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A humanitarian lens on COP27: Loss and damage, debt relief, and climate justice

The COP27 climate summit opens in Egypt with early progress on a contentious issue but a long road ahead to thrash out solutions for a global emergency.

On the summit’s opening day, 6 November, countries agreed to make loss and damage financing a core agenda item to be discussed over the next two weeks.

Simply having the topic on the slate at all is an early win for frontline communities and vulnerable countries: Wealthy nations have long pushed back on attempts to discuss funding for climate damages at the yearly summits.

The high-level negotiations come amid new signals that the climate emergency is spiralling, with clear humanitarian consequences from unprecedented floods in Pakistan to repeat droughts in the Horn of Africa.

Levels of greenhouse gases are at record highs, and national plans to limit emissions and temperature rise are far off target. Days of extreme heat are growing more frequent and intense – and worsening food insecurity in a measurable way. The cost for societies to adapt to climate threats dwarfs the money that’s available amid the war in Ukraine and its global fallout.

Here’s a rundown of some of the issues and dynamics that we’re watching as COP27 progresses:

The next step for loss and damage funding

For many of today’s most at-risk nations, the success of COP27 depends on a clear plan to move forward with loss and damage financing.

Loss and damage is essentially the tally of climate destruction that happens when all else has failed – including mitigation (reducing emissions) and adaptation (reducing risks), where most official climate finance is concentrated.

Vulnerable countries say climate-fuelled disasters have erased billions of dollars in economic wealth, on top of incalculable societal and cultural losses.

While the inclusion of loss and damage finance on the COP27 agenda is significant, the end result is far from certain.

How loss and damage funding would work in practice is a question mark: which countries would pay, how would it be measured, who would get the money, and how?

One bloc, the Alliance of Small Island States, has proposed setting up a loss and damage response fund, akin to the existing Green Climate Fund, which has an $11 billion portfolio with projects aimed at mitigation and adaptation.

Climate campaigners say they don’t expect all the answers at COP27; however, they’re looking for unequivocal commitments to create a financing facility for loss and damage at this summit, and a clear timeline to set it in motion.

Countries accused of stalling, blocking, and even bullying in the past have sounded more accommodating – if still ambiguous – in recent public statements.

EU officials have spoken of getting “concrete results in terms of finance” at COP27. John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said he expects “a complicated dialogue to figure out what kind of financial arrangements might be made”.

The idea of paying for climate damages – as opposed to offering assistance as voluntary aid – remains a contentious issue for these countries, who bristle at terms like “compensation” and “liability” for fear costs could spiral.

The word “compensation”, Kerry said, has “all kinds of loaded implications”.

Debt and climate justice

If loss and damage is front and centre at COP27 after years of pushback, it’s a product of a more unified message from vulnerable countries, and wave after wave of headline emergencies – floods in Pakistan, heat waves, extreme hunger in the Horn of Africa – that have made it impossible to ignore.

It’s also part of an evolution in how loss and damage funding is talked about.

Advocates see it as a matter of reparations and climate justice – not traditional aid doled out by Global North nations to the Global South, but what’s owed to countries least responsible for the climate crisis.

For some, it shares the language of broader decolonisation and social justice movements.

“Climate reparations are absolutely essential. It is not about voluntary contributions anymore,” said Keston Perry, a political economist at Williams College in Massachusetts, speaking at a recent panel staged by the UK-based Commonwealth Foundation.

“It’s about recognising why we have got to the point where we are at. Why certain countries – especially Black and brown countries, countries that are racialised, countries that had a colonial past – why are these countries particularly exposed and vulnerable?”

There’s a similar argument behind the rising demands for debt relief in countries trapped in a cycle of disaster, rebuilding, and ruinous debt. Concepts like debt default, restructuring, cancellation, and debt-for-climate swaps have also become part of the climate justice conversation.

Countries take on costly loans to rebuild after repeated emergencies, and end up slashing public budgets (and not investing in climate-resilient infrastructure) to pay down their debt.

This cycle is especially clear in small, climate-vulnerable nations that don’t have diverse economies. External debt amounts to 62% of GDP in small island states, according to UN statistics, compared to 29% for all developing countries.

And small island states spend far more on debt repayments than they receive in climate finance – $26.6 billion compared to $1.5 billion between 2016 and 2020 – according to Eurodad, a debt and development advocacy group.

Barbados is leading a push to overhaul the global financial system. Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s “Bridgetown Agenda” aims to unlock disaster finances on palatable terms, and to retrofit the system for what vulnerable countries need amid the climate crisis.

How humanitarians grapple with climate change

From passive observers to active advocacy, humanitarians’ role at COP summits has subtly shifted over time.

This year, several aid groups have sent teams to COP27 to reinforce messages on a range of issues, from financing and climate action in conflict, to food security, gender justice, and health.

Médecins Sans Frontières, which attended COP in an official capacity for the first time last year, is trying to keep the focus on health and on how political decisions affect people in the middle of crises.

“The idea is to alert the fact that [vulnerable communities] should not be overlooked while talking about loss and damages,” said Dikolela Kalubi, coordinator for planetary health at MSF. “We know this political discussion is very high-level – it’s about funding and so on – but our concern is that we are forgetting the ones that are most in need. How does it translate into concrete support?”

The sizeable humanitarian presence at COP27 reflects broader shifts in how emergency aid grapples with climate change. Over several years, it has morphed from a distant risk factor, to a pressing driver of crises, to a clear disruptor for a system facing a future of extreme heat, limited funding, and unending emergencies.

UN agencies and big humanitarian NGOs have largely been in favour of loss and damage progress at COP27.

But there’s also an underlying tension: The mostly Western governments that resist loss and damage financing are the same donors that fund the bulk of humanitarian aid.

Repeatedly, these governments cite humanitarian funding as part of their efforts to avoid loss and damage. But climate activists and vulnerable countries are clear that emergency aid is both a drop in the bucket of need, and an entirely different bucket altogether.

The not-so-hidden health crisis

The climate emergency is also a health crisis – a point that health experts are pushing heavily at COP27.

The fallout from climate change is widening the reach and severity of infectious disease outbreaks, driving up heat-related deaths, worsening hunger for tens of millions, and magnifying existing crises – all with lopsided impacts on women when needs are ignored.

“Climate change is undermining every dimension of global health,” declared a study published in the medical journal The Lancet ahead of the summit.

The fallout from climate change, COVID-19, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has focused attention on global food systems, and that’s reflected in Sharm el-Sheikh. For the first time at a COP summit, there’s a “food and agriculture” pavillion set up on the trade-fair like sidelines.

How to live with risk

Yes, climate change is an existential threat. But there are also ways to shrink and prepare for risk that don’t need to-the-wire negotiations at global summits.

One example: Half the world isn’t covered by early warning systems, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

There’s a clear imbalance in who is protected and who isn’t, and this is costing lives. The stats show that disaster mortality is worse in countries with limited warning systems, while better planning and earlier warning saves lives: Disaster deaths have dropped over the last 50 years even while climate-linked disasters have mushroomed, according to figures compiled by the UN’s meteorological agency.

The humanitarian sector is being pushed to better anticipate crises, but it’s still a system built to respond to emergencies rather than prevent them.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who warned of “climate hell” as COP27 opened, said he will use the summit to launch a long-touted plan to ensure widespread early warning systems within five years.

Source: The New Humanitarian

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