Loss and damage: the calm before the storm?

Countries agreed to address losses and damages linked to climate change at a summit in Warsaw, but now comes the hard part

Jordanian UN peacekeepers rescue children in Haiti after  hurricane Ike 9Pic: UN Photos)

Jordanian UN peacekeepers rescue children in Haiti after hurricane Ike 9Pic: UN Photos)

By Saleemul Huq and Stephanie Andrei

Recent floods in the United Kingdom, snowstorms in north east America and severe drought in California are bringing home the message that loss and damage from weather related events can hit the richest countries as well as poor ones and that such events are likely to become more frequent in future due to human induced climate change.

It is therefore timely that the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) on Climate Change will be meeting this month in Bonn, Germany to develop its work-plan for the next two years.

When Parties came out of the Warsaw climate change negotiations last year, it was clear that a milestone had been reached on the issue of loss and damage.

For countries belonging to the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) the WIM on loss and damage had come after a decade of bargaining and pleading mainly with developed countries.

Prior to Warsaw, the topic had become somewhat of a taboo to discuss for the rich country negotiators as they feared it would lead to include issues of compensation and liability.

While the issues related to liability and compensation have not gone away, they have indeed been put off to another day, while research and sharing knowledge is firmly on the table now under the WIM.

In that sense the topic has been “un-tabooed” by the Warsaw decision.

Adaptation limits

Though there is still no single definition of ‘loss and damage’, consensus has been reached that there exist limits to adaptation and that mitigation and adaptation efforts will not be sufficient to respond to the adverse effects of climate change.

Such arguments have bred the loss and damage debate in an effort to improve our knowledge of what such limits may entail. Measuring and evaluating loss and damage will not be straightforward however.

Like many researchers have noted before, there are limits to using historical data to measure climate change that is exponentially increasing.

Similarly, there is a challenge in measuring the difference between events caused by natural processes versus by climate change and/or what to extent climate change has exacerbated such processes.

Risk management

It is important to clarify what is meant by the term and how we will choose to evaluate it before discussions such as compensation can be had.

Up until Warsaw, the debate was supported by developing countries in a bid to regain some of the damages caused by environmental stressors within their borders.

This not only constructed a barrier between developed and developing countries but also between developing countries that disagreed as to what the best tactic was to approach the issue.

The latter can be better recognized within the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group that represents 49 states but remains divided as to their goals and objective in the loss and damage debate.

The thirteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) in Bali, Indonesia, was the first time Parties called for an understanding of risk management, risk reduction and risk transfer – topics now synonymous with loss and damage.

While this helped get the research started, strong consideration of loss and damage only began following COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, that launched a work programme for enhanced understanding.

It quickly became clear that discussions related to compensation were being put on the sidelines until better research was presented.

While this was frustrating for many countries especially those experiencing more severe weather events, Warsaw has demonstrated Parties are continuously making progress on the issue.

Typhoon Haiyan: Philippines envoy urges countries to act

The WIM on loss and damage was created at a time where negotiations were heated and arguments in favour of a loss and damage mechanism were strong.

Furthermore, negotiations were made following the events of Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines, Micronesia and Vietnam just days prior. The WIM is intended to carry out the previous functions of the Convention vis-à-vis loss and damage that was previously agreed upon at COP 18.

It will remain under the Cancun Adaptation Framework until COP 22 but it ensures Parties to the Convention will continue to engage in conversations and will work towards producing concrete outcomes on loss and damage.

Specifically, Parties agreed that there needs to be enhanced understanding of risk management and gaps in current management approaches alongside a strengthening of dialogue and coordination between relevant stakeholders involved in loss and damage.

This all should be done through enhanced guidance from experts in the field and in conjunction with existing bodies to the Convention.

To guide this work, WIM established an Executive Committee that will report to the COP through both the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA).

Low profile

Since immediately following Warsaw, media coverage has been silent on the issue of loss and damage. This is likely to change in March following the first meeting of the interim Executive Committee that will take place at the end of the month in Bonn, Germany.

March is also the start of the rainy season for many South Asian countries that is also the time when significant weather extremes create stress to vulnerable households.

In March, the Committee is expected to formulate a two-year work plan to address and assess the issue of loss and damage which will be reviewed again at COP22 to be held in 2016 in Dakar, Senegal.

It will be interesting to witness how environmental events this year will impact negotiations in preparation for COP 20 in Lima, Peru, and subsequently in COP 21 in Paris in 2015 when a new climate change agreement will be formulated.

As has been the case in previous COPs, adverse weather events prior to negotiations will likely speak for themselves, creating more momentum for developing countries to argue their case.

Saleemul Huq is the Director and Stephanie Andrei is a Visiting Researcher at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh

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