Loss and Damage: A Short History

Dogged determination resulted in some gains at COP27 but they were few and far between. Ben Wilson explores the origins of one of the achievements of last years’s COP27, and Scotland’s role in taking it forward.

As COP27 went into extra-time in Sharm-El-Sheikh, hopes of a successful outcome were not high. The beginning of the two-week conference had been beset by logistical challenges, including expensive food, poor access to water and unreliable Wi-Fi. The negotiations themselves had been characterised by the traditional delay, divert, and divide tactics of the Global North. This meant they moved at a snail’s pace, and calls for climate justice from the Global South once again fell on deaf ears. In the middle of week one, a sanitation malfunction led to a river of sewage flowing through the main external thoroughfare as thousands of negotiators, observers, journalists and other attendees made their way to the exit. It was a poignant visual metaphor.

However, deep into extra time in the afternoon of Saturday 19 November 2022, a deal was reached to establish a fund for ‘Loss & Damage’, an agreement of genuine historic significance. ‘Loss & Damage’ is United Nations (UN) jargon for ‘climate reparations’ – a long-standing priority for the Global South, and an absolute anathema to the Global North. But what exactly is ‘Loss & Damage’, and why is this agreement being celebrated as ground-breaking; what was the contribution of the Scottish Government; and how was this once impossible agreement reached? These questions and more are addressed beneath.

‘Loss & Damage’ refers to the social, environmental and economic costs incurred through extreme weather events (such as floods, cyclones, hurricanes) and ‘slow-onset’ events which cause harm over a longer period (such as changing weather, desertification, rising sea-levels). The science is clear about the association of these events with global warming, and due to improvements in attribution science, we can now prove with a great deal of certainty the extent to which the frequency and likelihood of these events has increased due to emissions.

The distribution of emissions is dramatically unequal across the world. The big historical polluting countries of the Global North have captured excessive amounts of capital through exploitation of people and natural resources at home and abroad, and through the excessive pillaging and burning of fossil fuels, leading to the climate crisis. This basic reality shapes the climate justice perspective. Whilst many leaders in the Global North present climate change as a technological, economic or purely environmental challenge to be solved through business, innovation and building of political consensus, representatives of the Global South attend COP understanding it as a global forum to address the deep injustice of the climate crisis.

On this basis, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) proposed in 1991 that the UN convention on climate change should include a mechanism for ‘Loss & Damage’. This was envisioned as a global pool of finance whereby countries would pay-in, based on their emissions and countries could draw-down to pay for the climate impacts they were unjustly incurring. However, this proposal was roundly rejected by Global North countries, who were ready to fight tooth-and-nail against any such notions of justice underpinning the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in favour of modest (i.e. inadequate) agreements focused on gradual, business friendly approaches to tackling climate change. Years of battles on ‘Loss & Damage’ subsequently followed, with other Global South countries joining with the AOSIS in their call.

In these years, some meagre progress towards climate justice was made in climate negotiations. There wasacknowledgement in the convention that some countries are more responsible than others for climate change, known as the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities. In 2009, when world leaders tried to reach a new global climate agreement in Copenhagen, the Global North made a commitment to provide $100bn per year by 2020 to the Global South to deal with climate change. In 2013, a huge win was achieved when ‘Loss & Damage’ was finally formally acknowledged as a legitimate concept and relating to a specific need. And in 2015, an article was agreed on ‘Loss & Damage’ in the Paris Agreement.

However, crucially, these agreements regarded ‘Loss & Damage’ as a technical problem which required further exploration, and the Global North did everything they could to wrench out the climate justice elements of the concept. They affirmed that the $100bn was voluntary, not something they owed, and repeated that the convention was about reducing emissions and adapting to climate impacts, not about dealing with the after effects – they viewed that as the responsibility of individual states.

In 2019, at COP25 in Madrid, the seeds finally began to be sown to achieve the breakthrough reached at COP27. It was in Madrid that all developing countries finally came together under the G77+ China group to prioritise ‘Loss & Damage’ finance. Bolstered by half a million protesters marching through the streets of Madrid, themselves inspired by the youth climate strikes which had caught fire that year, the issue of ‘Loss & Damage’ finance began to rise quickly up the priority list of COP negotiators and observers. The Global South once again left COP25 with their demands unmet, but something had started to build, and the G77 resolved to pick this fight up again at COP26 in Glasgow.

