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UN 'loss and damage mechanism' born amid rising climate costs

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 26 Nov 2013 03:10 PM
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Men sit atop a structure and watch the sunrise in an devastated area at Tacloban City, the Philippines, on November 25, 2013. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lower yields for sweet potato and other staple crops like maize and cassava, shrinking fish catches, tourist numbers down by a third, and rising health costs from respiratory disorders and malaria - these are just some of the harmful impacts forecast for the Pacific region if the world fails to do more to cut planet-warming emissions in the coming decades.

A new study from the Asian Development Bank  (ADB) estimates the economic value of the losses and damage climate change may cause in the Pacific this century. The cost ranges from 2.9 percent of annual gross domestic product (GDP) by 2100, if temperature rise is kept to 2 degrees Celsius, to as high as 12.7 percent of GDP if today’s fossil fuel-intensive growth model continues.

“Our findings show that if not adequately addressed, climate change could overturn the region’s development achievements," warned Xianbin Yao, director general of ADB’s Pacific department.

Hardest-hit would be Papua New Guinea, where climate change effects could trigger a loss of up to 15.2 percent of GDP by 2100. East Timor’s GDP is predicted to drop by up to 10 percent, followed by Vanuatu at 6.2 percent and the Solomon Islands at 4.7 percent.

The report's findings were issued as most developing nations and climate change experts welcomed the establishment of a new international mechanism to deal with the impacts of climate-related loss and damage at the U.N. climate talks, which ended on Saturday in Warsaw.

The decision acknowledges, crucially, "that loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change includes, and in some cases involves more than, that which can be reduced by adaptation". It is a key point, because while efforts to manage climate risks and adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas may help avoid loss and damage, the push to set up a new mechanism hinged on the argument that some negative consequences will happen no matter what is done to try and prevent them.

"Climate-induced loss and damage is beyond adaptation. It crosses the boundaries of economic and non-economic losses and damages, to the socio-cultural front," said Quamrul Chowdhury, a lead climate negotiator for the group of 49 least developed countries.

FORCED MIGRATION 'REPUGNANT'

Politicians in Pacific island nations have highlighted the loss of cultural identity that would occur if their people have to leave atolls where land and water is increasingly contaminated by salt water, and higher seas and storm surges bring flooding and coastal erosion.

Tony de Brum, minister-in-assistance to the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in Warsaw that, for most people in his country, the prospect of permanently abandoning their homeland for another country is "quite repugnant". Forced migration usually leads to dependency and the disappearance of a way of life, he noted.

"We must keep it in mind as a survival issue, but it is not how it should be resolved," he emphasised.

It is this kind of tough problem the "Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage associated with climate change impacts" has been set up to study and, ultimately, address.

Many richer governments, including the United States and the European Union, had opposed a new institution for loss and damage under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, unwilling to open the door to potential claims for compensation based on their historical responsibility for global warming.

But they backed down in return for weak language on financial assistance and a concession by developing states to create the mechanism under the 2010 "Cancun Adaptation Framework".

"They realised they couldn't really be seen to be heartless and go against these countries, particularly after typhoon Haiyan (in the Philippines) - so there was a political decision on their side to play ball," said Saleemul Huq, who works closely with negotiators from the poorest countries and is director of the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCAD).

Many developing nations were not happy about putting the mechanism under the adaptation framework, however, holding up the final session of the climate talks in a last-minute bid to get this changed. They settled for a review of where the mechanism sits in 2016.

"It's not a perfect deal, but what we call in economics the second best," acknowledged Chowdhury. "It has a number of loopholes in its crafting, (as well as) a number of tricky phrases and also limitations."

JUST THE BEGINNING

Some other experts were stronger in their criticism. "The mechanism’s current architecture falls within the area of adaptation and fails to acknowledge that the world has gone ‘beyond adaptation’ and entered the era of loss and damage," said Harjeet Singh, international coordinator for disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation with ActionAid International. "The established (mechanism) is too weak to tackle the enormous impacts already occurring due to climate change."

Certainly, there is a way to go before the mechanism is likely to deliver concrete results. The decision at the Warsaw talks establishes an executive committee that will hold its first meeting in March, then develop and present a two-year work plan at the next U.N. climate conference in Lima at the end of 2014.

"The big message coming out of Warsaw is that we have an agreement to do something substantive on loss and damage," said ICCAD's Huq. "It is the beginning of something, it's not the end." The next step will likely be a two-year period of research "to figure out how to deal with this issue", he added.

For some, that is too long to wait, as damage from extreme weather, such as flooding and storms, and slower processes like expanding deserts and acidifying oceans is already piling up. A World Bank report launched in Warsaw said economic losses from natural disasters have risen from an annual average of around $50 billion in the 1980s to just under $200 billion each year in the last decade - with around three quarters due to extreme weather.

"The Philippines and Filipinos, in our resilient response to the devastating typhoon Haiyan, put the issue of 'loss and damage' on the front page of newspapers and these talks. But the suffering of people does not seem to have been enough," said Lidy Nacpil of the Jubilee South, Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development. "Instead of establishing a system that could respond to the new climate realities, they've established more talks and given no real resources. It's reflective of a broader outcome that is deaf to the needs of impacted peoples and the urgency of the problem."

Sven Harmeling, climate change advocacy coordinator for CARE International, said his organisation would have liked to see more clarity on what work the loss and damage mechanism will do and how. "But at least it is now no longer possible to close down the issue and try to hide it under the umbrella of adaptation - so it is definitely a step forward," he said.

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