What is ‘loss and damage?’ The most debated issue at the COP27 climate summit


Aftab Khan felt uneasy when floods submerged a third of his native Pakistan.

Khan’s hometown was completely submerged. His friend rescued a woman who had walked barefoot, carrying a sick child, for 15 kilometers through stagnant floodwaters. And Khan’s mother, who now lives with him in Islamabad, was unable to get home to check if her daughter was safe on the clear roads.

“These are shocking stories, true stories,” Khan, an international climate change consultant, told CNN. “I broke my heart.”

Pakistan was the clearest example this year of how some countries are fighting for a so-called “loss and damage” fund. The concept is that countries that have contributed the most to climate change with planet-warming emissions should pay poorer countries to recover from the resulting disasters.

Earlier this year, Pakistan stewed under a deadly heat wave that climate change made 30 times more likely, according to the World Meteorological Organization. It is now reeling from the worst floods in living memory.

The South Asian country is responsible for less than 1% of the world’s global warming emissions, but it is paying a heavy price. And there are many other countries like this around the world.

Loss and damage will take center stage at this year’s COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, as developed countries that are flooded or seeing islands sink into the ocean demand that high-emitting countries pay for the damage. .

But it has been a contentious issue for years, with rich countries like the United States fearing that agreeing to a loss and damage fund could open them up to legal liability and potential future lawsuits.

Climate activists from developing nations and a former top US climate official told CNN that time is running out, pointing to the disasters in Pakistan as the clearest evidence of the need for a dedicated fund for loss and damage.

The developing world is “unprepared to protect itself and adapt and be resilient” to climate disasters, former White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy told CNN. “It is the responsibility of the developed world to sustain this effort. Commitments have been made but they are not fulfilled”.

As a concept, it is a loss and damage that rich countries, which emit the most planet-warming gases, should pay for the poorer countries that are currently suffering from climate disasters that they did not create.

Loss and damage is not a new request. Developing countries and small island states have been calling for such funds since 1991, when the Pacific island of Vanuatu first proposed a plan for high-emitting countries to channel money to those affected by sea level rise.

It took more than a decade for the proposal to gain traction, even though Vanuatu and many other small Pacific island nations are slowly disappearing.

In Fiji, the birthplace of climate activist Lavetanalagi Seru, more than $1 trillion has been spent to relocate families. Moving away from ancestral lands is not an easy decision, but climate change is having irreversible effects on the islands, said Seru, regional policy coordinator for the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network.

“Climate change threatens the social fabric of our Pacific communities,” Seru said. “That’s why these funds are needed. It is a question of justice for many small island developing states and countries in the Pacific, for example.’

A major reason this type of fund is contentious is that rich nations worry that paying into the fund could be seen as an admission of liability, which could lead to legal battles. Developed countries like the US have pushed back in the past and are still tiptoeing around the issue.

Khan said he understands why rich developed nations are “dragging their feet”. But he added that “it is very important for them to empathize and take responsibility”.

There has also been confusion about its definition: whether loss and damage is a form of liability, compensation or even reparation.

“‘Fixes’ is not the word or the term that was used in this context,” US climate envoy John Kerry said in a call with reporters. He added: “We have always said that it is essential that the developed world helps the developing world deal with climate impacts.”

Shacks made of branches and cloth shelter Somalis displaced by drought on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, in September.

Kerry has pledged to hold talks on a fund this year before the 2024 deadline to decide what that fund will look like. And US officials are still uncertain whether it will come through an existing funding source like the Green Climate Fund, or through an entirely new source.

Kerry also sparked controversy at a recent New York Times event when, in response to a question about loss and damage, Kerry suggested that no country had enough money to help places like Pakistan recover from devastating climate disasters.

“You tell me a trillion-dollar world government, that’s what it costs,” Kerry said at the event.

But others say the money is there. It’s more a matter of priority.

“Look at the annual defense budget of developed countries. We can mobilize the money,” Alden Meyer, senior partner at E3G, told CNN. “It’s not a matter of the money being there. It’s a matter of political will.”

At COP27, the biggest debate will be whether to create a specific financial mechanism for loss and damage, in addition to existing climate finance to help countries adapt to climate change and transition to clean energy.

After climate-affected nations called for a new loss and damage financing facility at COP26 in Glasgow last year, it is likely to be on the official agenda at COP27 this year. But while wealthier countries such as the US and the EU have pledged to talk about it, there is little hope of a fund that countries will pull out of Sharm.

“Do we expect to have a fund by the end of two weeks? I hope so, I’d like to, but we’ll see how the parties fulfill that,” Egyptian ambassador Mohamed Nasr, that country’s chief climate negotiator, recently told reporters.

But Nasr also dashed hopes, saying that if countries are still debating whether to put loss and damage on the agenda, they are unlikely to make progress on a financing mechanism.

He said the loss and damage talks were likely to continue during the two weeks in Sharm, possibly finalizing a framework for a funding mechanism, or clarifying whether funds could come from new or existing sources.

Some officials from climate-affected nations warned that if countries don’t reach an agreement now, the problem will be much worse later.

“For countries that aren’t on the front lines, they think it’s kind of a distraction and people should focus on mitigation,” Avinash Persaud, special envoy to Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, told CNN. “If we had done the mitigation early enough, we wouldn’t have had to adapt and if we had adapted early enough, we wouldn’t have suffered. But we didn’t do those things.”