Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 25 November 2013

A new climate deal on “loss and damage”

The climate conference held in Warsaw has set up a new international mechanism to help developing countries affected by loss and damage from climate change, such as the Philippines typhoon.


A new mechanism to help victims of typhoons, floods, drought and other effects of climate change was set up at the United Nations climate conference that ended late on Saturday in Warsaw after intense wrangling among countries.

The landmark decision will open the road to international coordination of efforts to assist countries affected by extreme weather events and slow onslaught events.

The over 5,000 deaths and devastation to homes and towns in the Philippines caused by Typhoon Haiyan just as the conference started two weeks ago were a grim backdrop that helped spur the delegates as they worked to create the mechanism to deal with “loss and damage”, in the parlance of the UN talks.

The new mechanism is tasked to provide countries with technical support, to facilitate actions and improve coordination of work inside the UN Climate Convention as well as with other organisations.

Most importantly, it will also mobilise and secure funds, technology and capacity building activities to address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts.

There are already official UN humanitarian and disaster-related agencies as well as voluntary groups such as the Red Cross, Médicins Sans Frontièrs and Oxfam that spring into action whenever a disaster such as the Philippines typhoon, the Asian tsunami of 2005, or the Haiti earthquake takes place.

But funds have to be raised when these events take place and that takes time and are not enough.  Also, countries that are hit are often too devastated or poor to respond quickly.

It took many days before the victims of the Philippines typhoon or the tsunami in Aceh could be reached or helped with food, health care and shelter.  And it will take years, if ever, for shattered houses, cities and farmlands to be rebuilt.

The loss and damage mechanism is meant to fill in the organisational and financial gaps within the UN Climate Convention, which is the world’s premier body dealing with climate change.     

The UNFCCC presently mobilises funds for mitigation (reduction of emissions) and adaptation (preparing for the effects of climate change such as building sea-walls and drainage systems) but until now it did not have the clear mandate for helping countries recover from loss and damage.

With the new mechanism, a burst of pent-up energy, organisation and eventually funds is expected, inside the framework of the Climate Convention, and to complement the work of other agencies.

Damage caused by natural disasters has risen from about US$200 billion a year a decade ago to around $300-400 billion annually in recent years.  Climate scientists say that climate change is exacerbating the incidence and strength of extreme weather events.

Delegates at the Convention hall were in jubilant mood when the decision to set up the “Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage associated with climate change impacts” was gavelled after a last minute hitch in the negotiations.

This decision lifted the general gloom that had been prevalent during most of the two-week negotiations at the annual UN climate convention.

There were two other pieces of good news – the adoption of a programme for reducing emissions from forest-related activities (known as REDD-plus) and pledges from developed countries up to US$100 million for the adaptation fund whose resources had dried up after the drastic fall in carbon prices.

The gloom was caused mainly by the lack of progress on the main issues of finance – how to mobilise funds up to the already pledged US$100 billion a year by 2020, to help developing countries take climate actions.  So far there has only been a trickle of funds and no road map between now and the 2020 deadline.

A lot of energy in the two weeks was also focused on discussion on how to take forward the talks in the next two years (dubbed the Durban Platform) that will lead to a new climate change agreement in December 2015.

Some of the rich countries were determined to break the differences in mitigation obligations between developed and developing countries.

On the other hand, many developing countries (including Malaysia) were fighting to retain the “firewall” between the commitments of developed countries (which carry a higher legal obligation) and the enhanced actions of developing countries (which are to be supported by finance and technology).

The inability to agree on a crucial paragraph of the decision on this issue almost led to a collapse in the talks on the Durban Platform.

At the last minute, the countries agreed on neutral language on how all countries would put forward details of their “contributions” (rather than their “commitments”) for the future discussions.

The battle on how various countries will have to “contribute” their efforts to addressing mitigation and adaptation activities, and to secure financing and technology to do so, will be the subject of very intense talks next year.