Why developed countries should back loss and damage in Paris

The costs of tackling failed states as a result of climate impacts could be far higher than investing in adequate insurance now

School children in the Philippines contemplate the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (Pic: Pio Arce/Genesis Photos)

School children in the Philippines contemplate the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (Pic: Pio Arce/Genesis Photos)

By Tim Kovach

As we get closer to this fall’s landmark meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris, negotiators continue to try and hammer out the specific language that will be contained in the zero draft of the final accord.

A number of critical issues remain unresolved, including whether countries should set a maximum safe threshold for carbon emissions and what protocols will be put in place to ensure that parties are transparent and accountable for their emissions reduction commitments.

One of the trickiest outstanding issues is the question of loss and damage. For years, developing countries have called for developed states to compensate them for the negative effects of climate change, such as more frequent flooding and more intense droughts.

While developed countries committed to provide financing for climate mitigation and adaptation through the development of the Green Climate Fund in 2009, it is widely acknowledged that there are impacts of climate change which we can neither prevent nor prepare for.

These residual effects are at the centre of the loss and damage debate.

Loss and damage: a bluffer’s guide for the confused

This issue particularly came to the fore at the 2013 Warsaw Conference, which took place in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated parts of the Philippines and killed more than 6,300 people.

Yeb Sano, the Philippines lead negotiator, delivered an impassioned speech in Warsaw pushing the issue.

Sano, whose hometown had been flattened by the storm, fasted throughout the conference in solidarity with Haiyan survivors.

He called for parties “to make clear the difference between humanitarian aid and climate change compensation in the context of historical responsibility.”

These efforts paid off, as negotiators created the Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage, which created a standing committee to research the issue and advise the UNFCCC over the next two years.

At last year’s conference in Lima, negotiators reaffirmed their commitment to discuss the issue, outlined the membership of an Executive Committee, and approved a two-year work plan.

But discussions remain in a preliminary phase, and many developing states remain concerned that the Paris talks may fail to address the question adequately.

Small island states, in particular, view loss and damage as an existential question, as climate change may threaten their very survival.

Who should pay?

The core of the argument for loss and damage stems from the fact that a handful of countries have emitted the lion’s share of carbon pollution since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

According to a 2014 study, just seven countries have generated nearly two-thirds of all observed global warming through 2005.

While the United States leads the pack, accounting for 0.15C of the 0.7C warming, three of the seven are developing countries, with China, Brazil, and India ranking second, fourth, and fifth, respectively.

This ranking changes when you consider warming based on population, as the top seven contributors are all located in North America or Europe.

While it would be folly to try and determine which country’s emissions triggered a particular storm, the fact remains that developed countries bear most of the responsibility for climate change.

Thus, it appears reasonable that they should be held to account. While the G7 hinted at endorsing loss and damage in a recent agreement, developed countries should consent to including the issue in the final Paris accord for one simple reason – it is in their geopolitical interests.

State breakdown

The number of disasters has spiked in the last half century, growing nearly eightfold from an annual average of 56 during the 1960s to 449 per year during the first decade of this century.

This increase has been driven almost entirely by the rise in the number of climate-related disasters, even as the incidence geological disasters, like earthquakes, has remained relatively flat.

According to the United Nations, climate-related disasters now account for 87% of all disasters worldwide.

Worryingly, developing countries have been hit hardest by this trend. Approximately 80% of the morbidity burden of disasters occurs in the low- and middle-income countries – in other words, those least able to shoulder these effects.

If these events occur in fragile or conflict-affected states, as they increasingly are, they may place further strain on the ability of developing world governments to provide for the needs and safety of their citizens.

This process may increase the (albeit quite small) possibility that a democratic government may fail or that violent conflict may occur.

Rating your disaster

Disasters need not turn into some Malthusian dystopia, however. In fact, there is some evidence that they could help strengthen the relationship between citizens and their government and promote peacebuilding, as disaster diplomacy scholars have demonstrated.

For this to occur, however, disaster-affected countries need logistical and financial support. And yet, developed countries often appear unwilling or unable to respond.

As I noted recently, developed states are far more likely to provide disaster relief assistance in the aftermath of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption.

For a famine to receive the same level of attention as an earthquake with just one death, it would need to kill nearly 39,000 people. Donor countries are also far more inclined to provide support to their friends and neighbours.

For a disaster in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region on the front lines of climate change, to receive the same amount of financial support as one in Europe, 45 times as many people must die.

Personal interests

This trend creates significant consequences. The gap between the humanitarian funding needed for such disasters and that provided by donor organizations has grown by nearly 800% in recent years.

But just because a disaster event does not make international headlines does not mean that it cannot have significant consequences.

The historical drought that ravaged much of Syria from 2007-2010 did not garner much attention in the West. Even so, a group of researchers have suggested that this drought, which was exacerbated by climate change, may have contributed to violent conflict that has beset the country since 2011.

Had donor countries provided sufficient humanitarian support prior to 2010, they may have been able to release some of the pressure bubbling up just beneath the surface. But when the United Nations launched its appeal for humanitarian funding in 2008, these countries failed to respond, providing just 31% of the $64 million requested.

Clearly, developed countries have a personal interest in supporting their allies and guarding against the risk that climate change and its associated increase in disasters may exacerbate violence and instability, especially in regions the developed nations consider strategically important.

The G7 acknowledged this fact in its recent report, A New Climate for Peace. Accordingly, these countries should accept that loss and damage is not a giveaway to developing states. Rather, it is a rational step to defend their own geopolitical self-interest.


As part of the Paris accord, developed (Annex I) states should endorse the principle of loss and damage and agree to create a separate financing mechanism for it.

This should be a standalone fund, rather than being housed within the UNFCCC’s adaptation structures, which the Warsaw mechanism suggests, as loss and damage is a separate concept.

The UN can use this fund to stem the financing gaps that emerge for lesser-known and slower-onset disasters like the Syria drought.

Now, it may be too much to ask that developed states agree to divvy up the responsibility for funding this new tool as part of the Paris accord, as this process would likely weigh down talks even further.

But they could at least agree, under the existing Warsaw mechanism, to officially endorse the principle of loss and damage and to meet a voluntary funding goal similar to the one outlined for the Green Climate Fund in 2009.

This would at least provide validation to the concerns of developing countries and give them some assurance that developed states are willing to be there as a backstop when climate-related disasters occur.

Tim Kovach is an independent analyst and blogger from Cleveland who researches and writes about climate change, disaster risk reduction, and environmental peacebuilding at timkovach.com. Follow him on Twitter at @twkovach.

Read more on: Comment |