Loss and damage: A major concern of vulnerable countries is nearly lost at the Paris talks
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Negotiators gathered in Paris have less than 60 scheduled hours to ink a global deal on climate change but the critical issue of “loss and damage”, a hot button topic in previous meetings, is still parked on the sidelines.

Loss and damage has been a major concern for vulnerable countries, mostly Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States, who are demanding a mechanism that ensures compensation if climate induced extreme weather events result in loss or lives or damage to property.

“This is one of the least negotiated issues at official sessions in the past one week,” said a negotiator from the LDC bloc, speaking on condition of anonymity. Though there have been intensive unofficial discussions at bilateral levels, the issue is yet to get the recognition it deserves at the negotiation table. The vulnerable countries group has already expressed its apprehension that the issue is being postponed, and that last hour discussions will again push them towards a compromise.

“Of particular concern to the group is the continued exemption of loss and damage within the text and the lack of clarity on the legal status of the agreement,” said Giza Gaspar Martins, chair of LDC group and the chief negotiator from Angola.

Loss and damage was almost kicked out of the decision document last year at the Lima climate summit but negotiators from vulnerable countries were able to at least park it as a preamble to the decision text after a last hour fight with developed countries. The draft negotiation text released late last week included loss and damage in article 5, but also has an option that allows it to be embedded in the adaptation section, something which vulnerable countries have consistently opposed. They argue loss and damage occurs when adaptation to climate change breaks down.

The inclusion of the issue in the Paris draft agreement – finalised in October in Germany – was only possible due to consistent pressure from vulnerable countries, including the group of developing countries, called G77 and China. But now, once again, it is almost out of the agreement.

Part of adaptation or standalone

The crux of the dispute is that developed countries want loss and damage to be included under adaptation, while developing and least developed countries argue it should be a standalone issue with funds separate from adaptation costs.

Developed countries fear this would allow developing countries to demand unlimited funds as compensation.

The US has flatly rejected the suggestion that loss and damage be a standalone issue and is reluctant to include any word that suggests compensation, which in turn could eventually mean liability. The European Union has remained silent, but the rest of the developed world is following the US.

On the other side, the largest group of countries, the G77 (which includes LDCs and SIDS) and China is busy preparing a common position before negotiating with developed countries. “It’s not fair to keep loss and damage within adaptation framework as it’s beyond adaptation and has to be in addition to adaptation,” said Harjeet Singh, climate policy manager at ActionAid International.

The Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage has not progressed much in the last two years. “The current mechanism is weak and only mandated to strengthen dialogue, enhance knowledge etc. which has less meaning for vulnerable countries who are already facing problems,” said Manjeet Dhakal, a Kathmandu-based climate policy expert.

There is a strong voice within the developing countries group that a new separate and strong mechanism has to be established with clear mandates.

Bargaining chip or real demand?

But many developing countries negotiators believe the focus on loss and damage diverts attention away from achieving more ambitious emissions targets, a position which will eventually put them in trouble.

“If you ask me personally, our focus should be more on pressurising the developed countries for a highly ambitious target that will keep the increasing temperature below 1.5 degrees resulting in less extreme weather events, which eventually means less damage,” said an LDC negotiator. “It’s better to stop events from happening as far as possible rather than focusing on payments in the eventuality of something happening.”

However, activists such as Singh say, “Addressing loss and damage is a life and death issue, not a bargaining chip. Negotiators need to take the politics out of this topic. All governments, particularly the US, have to show flexibility, and leave the politics behind, for the sake of the vulnerable people.”