP27. It is a technical phrase within the UNFCCC process that broadly refers to the efforts to “avert, minimize and address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts, especially in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change” (UNFCCC Decision 3/CP.18). The terms “avert” and “minimize” generally refer to mitigation and adaptation respectively, whereas the term “address” refers to actions to deal with climate change impacts that have not been, or cannot be, avoided.

So far, the debate around Loss and Damage has been contentious because of concerns related to fairness, equity, historical responsibility and compensation. Generally speaking, developing countries which have borne the brunt of the negative effects of climate change (and this pattern is expected to continue in the future).  These nations now demand financial assistance or even compensation from wealthier, developed nations which are responsible for the majority of historical GHG emissions. However, for developed nations the call to pay “compensation” implies legal liability that is a complete non-starter. Rather, they want to advance measures to minimize loss and damage by “technical” means such as enhancing knowledge of risk management approaches, strengthening coordination to minimize current climate change impacts, and increasing action and support via finance, technology and capacity-building (the need for which is also recognised in Article 8 of the Paris Agreement).

After being discussed for a few years, halfway through COP27 the Santiago Network was, finally, established.  It is a mechanism and platform designed to provide technical assistance for the work of loss and damage. Meanwhile, toward the end of the COP all Parties agreed to set up the long anticipated Loss and Damage Fund (though there are still many issues with that Fund that are not yet addressed). This was, indeed, a major breakthrough not only because it creates a necessary financial facility but also because it represents a breakthrough in the fault lines between developed and developing nations that have plagued this process for three decades. Senator Sherry Rehman (Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Climate Change), a key proponent framed the forming of the Fund as building a forward-looking global solidarity for climate justice rather than “compensation”.  She exclaimed that “The establishment of a Loss and Damage Fund is not charity. It is a down payment on our shared futures. It is a down payment on Climate Justice” (Senator Rehman of Pakistan on behalf of the G77 and China at the Closing Plenary of COP27).

(Photo: Sam Mann, via Unsplash)

Even with all these achievements, let’s not forget that the scope of “loss and damage” is not limited to financial resources or technical know-how.  According to Doreen Irungu and Anthony Wambui, African participants in the Christian Climate Observers Program (CCOP), very often people in their nations suffering due to climate related calamities such as severe drought or flooding, do not simply lose their homes or crops temporarily. All too often a massive number of people are forced to relocate from their homes to neighboring regions or even other countries as so-called climate refugees.  For many, prolonged droughts make this dislocation permanent. Moreover, these situations are fraught with perils. There are numerous horrific stories: children being stolen from their parents and sold; adults being forced into modern-day slavery (Yes, it’s still very much a reality on the ground nowadays); girls being raped and impregnanted; indigenous people groups at risk of losing their unique language and heritage due to forced migration. No financial “compensation” or “technical” assistance could ever be able to address and remedy such losses and trauma. And we should not forget that several low lying island nations in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean expect to lose their homeland entirely to sea level rise in the coming decades.

(Photo: Matt Palmer, via Unsplash)

As a result, you can imagine how the topic of Loss and Damage has become very much an emotional, psychological, and even spiritual challenge for some of the climate activists from the Global North as they wrestle with their collective (as a country or people) and individual responsibilities on these issues. I witnessed tears and emotional upheaval among our CCOP friends during conversations on this very topic.

Inevitably, in the years ahead the ongoing Loss and Damage discussion will be a painful journey of heart and mind for myself and many I know. That said, wrapping this series of COP27 reflections here would be incomplete.  So, in the final post I will describe a more encouraging takeaway: the people I met in Egypt.

This is the fourth in a series of five reflections from COP27 in November 2022:

  1. En Route to Sharm el-Sheikh
  2. A Very Different COP
  3. The Results
  4. “Loss and Damage”
  5. The People I Met

Featured photo: via NASA

(This post was first published at A Rocha Canada’s blog – COP27: “Loss and Damage.” Special thanks to my colleague Rick Faw, for his tireless efforts of editing and streamlining the text of these posts, making them a much better read.)

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