UN climate envoys urged to accelerate loss and damage planning

By Ed King

Countries at acute risk from climate change related weather events could slip into a poverty trap unless a mechanism for helping them cope with loss and damage is established, a leading climate scientist has warned.

Compensating countries for destruction linked to global warming is a controversial issue. US delegates at this week’s UN climate talks in Bonn say it would be politically impossible for them to agree to such a move.

But Bill Hare from Climate Analytics, who produced the Turn Down The Heat report for the World Bank in 2012, says it is becoming clear that negative feedbacks as a result of extreme weather could have serious global economic implications.

“There is going to be significant residual damage, economic and non-economic. Even 1-1.5C of warming means loss and damage will be substantial in many regions,” he told RTCC in Bonn.

“If you have a poverty trap developing as a consequence of climate shocks, a region that is otherwise going ok economically could be pushed back through hurricanes or sea level rise.

“Negative economic feedbacks will undermine countries’ abilities to cope, and at present there is no decision on that.”

Destruction caused by Typhoon Bopha in Baganga, Davao Oriental, one of the worst affected areas in the Philippines.

Africa and South East Asia are regions expected to be adversely hit by changing conditions. In February the UK Met Office linked the 2011 East African drought that killed over 100,000 people to man-made climate change.

And in March a report from risk analysts Maplecroft identified Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and China as being at ‘high-risk’ to multiple devastating natural hazards.

Small island nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati battling sea level rise and higher risks of flooding are already having to consider new economic strategies, or in the worst case evacuating islands.

An 83-strong coalition of developing nations wants the UN to establish a climate compensation or loss and damage mechanism by the end of 2013, but as of yet there have not been any detailed proposals put forward.

Discussions are expected to take place during the Bonn round of UN climate negotiations, taking place between June 3-14, although procedural arguments are slowing this process down.

Hare says it is time ideas on how a mechanism could work are debated, and points out that despite many viewing this as an alien concept, there are many precedents in developed countries.

“Look at former manufacturing regions where governments have thrown money in order to create new economic opportunities, such as East Germany, Manchester, Birmingham or Detroit,” he said.

“These are examples of where governments said ‘this loss and damage is too much to swallow’. In order to make these communities resilient we are going to put national resources into it.”

As Hare points out, investment within national boundaries is far easier than international transfers of wealth. And with few indicators or metrics on what the losses or damage could be pegged on, it will clearly be difficult working out how to quantify financial compensation.

Accurately measuring the cost of a lost city could be impossible, but equally he says “if social relations break down you could have a macroeconomic disaster”.

He also argues that talking about money at this stage is likely to be counter-productive, scaring off US negotiators who are privately terrified of facing  compensation claims running into billions of dollars from around the world.

“Some countries are allergic to the idea that they would be locking themselves into large money transfers … some negotiators would rather this is not made a political flashpoint otherwise it could be cut down before they finish the job.”

Seychelles Ambassador Ronny Jumeau insists the priority for vulnerable nations is  – for now at least – working on increasingly desperate ways to control the world’s carbon emissions.

“We’re not letting people distract us saying that we are not on the path to 2C,” he told RTCC in Bonn. “We’re not easing up – we want to ensure that [short term] ambition does not slip up.”

Small island states would rather not contemplate their towns and villages slipping beneath the waves, and the focus of this week’s interventions by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has been promoting a non-paper working on new short-term mitigation and adaptation solutions.

But Jumeau says he was encouraged to hear Polish diplomats say creating a loss and damage mechanism would be one of the targets for the main climate summit at the end of the year in Warsaw.

“If this is a sop to us be careful what you wish for,” he said. “Because we are really going to come after that. But we would rather have less of the loss and more of the damage – it’s the lesser of two evils.”

Negotiations on loss and damage will take place in the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) stream at the Bonn climate talks over the next two weeks – for more details visit the UNFCCC website.

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