SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt—The United Nations climate summit officially opened on Sunday with the addition of negotiations over funding to compensate nations for “loss and damage” funding as an official agenda item.
Inclusion of the controversial topic—which poorer countries that are enduring the greatest harms from climate change see as critical to fairness in addressing global warming, and wealthy nations that have produced the vast majority of the emissions driving those damages have long resisted—required negotiations through the night leading up to the opening of the conference. And the victory is only partial for the parties advocating to include loss and damage in the negotiations, as the agenda item does not include discussions of how to determine liability or payments for the harms of human-caused climate change.
The agenda item was proposed by Pakistan, which in recent months incurred heavy losses in unprecedented floods that covered a third of the country, during talks in Bonn earlier this year in the leadup to the U.N.’s 27th Conference of the Parties opening this week. It is the first time in the history of the U.N. climate summits that parties in the negotiations have reached a consensus to include funding for loss and damage as an official agenda item.
“My country, Pakistan, has seen floods that have left 33 million lives in tatters and have caused loss and damage amounting to 10 percent of the GDP,” said Ambassador Munir Akram, the 2022 chair of the G77—a group of 134 developing countries, many of which are on the front lines of climate change—at the opening ceremony for COP27, where he urged that a finance mechanism be dedicated to addressing losses and damages. Pakistan recently has experienced a series of extreme weather events, including an extended heatwave in March when temperatures in the south rose close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
In his opening remarks at the conference, United Nations Secretary General Anotonio Gutteres called for international solidarity, but also a recognition that the populations that have done little to cause global warming bear the brunt of its impacts. “Those who contributed least to the climate crisis are reaping the whirlwind sown by others,” he said.
But even as loss and damage discussions are now expected to feature prominently during this year’s conference, the adoption of the agenda item did not come without caveats. To reach consensus, negotiators had to take discussions of liability and compensation off the table. That’s prompted concerns that the damages from climate change to developing nations could continue to be paid for with humanitarian aid, rather than from funds set aside by the wealthy nations that have done the most to cause the warming.
But civil society organizations and environmental activists say financial support for countries at the frontlines of climate change should not be charity.
“It has to come from reparations,” said Mohamed Adow, founder and director of Power Shift Africa, a civil society organization geared toward mobilizing climate action.
Loss and damage was highlighted earlier this year in the Sixth Assessment Report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and became a topic of intense discussion across the globe following the devastating floods in Pakistan. But the countries in the Global North are yet to accept responsibility. In a statement prior to COP27, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry expressed concern about how the shifting focus on loss and damage “could delay our ability to do the most important thing of all, which is [to] achieve mitigation sufficient to reduce the level of adaptation.”
Still, as science increasingly shows how costly disasters in the developing world are driven by global warming caused by wealthy nations, those advocating to attribute liability for losses and damages for climate change and determine appropriate reparations are pressing their arguments.
“Climate attribution is on our side, we can now say Pakistan’s floods were triggered by climate change, which is largely caused by the Global North, but that translates into nothing until they admit fault,” Ahmad Rafay Alam, environmental lawyer and member of the Pakistan delegation at COP27, told Inside Climate News.
Pakistan’s floods this year caused more than $30 billion in damages. The climate catastrophe triggered conversations about loss and damage financing and climate reparations across the Global South. While the adoption of loss and damage as an agenda item is being hailed as a win for Pakistan and the G77, delegates, activists and civil society members remain skeptical about the outcomes of the conference.
“If the liability is not there then who will finance these loss and damage mechanisms?” said Muhammad Arif Goheer, the lead negotiator for Pakistan and the principal scientific officer in the nation’s Ministry of Climate Change. “We may not reach a decision on this anytime soon.”
Despite the skepticism, Pakistan’s delegation is determined to highlight loss and damage financing through the negotiating process. And they have significant support.
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U.N. Secretary General Guterres, in a joint press conference alongside Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, urged nations to make global commitments towards loss and damage. “The international community has a duty towards Pakistan,” he said.
But, as with many other issues in the climate negotiations, success in the discussions of loss and damage will be measured by the concrete steps that all the nations agree to take—consensus that historically has been hard to come by.
“The litmus test of this and every future COP is how far deliberations are accompanied by action,” said Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, at the opening plenary. “Everybody, every single day, everywhere in the world, needs to do everything they possibly can to avert the climate crisis.”
For the Pakistan delegation, and many others from developing nations, this means pushing for a roadmap to establish loss and damage financing mechanisms. “If we’re able to push the conversation forward that will be a move in the right direction,” said Goheer.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.