Countries edge towards loss and damage deal at climate talks

Proposals published late Friday show positions once light years apart are slowly converging on vexed issue of compensation

Majuro is the capital of the Marshall Islands, a nation built on low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean (Pic: Flickr/Christopher Michel)

Majuro is the capital of the Marshall Islands, a nation built on low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean (Pic: Flickr/Christopher Michel)

By Ed King

Two visions of how the world could deal with the damage caused by global warming have emerged from last week’s UN climate talks: one from the US and the other from developing countries.

How communities can be helped to cope with the suffering and loss incurred by extreme weather events that scientists say will increase as the world warms has bedevilled these negotiations.

The proposals, published on the UN climate body’s website, are still in their early forms, but they represent a foundation for progress on an issue that sharply divides the world’s richest and poorest.

With a UN climate deal to address global warming just months away from being finalised by nearly 200 countries, they offer the clearest sense yet how this issue could be resolved.

One was submitted to the UN by the US, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland; the other from the G77 and China group of developing countries.

The very fact the two blocs have committed their views to paper was described as positive by Sven Harmeling, a climate expert with CARE International, although he said the substance was still thin.

“It’s useful as it shows there’s a discussion about what are the concerns,” he said, “but overall I don’t think the parties have come closer.”

Governments in the developed world led by the US have long resisted demands for a mechanism that would make them liable for unlimited damage claims.

Comment: Paris climate agreement can’t leave behind the most vulnerable

A study reported in the New Scientist this week gives some insight into why. Canadian researchers calculated that Australian and US citizens have incurred a carbon debt worth $12,000 each since 1990, representing the damage their lifestyles have caused the atmosphere.

By their calculation, based on a US$40 a tonne social cost of carbon, Indian citizens are owed $2,500 apiece for their lesser contribution.

So what’s instructive about the G77 and China suggestion is that references to the toxic word “compensation” have been dropped.

Both sides recognise the need for policies to reduce the risk of loss and damage from climate impacts, and support a mechanism set up by the UN in 2013 to investigate ways to do this.

They also propose more work into insurance and “risk transfer” for vulnerable countries such as Vanuatu and the Dominican Republic, which have both suffered from tropical storms this year.

Legal wrangling

Still, as Harmeling observes, differences are considerable.

Developing countries want this to be part of a legally binding Paris deal and also want provision for “organized migration and planned relocation”.

Developed countries are not comfortable with the need for loss and damage to be inscribed under international law, preferring it to be part of a second layer of agreements to be finalised in Paris.

And many, especially the EU, which is already feeling political pressures linked to the global refugee crisis – do not want a new migration mechanism to be part of a Paris agreement.

“We appreciate the willingness of other parties to come up with constructive proposals. But we have UN bodies and other expert organisations dealing with migration and refugees,” EU negotiator Elia Bardram told the FT last week.

“It’s hard for us to see how bringing this new facility to co-ordinate displaced people adds value to this process.”

Comment: Climate change will increase flow of migrants to Europe

In a Friday press conference, Bardram offered her support for some of the US text, suggesting it laid deeper foundations for pre 2020 action to help vulnerable communities.

According to observers in Bonn Bolivia, speaking for the G-77 and China, said the US proposal did not really offer a “bridge” allowing both sides to meet.

Other climate experts in Bonn told RTCC the fact these ideas were now public did offer hope it could be resolved, perhaps well ahead of December’s Paris summit.

“The fact that you’re starting with two visions of the future of loss and damage allows there to be a political discussion from ministers and continued work,” said Alden Meyer from the US Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The landing zone is fairly clear. There has to be some reference to loss and damage for developing countries, but no mention of compensation or liability, otherwise the US and developed states won’t be happy.

“You need a reference of it being a permanent part of landscape and operational bits in the decision text… then you have a deal.”

Harmeling stressed the G77 and China concept was still far more ambitious than the US version, which offered a “business as usual” formula.

“Don’t overstate the dynamics. In terms of substance it is far from a compromise, but it is less confrontational,” he said.

Giza Gaspar Martins, an Angolan diplomat representing the world’s Least Developed Countries, said there are grounds for compromise, but stressed the issue needed to be addressed in Paris.

“It’s necessary that an agreement – if we want it to be comprehensive and durable – that it incorporates at some point that for certain places it will not be possible to adapt [to climate impacts] therefore the [UN] system needs to be capable to respond to situations.”

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