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Loss and Damage: What Is It, and Will There Be Progress at COP27?

delegates sitting at tables at COP26
United Nations representatives at COP26 last year. Photo: President of the Republic of Armenia

As the world awaits the UN climate talks at COP27, which will take place November 6-18 in Egypt, many are hoping to see progress on the issue of ‘loss and damage.’

The COP27 website says that one of the meeting’s goals is “to clarify support for loss and damage.…”

The UN secretary-general has urged that meaningful progress must be made to address loss and damage.

‘Loss and damage’ debate set to dominate the COP27 agenda,” claims a headline in the Financial Times.

For journalists: Experts from Columbia Climate School will be attending COP27 and are available to comment. See who’s going.

But what does this term, ‘loss and damage,’ actually mean? Why is it so hard to address, and what are the prospects for breakthroughs at COP27?

What is loss and damage?

At its simplest, ‘loss and damage’ is fairly self-explanatory. It refers to the physical damages caused by a hotter climate — coastlines lost to sea level rise, infrastructure leveled by climate-change-fueled storms, crops desiccated by drought, and more.

But in the context of COP27, it’s more complicated than that. ‘Loss and damage’ carries undertones of liability and climate justice — because the countries that have profited the most from burning fossil fuels are not the countries who are suffering the worst from climate change impacts. Thus, ‘loss and damage’ has almost become a synonym for ‘reparations.’

lisa dale headshot
Lisa Dale is a lecturer at the Columbia Climate School.

Forbes reports that for some nations, such as the Bahamas, debt from climate-related disasters can be higher than the entire country’s GDP.

“At the most basic level, loss and damage is simply about liability,” explained Lisa Dale, a lecturer at the Columbia Climate School. “And it just means, ‘You did this to us, so you should pay for the damage.’”

Why is progress on loss and damage so difficult?

michael gerrard headshot
Michael Gerrard is director of the Columbia Climate School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

Loss and damage has been a theme at the UN climate talks for more than a decade, said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Climate School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “Developing countries, the countries that are the victims of climate change, have been calling for it for many years,” he explained, “but almost none of the developed countries have any interest in paying it.”

Wealthier nations have been reluctant to acknowledge legal liability for climate change and its impacts, and to agree to specific dollar amounts of contributions.

The issue of loss and damage also gets tangled up in moral and economic questions that are difficult to answer, let alone agree upon, said Dale. “The fight is about, is that liability valid? How can we quantify it? Who owes what to who?”

Action on loss and damage so far

Wealthy countries have already acknowledged that they bear the brunt of the responsibility for the changing climate. Dale pointed out that every country that has signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has implicitly agreed that countries have different levels of responsibility for creating climate change, and that there are also different levels of capacity to respond to it. “But loss and damage wants us to operationalize that and come up with a dollar value,” said Dale, “and it gets very, very tricky.”

In 2009, at COP15, rich nations pledged to give $100 billion a year to less wealthy nations to support climate action and adaptation. So far, the wealthy nations have largely failed to deliver on that promise.

“Pledges and commitments have been made, but not kept,” Bahamas’ Prime Minister Philip Davis told Forbes. “We’re now in a race against time.… As climate disasters proliferate, the pressure on borders, food production, and geopolitical stability will increase, too. Urgent action is needed now — it can’t wait any longer.”

While Dale agrees that wealthier nations are not contributing nearly as much as they should, she pointed out that they are helping in ways that are not always labeled as loss and damage reparations.

“Nobody’s writing a check that says ‘Dear Gambia: Here’s the amount for loss and damage,’ but what they’re doing instead is contributing many billions of dollars into funds that the UN then manages and allocates out for developing countries who need technical and financial support.”

In addition to the UN funding, aid may also come from academic institutions and humanitarian organizations like USAID. It might look like a new water sanitation system, an energy project, or support for other kinds of infrastructure development, but in Dale’s book, these represent a version of loss and damage reparations.

What hope is there for progress at COP27?

Gerrard is not expecting wealthy nations to make big financial commitments on loss and damage at COP27.

“There’s no way the US government is going to do anything radical before the midterm elections,” he said, “and the looming energy crisis in Europe is certainly going to dampen the enthusiasm in those countries. It’s a tough time to get major new action.”

Some countries, such as Japan, New Zealand, Australia, or Canada, may be more likely to make contributions, said Gerrard, “but that won’t add up to anything close to what the developing countries are calling for.”

However, he does think that there may be other pathways toward helping less wealthy nations, such as providing debt relief for Pakistan, which suffered catastrophic floods this summer. “It’s easier to relieve debt than it is to write checks,” Gerrard explained.

He also sees potential in enhancing technical assistance — rather than financial assistance — to help developing nations recover from disasters and reduce their vulnerability.

Time to shift the conversation?

“It’s hard for me to envision a scenario where any country, let alone the U.S., is going to throw so much money at helping adaptation in faraway lands. That’s politically really difficult to justify,” said Dale.

Instead of writing blank checks, she thinks that the other forms of assistance — such as the technical assistance mentioned above — will not only be more palatable to wealthier countries, but may also be more effective in the long run, especially in countries whose governments have lower capacities and higher corruption.

“These countries are suffering legitimate harm from climate change, and what they need is not a blank check — what they need is a solution and a way to adapt,” she said. “Those are much more targeted and narrow outcomes, and they can be met not only with financial support, but for example, with modifications to terms of trade.”

Another advantage to this strategy is that the channels for these types of aid already exist, rather than requiring the world to set up a whole new system for the payment of loss and damage, which is problematic in so many ways.

“In my view,” says Dale, “the path forward is to use those institutional pathways that already exist. That’s the best place to start trying to address some of these adaptation needs and who’s going to pay for it.”

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Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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