Loss and damage

Published September 22, 2022
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.

THE recent flood disaster in the country has triggered an unprecedented interest in Pakistan’s climate crisis and global climate injustice. It is now commonly said that whereas Pakistan’s share in global carbon emissions is miniscule, an unfair burden has fallen on the country’s economy and poor population.

The scale and magnitude of economic and non-economic losses, two core concerns of the ‘loss and damage’ concept, have brought to the forefront the demand for reparations.

The present policy discourse in the country is, however, out of sync with the international climate diplomacy we have traditionally pursued since 1992 when Pakistan signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The present debate offers a rare opportunity for us to revisit some of our decades-old assumptions and reset the direction of many undeclared policy actions and inactions.

‘Loss and damage’ is a fairly precise technical term used in international climate negotiations. The term fundamentally refers to climate impacts that exceed the adaptive capacity of countries, communities and ecosystems. This concerns those losses and damage that cannot be reversed or restored, a measure of post-adaptation and post-mitigation scenarios.

Read: Flood aftermath

In other words, the concept is about the consequences of climate change that go beyond what people can adapt to, be it a slow onset of the process or extreme weather events. The concept is entangled in such vexing issues as climate justice, reparations and compensation.

Nothing divides the Global South and Global North more in climate negotiations than this. The divide has been widening since the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro where the principle of ‘shared but differentiated responsibility’ was first adopted. The international climate finance institutions that have emerged since then have diluted the principle, ero­ding its centrality to climate change negotiations.

The demands for a compensatory mechanism were first aired in Rio by the Alliance of Small Island States (ASIS). Over the years, Pakistan and other countries have realised that they too are affected by climate change that was beyond their coping capacities.

Pakistan was, however, determined to keep itself aloof. It distanced itself not only from the debate but also from the processes that began to unfold at the annual climate summits, formally starting with the Nairobi Work Programme (2005), and progressing on to the Bali Action Plan (2009), Cancun Adaptation Framework (2010), Warsaw International Mechanism (2013) and the Santiago Network (2019). Pakistan’s engagement in these processes was negligible, as it hardly served on their working groups or drafting committees. In fact, its technical participation in these negotiations rarely exceeded tokenism.

We should seek finance for loss and damage, instead of seeking liability and compensation.

As the demand for financial support from the developing countries became louder, loss and damage was taken up as an issue by several northern organisations — think tanks, universities, international NGOs, networks, and rights-based organisations, often providing research and technical backstopping to developing countries’ negotiators. These groups in fact, in many ways, shaped and informed the negotiations and enhanced the capacities of their southern counterpart think tanks and CSOs. Pakistan, wittingly or unwittingly, distanced itself from these non-state actors and loss and damage-related formal processes.

Instead, it followed an undeclared three-track policy of avoiding closer relations with i) those who argued for climate justice and climate rights and had rights-based constituencies, ii) vulnerability-based groups, most notably the 48-member Climate Vulnerability Forum of Most Vulnerable Countries, presumably because most of its members were least developed countries and the policymakers did not always find it convincing to engage with them, and iii) island countries organised under the rubric of the 48-member ASIS. These three constituencies often overlapped, but were always at the centre of negotiations on loss and damage.

This is how Pakistan missed an opportunity to engage on the substance and processes of loss and damage, failed to augment its capacities and competences, and was unable to project and strengthen its soft power. Pakistan is a large country with a fairly elaborate infrastructure and institutions that indeed had plenty to contribute to the global climate discourse, as it had done at the Earth Summit in 1992.

This is not to imply that the negotiations are complete. Far from it. In fact, after three decades, it’s only now that the issue is becoming part of the main negotiating agenda. With the inclusion of Article 8 of the Paris Agreement, loss and damage is now embedded as a thematic pillar under the UNFCCC, together with mitigation and adaptation. It is important for Pakistan to recognise that under the adopted guidelines for implementation of the Paris Agreement, vulnerable countries will report a) climate-related losses, b) what they are doing to deal with them, and c) include the information on the help they would need. Also, reviewing and assessing data on loss and damage will be included in a five-yearly exercise of estimating progress on the Paris Agreement.

In pictures: Devastating floods affect millions in Pakistan

The Paris Agreement does not refer to finance related to loss and damage. Instead, the decision states that loss and damage “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”.

The developed countries are averse to the idea of compensating for losses and damage caused by adverse climate impacts. They are apprehensive that it may be seen as an admission of legal liability, triggering litigation and compensation claims. An argument for Pakistan, therefore, is to seek finance for loss and damage, instead of seeking liability and compensation. Developed countries could possibly provide these funds not because of legal liability but because supporting vulnerable countries facing unavoidable threats from climate change is the right thing to do.

Pakistan needs solidarity at this moment. Participation in UNGA and COP-27 provides an opportunity to cultivate a spirit of solidarity.

The present wave of disasters provides us with a chance to revisit our level of interest and devise a new engagement strategy. To begin with, Pakistan has a narrow window of opportunity to embed loss and damage in the third edition of its Nationally Determined Contribution and submit it to the UNFCCC Secretariat prior to COP-27 in November. It will help create a momentum for international support and solidarity with Pakistan. It is a particularly opportune moment since Pakistan is presently chairing the all-important Group of 77.

The writer is an expert on climate change and development.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2022

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