COP26 touted to resolve long standing issues on climate debt

The upcoming United Nations Climate Conference  (COP26) will hopefully go some way towards resolving contentious issues on climate relating to losses and damage from extreme weather and disasters such as flooding, wildfires, cyclones and heatwaves

The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, signed at COP19 in the Polish capital, sought to deal with compensation from those responsible for damage from extreme weather, according to the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London’s climate change and environment hub. 

It was reviewed in 2019 at COP25, with developing countries demanding that it be enhanced to include additional finance from developed countries, but consensus was not reached on the latter’s obligations. The final text resolutions for COP25 in 2019 in Madrid, Spain, only committed to a committee setting out a five-year working plan. 

“This technical issue is set to be discussed further at the COP26 conference in Glasgow,” said the Grantham Institute.

During the talks in Scotland next month, parties to the framework convention on climate change will be tasked with resolving issues relating to climate debt and the financial mechanisms needed to ensure that those most responsible for current disasters pay for damages. 

The African continent is particularly vulnerable as it is warming faster than the rest of the world, with temperatures having already increased by 2°C.

But a recent assessment of climate debt by Carbon Brief, a UK-based website specialising in the science and policy of climate change, ranked South Africa 16th among the countries most responsible for climate change as a result of historical greenhouse gas emissions. 

South Africa, currently the 12th highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, might find itself liable for a share of the climate debt owed to the continent, although Brandon Abdinor, a climate advocacy lawyer at the Centre for Environmental Rights, believes it will be years before this is resolved.

According to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), in South Africa only 16% of R95-billion worth of losses from weather-related disasters in the past four decades were covered by insurers, “leaving governments and communities unable to build back”.

Researchers say more weather disasters, coupled with surging informal settlements, poor land use and inadequate infrastructure, will cause further significant losses.

“Only five months into 2021, all nine provinces have experienced floods on top of a series of devastating fires in the Western Cape,” ISS noted. 

It drew on the International Disaster Database, which has recorded 90 noticeable weather-related disasters in South Africa since the early 1980s. 

“These events caused R95-billion in associated economic losses and directly affected about 22-million South Africans,” said the ISS researchers. 

Although discussions about loss and damage at COP level are tricky, it is where “the rubber meets the road in terms of actual compensation in monetary terms”, said Abdinor.

“The attribution science is a lot stronger than it used to be, and it is still tricky but one can actually draw linkages between certain acts by certain actors and certain damages that are caused,” he said. 

“Once we talk about compensation for damage as a result of climate change impacts we are talking about a very well defined price tag and that is putting liability on developed nations that they never had before, and that is probably why they have been putting out for so long.”

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa

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Tunicia Phillips
Tunicia Phillips is an investigative, award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast for 10 years. Her beats span across crime, court politics, mining energy and social justice. She has recently returned to print at the M&G working under the Adamela Trust to specialise in climate change and environmental reporting.

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