The US Is Blocking Climate Reparations

At COP26, the US and its rich allies refused to consider how to pay for the damage their emissions are wreaking on developing nations.

British prime minister Boris Johnson welcomes US president Joe Biden to COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 1, 2021. (Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr)

On Saturday night in Glasgow, Scotland, the Twenty-Sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) drew to a close with the announcement that world leaders had struck a deal after two weeks of intense negotiations. Called the Glasgow Climate Pact, the agreement broadly addressed reducing emissions, expanding renewable energy efforts, and increasing funding for global climate action.

“We can now say with credibility that we have kept [the goal of keeping global warming within] 1.5 degrees alive,” announced COP26 president Alok Sharma in a statement.

The breakthrough arrived with little fanfare. By that point, most of the 20,000 attendees from nearly 200 countries had already departed the climate summit, and the streets of Glasgow were largely clear of the hundreds of protesters who had gathered outside the conference, waving signs declaring “Code Red for Humanity” and “Follow the Science.”

The somber mood fit the occasion. COP26’s outcome was far from ideal — especially for developing nations. That’s because the so-called “last, best hope” to save the planet concluded with no recognition of a major priority for these countries: addressing climate reparations.

The demand for reparations arises from a fundamental reality of climate change: Countries in the Global South have emitted the least amount of greenhouse gases, but will suffer the most due to climate change. It’s why these countries are now calling on wealthy nations in the Global North, like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and members of the European Union, to pay for “loss and damage,” the term that environmental experts use to refer to the destruction being caused by the climate crisis, such as through increased droughts, floods, and cyclones.

“Support for addressing loss and damage is about providing humanitarian assistance to rebuild lives and infrastructure,” said Harjeet Singh of the Climate Action Network, one of 300-plus organizations that last month called on COP26 delegates to ensure the countries of the Global North pay their fair share for climate reparations.

On November 11, China and the Group of 77 (G77), which represents the interests of developing countries at the UNFCCC, put forth a proposal to do that by establishing the Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility, a formal body that would facilitate payments to developing nations to address climate change–related loss and damage.

The proposal was followed by a draft COP26 agreement circulated by Sharma’s office that also noted the need for a “technical assistance facility” to provide finance for climate reparations.

But none of these provisions made it into the final COP26 agreement.

According to Vicente Paolo Yu, climate negotiator for the G77 and China, that’s because the United States, the European Union, and other developed countries could not agree to establish the loss and damage facility at COP26.

According to Singh, that’s because rich countries see official recognition of climate change–related loss and damage as “opening the gates of litigation for compensation.”

“It seemed for a brief hopeful moment, that in Glasgow, leaders might finally commit to establishing an international #LossAndDamage fund to help vulnerable countries already losing so much to the climate crisis,” tweeted climate activist Vanessa Nakate at the end of the summit. Instead, she noted, “Rich countries clearly do not want to pay for the costs they are inflicting on poorer nations.”

“Loss And Damage Is Happening Now”

Climate-related disasters like droughts and floods can have wide-ranging impacts on communities, from displacement to food insecurity, to loss of life and livelihood. According to researchers at the Basque Centre for Climate Change in Spain, such devastation in the developing world will cost between $290 to $580 billion annually in 2030 and then rise to $1.1 to $1.7 trillion annually by 2050.

These estimates don’t include the noneconomic costs of climate upheaval, such as shrinking biodiversity, the loss of cultures, and mental stress.

The matter has become so pressing that last week, developing countries including India, Bangladesh, Venezuela, China, and Bolivia set out a joint call for funding to help developing countries deal with climate disasters.

The 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change recognized the importance of “minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.” But at the request of developed nations, the agreement explicitly stated that this recognition did not “involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

At COP25 in Chile in 2019, the movement for climate reparations took a step forward when the countries that signed on to the Paris Agreement put forward the idea of establishing the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, a platform that would provide technical support “to avert, minimize and address loss and damage” for developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

By partnering with organizations including the African Development Bank, the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, the network would connect developing countries with technical resources designed to help them manage and limit climate risks.

At COP26, delegates agreed to provide funding to develop the Santiago Network, as well as agreed on key elements of the networks’ functions, such as how it would identify the needs and priorities of various developing countries.

But for the time being, the Santiago Network still only exists as a website.

“There is no structure and no fund,” said Doreen Stabinsky, professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic in Maine. “The network is just on paper.”

Even if the Santiago Network becomes fully operational, it wouldn’t be able to fully address the cost of climate disasters plaguing the Global South, since it is only tasked with providing “technical assistance” to various countries.

“Loss and damage is happening now,” said Saleemul Huq, director at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, an environmental research institute in Bangladesh. “So who will pay for it?”

Opposing the Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility

The idea of the Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility emerged at COP26 as a way to more fully address the need for climate reparations.

Put forward by delegates from developing countries, the body would have had a more robust structure and mission than the Santiago Network. It would have implemented processes where communities and organizations could request and receive support to address climate-related risks and damages.

While it remained undecided how the body would acquire and distribute funding, a recent report from the Stockholm Environment Institute suggested one possible approach. According to the paper, climate reparations could be funded and distributed based in part on the “polluter pays” principle, which states that those most responsible for pollution should bear the costs of addressing the resulting damage to environmental and human health.

The polluter pays principle, which has only ever been used to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for emissions, would result in developed nations facing stricter liabilities for their contributions to global warming.

But before any of these matters could be finalized at COP26, the plan to establish the Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility hit a snag.

Many developed countries opposed establishing the facility during discussions held in the second week of COP26. According to observers, the strongest opposition appeared to come from the United States. “At least the negotiators from the EU, Australia, and New Zealand were sympathetic [to our concerns] and tried to engage even while disagreeing with what we said,” said one negotiator, who asked to remain anonymous.

Fearing Liability

According to representatives of developing nations, countries in the Global North oppose recognizing the importance of climate reparations because they don’t want to face a deluge of compensation claims due to the impacts of their historical emissions.

Those fears might have been further stoked by the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the “widespread, rapid and intensifying” impacts of climate change. That’s because the report focused on attribution science, which tracks the links between human-caused emissions and specific climate disasters like droughts and floods. Attribution science is a key tool for forcing the world’s biggest carbon emitters to fund climate reparations.

Studies connecting emissions to climate disasters are already fueling litigation aimed at holding governments and companies accountable for climate change — and there are likely more lawsuits to come.

“The world will see a flood of climate litigation, which will certainly impact UNFCCC negotiations,” said Mizan R. Khan from the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh.

But some experts say the establishment of a formal body to address climate reparations could eventually lead to fewer international lawsuits.

As Singh pointed out, “years of delay in supporting climate change-affected people” is why countries facing some of the worst impacts of global warming, including small island nations like VanuatuTuvalu, Antigua, and Barbuda, are now taking their concerns to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice.

According to Arpitha Kodiveri, a postdoctoral scholar at New York University’s School of Law, if there were international mechanisms through which claims for climate compensation could be made and financial transfers could be facilitated, developing nations would likely prefer those approaches to entangling themselves in litigation.

But for now, said Kodiveri, “Climate litigation is an avenue, because of the failure of international negotiations.”