In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm on an inevitable climate catastrophe due to human-induced global warming. The harrowing rise in temperature is causing worldwide extreme weather disasters including: the melting of glaciers at “unprecedented” rates, rising sea levels, deadly heat waves, wildfires scorching swathes of land, communities, and livelihoods from California to Siberia and across the Mediterranean. Intensifying water cycles resulting from climate change are associated with droughts that exacerbate issues of water scarcity, and heavy precipitation that disproportionately overwhelm low-lying islands and coasts already suffering from severe flooding and rising sea levels.
Loss and damage as commonly defined in climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) refers to negative climate change impacts including extreme and slow onset events that cause economic or non-economic harms. While there is no consensus on how to define the destruction that these adverse climate impacts produce, at a baseline level, loss refers to irreparable climate-related impacts while damage encompasses negative impacts for which restoration is at least partially possible. Thus, the broad definition for “loss and damage” within the current international climate regulatory scheme leaves ample room to include climate disasters beyond sudden onset extreme weather events which are often at the forefront of media attention, and highlight cascading effects from slow onset processes like desertification, drought, and climate-induced displacement.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change with studies warning that it will become uninhabitable by 2050. A politically fragile region that is home to more than 500 million people with a rapidly expanding population, is also home to 12 of 17 of the most water-stressed countries in the world. With natural water resources increasingly unable to supply demands, coupled with inadequate adaptation and mitigation measures due to violent strife and endemic corruption, communities in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Iran are parched by rising temperatures, low rainfall, and the painful aridification across the Fertile Crescent. Aggrieved by compounding existential stresses including malnourishment and protracted conflict, about 18 million people in Yemen lack access to safe water and sanitation.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that nearly 1.8 billion people risk experiencing “absolute water scarcity” by 2025 and an additional 135 billion people will be displaced due to desertification by 2045. According to Gueterres, “desertification, land degradation and drought are major threats affecting millions of people worldwide, particularly women and children.” Children and families in Egypt are at the highest risk of being exposed to adverse “climate and environmental shocks” as compared to other countries in the region, with an estimated 5.3 million children exposed to dire heatwaves.
While the concept of loss and damage financing is far from novel, the recent momentum in advancing the loss and damage agenda has been unitedly led by the G77 and China. Yet, despite consistent warnings from experts highlighting the MENA region as the most water-stressed areas in the world with “the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at 6-14 percent of GDP by 2050,” lived experiences and anticipated adverse climate impacts in MENA countries are rarely considered within loss and damage discourse. The reasons for exclusion are likely complex and multifold, particularly given economic and geopolitical turmoil underpinning the region’s recent history. However, the existential threat to human security resulting from human-induced climate change in MENA should not be overly conflated by the lack of nuance that does not take into account the intricate country-specific sociocultural, political, and economic historical realities. Furthermore, environmental harms linked to the climate crisis, and exacerbated by conflict and weaponized state policies, requires an intersectional and comprehensive understanding of climate-related “impact” and “destruction” to truly operationalize loss and damage financing in the MENA context.
Understanding Loss and Damage with the UNFCCC framework
The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty aimed at tackling the negative effects of human-induced climate change and preventing further climate deterioration by stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions. The Convention established “mitigation” and “adaptation” as two main parallel processes that states must commit to in order to curb emissions and combat the colossal climate change impacts. It places a higher burden on wealthier countries—that have pioneered environmentally harmful activities in partnership with the profit-driven oil, gas, and coal industry—to lower emissions that account for nearly 50 percent of the current global-warming GHGs throughout the past 170 years. Often politicized and contested by decision-makers, issues of state responsibility and financial liability for the human-generated climate impacts remain stalled by negotiating roadblocks.
In 2009, developed countries pledged to provide $100 billion each year until 2020 to developing, climate vulnerable countries to support climate-resilient development by financing adaptation and mitigation efforts. While climate change mitigation is a long-term risk-reduction response that focuses on lowering GHG emissions by supporting nations’ transition to green and renewable energy; adaptation is an adjustment to natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate-driven impacts. However, despite holding the lion’s share of responsibility for unrelenting climate disasters, developed countries have consistently fallen short of meeting their yearly targets; and of the climate finance that had been provided to climate-vulnerable nations, a majority of it appeared in the form of loans and non-grant instruments—further stressing underlying debt crises across developing countries. Moreover, adaptation and mitigation interventions do not offer any form of tangible recourse for the loss and damage already experienced by societies from climate-related disasters.
The Alliance of Small Island States first raised the issue of financing loss and damage resulting from adverse human-induced climate impacts back in 1991 during negotiations preceding the adoption of UNFCCC. Nearly 25 years later, the states incorporated the issue of loss and damage under Article 8 of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the most recent international climate change treaty. However, developed states conditioned the adoption of the loss and damage provision on guarantees that it does “not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” In an effort to evade prospects of legal liability for the litany of state-sanctioned climate grievances inflicted upon vulnerable nations, developed nations have opposed addressing “loss and damage” as separate from climate-related adaptation and mitigation responses.
Article 8(4) provides a non-exhaustive list of “areas of cooperation and facilitation to enhance understanding, action and support” through which the parties to the Paris Agreement may seek to address loss and damage. Legal scholars have noted that the inclusion of measures that can be perceived as adaptation responses “such as Article 8(4)(a) concerning early warning systems, (b) concerning emergency preparedness, and (e) concerning comprehensive risk assessment and management,” create textual ambiguities that give rise to uncertainty when delineating between “loss and damage” and adaptation responses—as separate legal remedies. Such flawed conflation between loss and damage financing and other climate change interventions has certainly been levied by countries like the United States to deny the need for separate loss and damage financing. This past September, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry reaffirmed the U.S.’s climate finance position exclusively in support of adaptation and mitigation efforts at the expense of loss and damage: “[T]he most important thing that we can do is stop, mitigate enough that we prevent loss and damage. And the next most important thing we can do is help people adapt to the damage that’s already there. [There are] limited [resources]—you tell me [which] government in the world has trillions of dollars, because that’s what [financing loss and damage] costs.”
