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COP 23 Delivers Small Consolation for Vulnerable Countries Facing Climate Loss and Damage

The global response to loss and damage resulting from climate-related disasters left developing countries with very little to celebrate by the end of this year’s United Nations climate change conference, according to a new Climate Analytics blog post that dissects the step-by-step process leading up to a largely unsatisfying decision.

In a year of epic storms, droughts, and famine, with a small island state chairing the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) for the first time, “vulnerable countries thought it was high time to address the issue of loss and damage head on,” the non-profit climate think tank notes. Instead, their effort to “move loss and damage beyond the current, very narrow focus on a technical report was blocked by developed countries. Nor did they see progress on finance for loss and damage.”

The compromise decision was to convene an expert dialogue next May “to explore a wide range of information, inputs, and views on ways for facilitating the mobilization and securing of expertise, and enhancement of support, including finance, technology, and capacity-building, for averting, minimizing, and addressing loss and damage.”

But anyone looking for immediate action on that particular burst of COP-speak—rather than a commitment to continue talking about it—came away sorely disappointed.

As Research Analyst Olivia Serdeczny notes, “the background to this is a bit dry but important. The basic underlying question is whether loss and damage should be addressed at a purely technical level, or whether it belongs on the political agenda.”

At present, loss and damage is discussed once a year, when the COP receives a technical report from the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (WIM), an entity set up in 2013 to “enhance knowledge, coherence, action, and support” to address the issue. The WIM has only limited budget and staffing, and the follow-ups to its reports are mostly administrative in nature.

This year, developing countries were looking for a process change that would bring loss and damage closer to the centre of the COP policy process. Led by Joel Suárez, a charismatic Cuban negotiator attending his first UN climate conference, “they called for a permanent agenda item beyond the report of the WIM that would allow [countries] to voice their challenges and needs, and to trigger effective solutions,” Serdeczny recalls. “They felt that loss and damage needed to be mainstreamed into other relevant processes” that run through the COP, in crucial but controversial areas like capacity-building for developing countries, technology transfer, and financial support.

“Did the vulnerable countries succeed?” she asks. “Not really.” Developed countries consistently rejected attempts to give loss and damage higher, more consistent profile, or to put more resources behind an essential and urgent form of climate response.

“Still, perhaps there is reason for hope,” she writes. “The issue of support for loss and damage is alive (even if not kicking) under the expert dialogue in May next year.” There will be some emphasis on developing “user-friendly tools and products” to help countries assess the climate risks they face, and on closer scientific collaboration to address slow-moving but inevitable climate events like sea level rise.

The preamble to the COP decision also “notes the concern expressed by Parties on the increasing frequency and severity of climate-related disasters that have affected many countries,” a phrase that gives Serdeczny cause for guarded optimism. “Acknowledging that a problem exists is an important step in every crisis,” she writes. “Perhaps in the future, we can turn towards dedicated and adequate solutions.”