Science & Environment

'Loss and damage' re-opens old wounds at climate talks

Ban Ki-moon at Cop 19
Image caption Ban Ki-moon warned delegates that the world was facing the wrath of a warming planet

UN climate negotiations are bogged down in a dispute over who will take legal responsibility for the loss and damage caused by climate change.

Rich countries say they will strongly resist this move.

Secretary general Ban Ki-moon opened the ministerial segment of the talks in Warsaw, Poland with a warning that the world was facing the wrath of a warming planet.

Mr Ban called on delegates to respond with wisdom, urgency and resolve.

He told delegates that climate change threatens current and future generations, referring to the recent disaster in the Philippines as an example of the extreme weather the world can expect more of.

He had recently visited Iceland and was told that it may soon be a land without ice thanks to rising temperatures.

He called on the negotiators to speed up their discussions that aim to secure a new global treaty in 2015.

However talks here in Warsaw are on familiar territory, the old divide between rich and poor countries over who has responsibility for curbing warming and critically, who will pay for the damage caused by climate change.

Many developing countries are working hard to adapt to climate change often with aid from richer countries.

But campaigners say those funds alone are not enough, because weather events are becoming more extreme and often overwhelm the steps poorer countries have taken.

This was exactly what happened in the Philippines says Dr Saleemul Huq, the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

"The Philippines is adapted to typhoons, the people have shelters and they went to them," he said.

"In normal circumstances you would have heard nothing about it, but in this case they died in the shelters because it was a super typhoon of unprecedented magnitude.

"That's loss and damage, you can't adapt to that."

At last year's UN talks in Doha the parties agreed that by the time they met in Poland, an "international mechanism" to deal with loss and damage should be established.

It has re-opened old wounds of division between rich and poor. The wealthier countries are fighting hard to have any legal responsibility for compensation diluted or removed. But according to Harjeet Singh from Action Aid, this time they won't get away with it.

"There is a lot of pressure on the rich countries, they recognise there is a challenge, but they are keeping their eyes closed, I don't think that will work anymore, they have to deliver," he said.

But not everyone is so sure about that. Many campaigners fear that the influx of politicians will mean a compromise deal will be done.

"I don't think we're likely to see some grand scheme materialise that addresses [loss and damage]," said Paul Bledsoe, an expert on energy and climate with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"I think reparations is the right word, in my view it's what's being sought, on issues like slavery or war reparations, historically they have a very difficult time occurring."

Mr Bledsoe believes the most likely outcome is that the richer nations will increase their commitments on finance in return for kicking the legal mechanism into the long grass.

The scale of the monies needed to help countries adapt to climate change was underlined here in Warsaw with a report that Africa would need $350bn annually if global warming rises to between 3.5 and 4C.

The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) report says that Africa is already facing costs of between $7-$15bn a year by 2020.

But if action to cut carbon emissions is delayed, then the total costs could reach 4% of Africa's GDP by 2100.

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