Other than making factually inaccurate sweeping statements, Kerry deflects the “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capability” principle—as enshrined within the UNFCCC—that the United States is bound by, particularly given the correlation between global adverse climate impacts and their egregious historical emissions. Although the U.S. appeared to shift some of its hardlined stance on loss and damage financing in the lead up to COP27, the statements do not mark a significantly different U.S. approach but cast a rhetorical play of semantics. Reiterating openness to “discuss” loss and damage under existing UN channels offer no tangible measures to go beyond the Glasgow Dialogue. Likewise, emphasizing that existing climate finance streams can address loss and damage dilutes the complexities of existing loss and damages and conflates it with other necessary climate-related strategies. Furthermore, the denial from developed nations led by the U.S. of the urgency for addressing loss and damage is scientifically refuted by the IPCC Working Group II Report which found that even with the most effective adaptation measures, losses and damages remain inevitable and will increase with higher warming levels. The expert report emphasized that losses and damages are unequally distributed across systems, regions, and sectors and are strongly concentrated among the poorest vulnerable populations. Echoing the IPCC’s assessment recognizing that current financial and governance institutions are inept to address existing and anticipated negative impacts of climate change, many vulnerable nations argue that the lack of loss and damage financing undermines “fundamental human rights” and that inconsistent streams of humanitarian aid or adaptation funding are woefully incommensurate to redress the scale of climate-related devastation.
Since the UNFCCC went into force in 1994, the increasing risks of severe climate devastation and related existential threats to low-income and climate vulnerable countries—that lack the institutional capacity to timely adapt and mitigate negative and slow onset climate change impacts—resulted in the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts, known as the Warsaw Mechanism, during COP19 in 2013. The Warsaw Mechanism is meant to promote the “implementation of approaches to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.” The three main functions of the mechanism as defined at COP19 include: 1) Enhancing knowledge and understanding of comprehensive risk management approaches; 2) Strengthening dialogue, coordination, coherence, and synergies among relevant stakeholders; and 3) Enhancing action and support, including finance, technology, and capacity building to address loss and damage associated with the adverse impacts of climate change.
States adopted a five-year work plan during COP23 in 2017 and refined the Warsaw Mechanism’s mandate to address: slow onset events; non economic losses; comprehensive risk management approaches; human mobility in the context of climate change; and action and support. However, developed countries continue to roadblock calls from developing countries to create a finance facility to compensate developing countries for harms resulting from climate crises. The delay in taking tangible steps to effectuate the Warsaw Mechanism’s mandate was stymied by developed states once again during last year’s COP26 where at the 11th hour states established the Glasgow Dialogue which is a commitment “to discuss in an open, inclusive and non-prescriptive manner” arrangements for the funding of activities to address loss and damage associated with adverse climate change impacts—for the next three years. Representatives from climate-vulnerable nations expressed “extreme disappointment” at the decision to initiate only a “dialogue” to talk about the prospect of financing as opposed to combatting the loss and damage already experienced at disproportionate rates.
Since the conclusion of COP26 with hollow last-minute acknowledgements on the need for financing loss and damage, there have been more than 119 extreme weather events in developing countries including catastrophic flooding that has submerged one-third of Pakistan and unprecedented droughts with prolonged devastating ripple effects across the MENA region. By 2030, the economic cost of loss and damage is estimated to reach nearly $600 billion in developing countries. The trail of insurmountable climate havoc penetrating through communities across the developing world is well documented and yet, stakeholders with the responsibility, power, and capacity to mobilize funds to meet urgent demands and prepare for the inevitable onslaught of climate-related disasters bound to occur in the near future, remain collectively crippled by their blatant, and arguably willful, disregard for the human toll climate-change impacts have across the global south.
Expectations for COP27
The long-standing issue for loss and damage funding finally made it to the agenda for this year’s annual United Nations climate summit. Announced during the opening day of COP27, Parties came to a historic agreement and introduced “matters relating to funding arrangements responding to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including a focus on addressing loss and damage” as a provision in the final agenda. A hailed improvement since last year’s efforts were undermined by climate negotiators who downgraded calls from developing countries for the creation of loss and damages fund —Glasgow Facility for Financing Loss and Damages—to a mere “dialogue,” governing and implementation structures for the independent fund remain undefined. Questions on what type of climate-related “loss and damage” could qualify for compensation, which countries stricken by adverse climate impacts would be eligible, and the percentage of financing developing countries should contribute are fraught with contention.
Financing “loss and damages” for irreversible climate-related impacts that cannot be adapted or mitigated is part and parcel to redressing the irreparable climate grievances inflicted upon vulnerable communities and at the essence of upholding fundamental principles of shared humanity and climate justice. To avert further suffering, states should optimize COP27 negotiations to establish an independent loss and damage fund that guarantees indiscriminate financing to communities ravaged by sudden extreme weather disasters as well as slow-onset processes from compounding human-induced climate impacts that will continue to devastate human livelihood and security.
Building on this year’s financing initiatives led outside of the UNFCCC process, states have made promising strides at COP27 in allocating specific loss and damage funds—with New Zealand recognizing non-economic climate-driven impacts—for vulnerable nations. In addition to formalizing funding arrangements, loss and damage negotiations should continue to intersect the varied types of climate-related harms experienced by vulnerable populations who are often afflicted by other crises and inadvertently sidelined to the fringes of climate justice.
Meroua Zouai is the Legal Associate at TIMEP.