In early 2020, mindful of the importance of this issue to climate justice and in response to the unique political situation surrounding COP26 in Glasgow, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS) identified ‘Loss & Damage’ finance as a key coalition priority. Knowing that the Scottish Government would be looking to make a splash during the conference, especially if it gave it a semblance of moral authority and distinguished it from Westminster, SCCS hoped the Scottish Government could be a tactical champion of the issue with potential for global impact. For 18 months, SCCS undertook a range of advocacy activities calling on Scottish Government to make this move, including the publication of numerous papers, countless lobby meetings, public campaigns for increased climate justice funding and co-hosted the Glasgow Climate Dialogues with the Scottish Government. These were a series of pre-COP meetings with experts from the Global South on priority issues ahead of COP26, including a session on ‘Loss & Damage’.

On day one of COP26, the Scottish Government made headlines by becoming the first developed country to explicitly commit finance for ‘Loss & Damage’. The announcement reverberated around the discussion halls of the SECC, and was loudly welcomed by international civil society, world leaders from the Global South and the UN Secretary General amongst others. The Scottish pledge was widely credited by experts as ‘breaking the taboo’ on ‘Loss & Damage’ finance and is seen as a major political action which helped progress and issue that had become (at least on the side of the Global North) dominated by technocratic incrementalism.

Once again, COP26 ended in failure on ‘Loss & Damage’, with the proposed establishment of a fund rejected behind closed doors by key Global North leaders, stitched up by the sympathetic UK Presidency. As usual, they kicked the can down the road, agreeing only to a series of dialogues on the issue which were meant to last until 2024.

Many Global North countries had hoped that the issue was, therefore, resolved for a few years at least. Some hoped that the Global South may lose their unity on the issue, and that they could be picked apart by the classic ‘divide and rule’ tactics usually deployed at the COP. However, throughout 2022, the Global South stood strong. They used the post-COP26 dialogues to affirm that nothing short of a financial mechanism was acceptable. They managed to secure discussion of this issue on the provisional COP27 agenda in summer 2022, and through a late-night fight in the first few days in Egypt, managed to get it on the formal agenda.

At this point, many were celebrating the discussion alone: finance for ‘Loss & Damage’ had never been on a COP agenda, and for a long time this would have been unthinkable. Yet hope still was not high at the beginning of the conference or after the first few negotiations on the agenda item. The US, the EU alongside other developed countries were firm in their contributions: they said it was unthinkable they’d agree to the demands.

Publicly, they suggested that setting up a fund under the UN was going to take too long, and instead promoted private sector led initiatives as a solution. Privately, they said it was politically impossible for them to find any more money than they already give through Official Development Assistance (ODA) and that, therefore, it would be disingenuous of them to commit to it now.

Yet whilst the Global North were strong on their stance, the G77+ China was stronger. Early in week one, the block published their demand that COP27 established a fund for ‘Loss & Damage’, and despite this being resisted as laughable, unachievable and naïve, they stood firm and did not waiver. Thanks to the indefatigable and tireless efforts of their negotiators, and supported by a wide range of inside and outside civil society actions, deep into extra time, after late night approval from the White House to make a dramatic U-turn, the resolve of the Global South proved effective.

The agreement at COP27 to establish a fund for ‘Loss & Damage’ is, indeed, historic. It’s the culmination of a 30-year fight in climate negotiations. But it’s also much more than that. It is a final recognition in a global forum of the injustice of global economic and political distribution. On the former, it’s finally a recognition of harms that have been afflicted on other states through wanton atmospheric vandalism, and which they continue to inflict, despite mass political outcry and scientific consensus. On the latter, it is a powerful example of the potential for significant breakthrough, despite the tedious technocratic modus operandi of many vacant diplomatic spaces which serve neither people nor planet.

It is right that we celebrate this victory. It is the product of a huge amount of hard work from Global South governments and civil society, and in the grand scheme of things, absolutely historic. From a Scottish perspective, it has been a huge privilege to be part of this fight. The Scottish Government’s contribution – and, thus, Scottish civil society’s biggest contribution – to this global win is small, but it is still significant. However, this celebration must also come with continued advocacy. We must ensure that the fund truly delivers climate justice, is financed by polluters, and gets money quickly to people on the ground. Innovative global taxation, debt cancellation and closing of tax havens must all be on the table and are being talked about in the context of ‘Loss & Damage’, opening doors to major transformation of current global economic systems of exploitation. This is where we must now turn our attention.

Ben Wilson is the Advocacy Manager at SCIAF, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (https://www.sciaf.org.uk/).