COP28 Sees Compromises on Loss and Damage Demands in the Absence of Accountability for Big Polluters
Rami Abi Ammar
Established at last year’s COP27, the loss and damage fund became a central item on the agenda for negotiations at this year's United Nations Climate Conference, COP28, held in Dubai. The fund has been a tabled demand since 1991, as developing countries bearing the climatic brunt of historical emissions and continuing extraction activities by developed industrialized states seek finance for averting, minimizing, and addressing climate disasters. Since its recognition in Article 8 of the Paris Agreement, loss and damage became a third pillar of international climate policy, along with mitigation and adaptation. However, since its recognition and later establishment, the fund has not received any designated financing or any operational structure.
On only its first day, COP28 host country, UAE, announced a USD 100 million pledge to the loss and damage startup fund, matched by Germany and followed by USD 145 million pledge from the rest of the EU, USD 75 million from the UK, USD 24.5 million from the United States, and USD 10 million from Japan. The kick-off of negotiations around the loss and damage fund and the initial, first-day commitments standing at USD 429 million have been lauded as a “landmark deal.” In the days ahead of this announcement additional contributions from France, Italy, Ireland, Norway, Canada, and Slovenia have raised the total commitments to USD 700 million (as of December 6, 2023). Yet many questions still arise regarding the operationalization of the fund, financial commitments to it, and the eligibility of developing countries to access it.
As it stands, the recommendations and commitments to the fund meet few of the demands set out by developing countries over the course of 30 years. The draft decision outlining recommendations on the operationalization of the fund appears to be strewn with compromises answering to the interests and trepidations of developed countries. Initial pledges are only a fraction of the USD 100 billion/year by 2030 proposed by developing-country members of the Transitional Committee in a submission to the Conference in September. In their submission, the members emphasized that this figure is “not meant as a ceiling, but rather as a minimum commitment,” with the potential to scale up given the rising trajectory of losses and damages under current climate realities. This is in light of a growing evidence base suggesting costs of climate-related losses and damages could be as high as USD 680 billion annually, taking into account ‘residual’ damages. Attempts at describing a funding scale or minimum commitment into the final recommendations for the operationalization of the fund have been met with rejection and thus left out of the draft decision. US Transitional Committee member Christina Chan rejected the mention of any figure describing the scale of the fund in the committee’s final recommendation documents last October, deeming it out of the mandate of the committee.
More critically, the language in the draft decision excludes liability and compensation for loss and damage, highlighting instead that the funding arrangements, and the fund itself, are based on “cooperation and facilitation.” Thereby, paying into the fund remains voluntary and parties are not required to fulfill any financial commitments, even if they are pledged. This has long been a point of contention between developing countries and large industrialized polluters including the US, Europe, China, and the Gulf petrostates. For the US particularly, any pathway towards an outcome on the fund has become contingent on the exclusion of liability and compensation language from decisions, as pushed by US Transitional Committee member Chan in the fifth meeting of the committee in early November. This can be seen as a clear safeguard for the US against any legal accountability for its historically high emissions.
Concessions on the modality of the fund are seen not only in voluntary contributions, but also in the recommendation of what has been dubbed “innovative” finance mechanisms that remain within the realm of small grants and highly concessional loans. Other recommendations include “direct budget support and policy-based finance, equity, insurance mechanisms, risk sharing mechanisms, pre-arranged finance, and performance-based programs” all of which fall short of providing sustainable and independent revenue streams for the fund, particularly those from proposed bunker fuel and airline fuel taxes. Developing countries have repeatedly called for reparatory and solidarity-based financing to address losses and damages, but they continue to be met with concessional loans and private sector financing in attempts to cower away from the polluter-pays principles.
Another concession to the US came with the appointment of the World Bank as the interim operator of the fund in the final recommendations to COP28, further highlighting the reliance of the fund on the modality of multilateral development banks. The loss and damage fund was envisioned to be an independent, standalone entity operating under the architecture and financial mechanisms of the UNFCCC. Its extension to the World Bank, whose president is appointed directly by the US and whose board is predominantly inclined to represent the interests of developed countries, has raised concerns of observers regarding the influence of big polluters over the fund in light of the Bank’s questionable environmental credentials and lack of transparency. The World Bank has less than a shining history in the developing world, particularly with the struggle of its concessional lending arm - the International Development Association (IDA)- to replenish financing for lenders already impacted by its shortfalls. The World Bank’s expansion into the climate space has also come into question when it has invested over USD 14.8 billion into fossil fuel projects and policies since the Paris Agreement and USD 3.7 billion in oil and gas trade finance in 2022 alone.
The appointment of the World Bank remains temporary, with the draft decision granting it six months after the conclusion of COP28 to confirm its commitment and finalize its program. However, the permanent appointment of the World Bank is not far-fetched and would render access to loss and damage funding yet another lengthy, complicated process out of reach of developing countries reeling from disaster. Notably, developing nations requiring loss and damage financing are also faced with unfolding public debt crises, and their eligibility could be undermined by limited lending capacities.
