It’s time to pay up for climate devastation
‘Loss and damage’ mechanism is now one of the most divisive issues at the COP25 climate talks in Spain
London — Two of the worst storms ever recorded hit developing nations in 2019, supercharged by rising global temperatures. Now there is an international push to link the billions of dollars in devastation to climate change and compel rich, industrial nations to pay.
From the Bahamas to Mozambique, many nations are increasingly blaming climate change for more violent storms passing through. They have raised the issue at UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) that continues this week in Madrid.
Envoys from almost 200 nations are talking about how to compensate countries for the effects of global warming. This logic has been at the core of international climate diplomacy for three decades: not all countries should shoulder equal costs for a shift in the environment caused by burning fossil fuels.
“Developing countries are not responsible for climate change,” Brazil environment minister Ricardo Salles said in an interview in Madrid. “Responsibility lies mainly with the rich world that engaged in industrial activity for a very long time.”
The envoys at the COP25 meeting are discussing how to design a “loss and damage” mechanism that would spread around those costs. While their work is at a very early stage, the idea is that it would cover climate-related events such as extreme weather and rising seas.
It is one of the most divisive issues in climate talks, since expectations are rising with every storm and the richest nations are concerned they’re being asked to write a blank cheque.
A series of powerful storms in 2019 added urgency into the debate. In March, for example, Cyclone Idai tore through several African countries including Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, killing more than 1,300 people. Hurricane Dorian sat atop the Bahamas for days in August, leaving behind the Caribbean nation’s worst-ever disaster, with a reported $3bn in damage. That saw a dip in visits to its idyllic beaches, reducing its GDP by 25% in the wake of the storm, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
For Belize, another country known for spectacular beaches, the problem is especially acute. The Central American nation is in the throes of a drought that caused a partial state of emergency. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change projects sea levels could rise as much as 1.1m within the lifetime of children born today, which would wipe out 73% of the country’s major hotels and holiday destinations.
“We stand on the front line of climate change, and once you lose the front line you lose everything,” Janine Coye-Felson, deputy permanent representative of Belize to the UN, said in an interview.
While richer nations could absorb that sort of the impact, it hits places such as Belize harder. Like many other developing nations, its economy relies on tourism and agriculture. With a GDP of just $1.9bn in 2018, there is not much room for unaccountable climate damage.
Climate-related disasters in high income countries caused $1.4-trillion in economic losses over the past 20 years, which shaved just 0.4% off economic activity, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. In developing nations, $21bn of losses cut output by almost 2%.
Those risks are growing. The reinsurance company Munich Re counted a record $160bn of losses from natural disasters in 2018. That included $57bn for tropical storms and $24bn for wildfires.
It is increasingly one of the most prominent issues in the developing world, making it a central issue at the UN meeting. Some countries at the UN talks are focused mainly on the loss and damage mechanism, sensing it is already too late to rein in the greenhouse gas pollution causing the problem.
“Developing countries are looking for a way forward to have a serious political discussions about finance,” said Alden Meyer, who has been tracking the UN talks for more than two decades at the Union of Concerned Scientists, US nonprofit group. “If there’s no progress, that’s going to be a pretty big issue for them. There’ll be a lot of anger.”
For African nations, severe drought upset agricultural cycles, driving up food price inflation 6% this summer. The cost of maize, used to prepare food in most Kenyan homes, rose as much as 25% in July, pushing over 600,000 people into “acute malnutrition”, according to the Kenyan Government’s 2019 rains season assessment report.
Unchecked climate change will cost the whole of the Caribbean as much as $22bn a year by 2050, according to a 2011 report by the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, which is based in Belize.
Developing nations say now is the time rich countries to start enhancing promises by setting up a range of responses for different situations. On the list are funds that are geared to relieving disasters and building resilience. They also want direct investment from bodies such as the Green Climate Fund and better access to data to help them prepare for what lies ahead.
“Climate funding is a risk, but there is a need for a resilience fund,” Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s minister for tourism, said in a phone interview. “Developed countries must recognise that their markets are dying and what are those markets — the developing countries.”