The era of loss and damage from climate change is upon us
Over the last week of July 2021, we all watched on our TV screens as the heat dome and wildfires in north-western US and Canada took many lives and destroyed the town of Lytton in Canada. Then, the devastating floods in Germany and Belgium cost several hundred lives, followed by more loss of lives from devastating floods in China and India. Even here, in Bangladesh, several lives were lost in the Rohingya refugee camps from landslides following heavy rainfall.
As we await the publication of Working Group I (on the science of climate change) as part of the sixth assessment report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I believe that we have clearly and unequivocally entered the era of human-induced climate change due to the fact that global mean temperature has risen over one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels already due to past emissions of greenhouse gases.
This means that almost every single day, from now on, we will see record-breaking extreme heat, wildfires, floods and cyclones happening somewhere in the world, and that every year will be worse than the previous one for the next decade to come.
However, we can still avert the worst impacts in the long term by keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as all countries have agreed to do in the Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) held in 2015. Unfortunately, we have not done enough to achieve that goal, but it is still achievable if every country enhances its actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. While we must redouble our collective efforts to keep the global temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must also try to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change. Now, we also have to prepare for the inevitable loss and damage from human-induced climate change that is upon us already.
In practical terms, this means improving our early warning systems and also our post-disaster response systems in every country, regardless of whether the country is rich or poor. Climate change impacts will occur everywhere. Bangladesh is fortunate to have invested in disaster preparedness, for both cyclones and floods (although the latter is more complicated), and has succeeded in bringing down the loss of lives, even though there is still a lot of damage to infrastructure, homes, crops and livelihoods. Bangladesh can share this experience with other countries as well.
At the global level, although there has been some progress on discussing the topic of loss and damage from climate change in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—such as the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) on Loss and Damage set up in COP19 and the inclusion of loss and damage in Article 8 of the Paris Agreement—there has not been sufficient actions to assist countries to deal with the reality of human-induced climate change impacts.
Hence, the upcoming COP26 to be held in Glasgow, Scotland in November is going to be critical to address the issue with the priority that it clearly deserves. There are some encouraging signs from the recent ministerial meeting held in London, hosted by the UK (president of the incoming COP26), where the issue was indeed recognised as important. However, there is very little time left before COP26 to put something meaningful in place before November. Waiting until the COP will be too late—there are a few ideas that all countries must consider now and take forward seriously over the remaining months until COP26.
The first bit is relatively easy, and it is to agree on how to set up the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage (SNLD), which was agreed upon in COP25 in Madrid, Spain in 2019. This needs to be quickly set up in order to assist countries to take practical steps to tackle loss and damage from climate change on the ground. A robust but flexible arrangement should be negotiated and agreed upon as quickly as possible.
The second and by far the more important bit is raising additional funding for addressing loss and damage, which the developing countries have been asking for but the developed countries have resisted until now. In COP25, while there was no agreement to provide funding for loss and damage, there was an agreement to explore new sources of additional funding that could be built upon going forward.
One idea might be to consider enhancing the commitment from the richer countries to provide USD 100 billion a year to support mitigation and adaptation actions in the poorer countries—with an additional USD 50 billion to support loss and damage. So from, say, 2023 or 2024 onwards, the developed countries could provide USD 150 billion a year for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage, and the funds could be used in combination of all three actions rather than being ring-fenced, which is not efficient.
An increasingly important aspect of loss and damage from climate change is the displacement of people and creation of climate refugees or climate migrants, which will add to the flow of migrants from poor to rich countries. The provision of funding for loss and damage could be a good way to pay for assisting such climate migrants, both from where they are coming as well as where they arrive.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that the reason that the developed countries have been so reluctant to even discuss loss and damage is their fear of opening themselves up to claims of liability and compensation. This should not be felt anymore, as the developing countries already agreed not to invoke liability or claim compensation as part of the Paris Agreement. The opportunity now exists for the developed countries to offer funding out of a sense of solidarity rather than compensation.
One way to take this issue forward seriously, up to and beyond COP26, would be for the UK to appoint a Special Envoy for Loss and Damage who could talk to all parties prior to the COP in order to find practical ways forward. Also, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres could appoint a Special Envoy on Loss and Damage to take the issue to COP26, COP27 and beyond, in order to make loss and damage a permanent high level agenda item in every COP going forward.
As we have already entered the new era of loss and damage from human-induced climate change, we must take measures on the ground as well as in the UNFCCC to deal with the issue effectively in order to prevent its worst impacts.
Dr Saleemul Huq is Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh.