Countries hardest hit by climate change can finally get their due

Speakers have often invoked the phrase “climate recovery” to describe the responsibility of compensating future generations based on past damage. That reflects a tradition as old as World War I, when certain countries were held responsible for paying for the cleaning, explains Lisa Vanhala, a political scientist at University College London who studies loss and damage negotiations. But wealthy polluters like the US have remained concerned it could be used to hold them accountable in locations outside the United Nations, despite agreements with previous COPs to avoid liability claims. Those countries want to keep the conversation moving forward, away from a litany of past damage, preferring to use the more anonymous and open phrase “loss and damage” at the negotiating table. Concerned about alienating the wealthy nations, countries advocating funding have largely agreed to speak in those terms — at least in the bargaining space. The UN needs consensus to move forward.

The question remains what the phrase “loss and damage” actually means. One idea, led by Germany for COP, is a sort of insurance program that would pay out when a climate-related disaster strikes. The program, which the EU calls Global Shield, would likely involve aid from wealthier countries to cover premiums and would complement ongoing disaster relief efforts. At COP, a number of countries, including Belgium and Ireland, have pledged funding to the programme.

But other countries want a fund for loss and damage within the UN. Among the strongest proponents are some of the small island states who pioneered the idea of ​​loss and damage, who say that insurance plans should not come at the expense of a grant-based program for affected countries. “As climate impacts worsen, some places will become uninsurable,” said Michai Robertson, who leads financial negotiations for AOSIS, a group of small island nations. In addition, he adds, insurance is good at covering sudden disasters, but not slow-moving changes like desertification and sea level rise. The group’s member countries have plenty of ideas for financing a UN loss and damage fund, including subsidies from polluters or other measures such as taxing oil companies’ profits.

By the end of Tuesday in Egypt, as world leaders left and negotiators abandoned their marching orders, some seemed a little more optimistic about setting up a fund. “Suffice it to say the momentum is gathering,” Barbados’ Mottley said at a news conference on Tuesday. Challenges lie ahead, including indications that the UK may be unwilling to provide funding and uncertainty about the US position as it emerges from the midterm elections. Also uncertain is the role of countries such as China and India, which are now major polluters but have not contributed much to the problem in the past. On the sidelines of the talks, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne stressed that everyone should stand up. “The polluter has to pay. I don’t think there is a free pass for any country,” he said.

Meanwhile, more action is taking place outside the UN process. At COP27, New Zealand and other polluters set up their own loss and damage funds, joining a move last year led by Scotland, a non-UN member, which pledged a total of $7 million in losses and damages. That’s “very, very small” in the context of potentially trillions of losses and damage, Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged at an event. Covering the huge costs, she said, cannot be tackled alone by a “coalition of the willing” that decides to take action itself, highlighting the importance of finding consensus in the COP negotiations.

She turned to Huq, her fellow panelist, and thanked him for his years of work to make that possible. He replied that he is often asked why he continues to attend the COP every year, despite its persistent shortcomings. His answer is relentless optimism. At least this year they’re talking about money, and that’s a start. “We’ve been playing this game for years and we’ve lost,” he later said, “but this time we got it.”

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