At the heart of demands for trigger-based solidarity funding is the difficulty faced by countries with limited means, especially in the wake of climate-induced events, to quantify, justify, and properly attribute losses and damages. Stringent criteria and complex applications for small grants and loans, typical of World Bank and other climate funds, already disadvantage parties that are unable to provide timely, cohesive, accurate, and multi-scalar datasets to prove eligibility. The increasing lure and role of attribution science used to link extreme weather events with anthropogenic climate change can create geographic bias against states and regions with data limitations. More importantly, attribution frameworks can occlude or misrepresent critical historical, social, and political-economic factors that lead to socio-ecological conditions and relations that produce and reproduce vulnerability to climate change losses and damages. They also present a problem for recovery of non-economic losses including displacement and impacts on human lives, mobility, and cultural heritage.
Attribution science, therefore, should not be a formal requirement to access loss and damage financing. It may not even be in favor of the interests of industrialized nations when attribution frameworks pick up on their culpability in constructing both the environmental and socio-political conditions for disaster. Even then, what science are big polluters willing to accept?
When COP28 President and ADNOC CEO Sultan Al Jaber claims there is no science behind demands at phasing out of fossil fuels, it brings into question whether negotiations at COP are set up to fail. Who is at the table at COP28? Can the demands of developing countries for accountability be heard over the record number of fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance at this year's conference? The USD 700 million in pledges to loss and damage combined with UAE’s USD 30 billion private climate finance fund and other pledges towards climate-related projects remain dwarfed by an overall USD 7 trillion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry by many of the donors at COP28. Attitudes on phasing out fossil fuels remain cautious, as oil producers and investors seek to dilute and obscure language within agreements.
COP28 cannot be removed from the current graver and wider socio-political context, and depoliticizing climate negotiations is harmful for communities suffering from its repercussions. The summit continues amid gross human rights violations and indiscriminate environmental crimes in the region which it fails to address. Israel’s brutal aggression on Gaza, amounting to genocide, ethnic cleansing, and deliberate destruction of water, food, and energy infrastructure is supported by direct US military aid of USD 14.5 billion. That is over 600 times the amount the US has pledged for the loss and damage fund - a fraction of the USD 3.8 billion per year in US military assistance to Israel since 2016. Furthermore, environmental damages and emissions from growing military aggression cannot be dismissed or overlooked. This is especially critical when military aggression continues to be used to support the extraction of natural resources, such as in the case of ongoing displacement and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Just climate action should come hand in hand with supporting human rights. Without addressing prevailing power structures, COP will continue to fail as an avenue for accountability and restitution for the human, economic, and physical losses of global anthropogenic climate change.
About the Author
Rami Abi Ammar is a Climate Change and Environment Researcher at IFI.
COP 28: An Opportunity to Address the Vicious Cycle of Food Insecurity and Climate Change in the MENA Region
Food security has become an issue of international concern due to the ongoing geopolitical turmoil and magnifying impacts of a changing climate. Since 2011, food subsidies in the face of food insecurity in the MENA region cost up to $21.6 billion and were the highest in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt amounting to over 2% of their GDP . The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), defines food security as the situation in which “all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” . Globally, the 2023 Global Report on Food Crises found that 258 million people are impacted by crisis or acute food insecurity .
While the world tried to recover from COVID-19, it was hit with energy and food insecurities generated by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region directly impact the food security of affected states and their neighbours. This situation is increasingly complicated by a multitude of political factors and aims. The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused a general increase in food insecurity in the MENA . Russia and Ukraine accounted for more than one-quarter of global wheat exports and the most vulnerable to the impact were states prone to the war-induced price hikes; these included Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Tunisia, Iran, Jordan, and Morocco . The average inflation of food rose in almost all MENA economies with the most notable increases in Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria . The spiraling food costs and the supply disruption risks have been particularly challenging for countries importing wheat from Russia and Ukraine .
The MENA region’s food security was severely implicated by the war. Egypt is one of the countries most impacted since it imports over 60% of the wheat consumption across a country with a population exceeding 110 million. Likewise, the rise of staple food costs impacted over half of Yemen’s population with around 5.6 million people experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity. Lebanon also experienced a strain on its wheat sources as it imported approximately 75% of its wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine . Both Lebanon and Jordan were largely dependent on this wheat import source while simultaneously bearing the additional strain of an influx of Syrian refugees and a surge in their respective populations . These struggles have added to the dire impacts of the chronic political and military tensions afflicting the MENA region .
Climate change remains a top driver of the expanding humanitarian needs and suffering with the increasing hunger and water crises. Simultaneously, the food system is one of the top drivers of climate change, contributing to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and consuming up to 30% of the world’s total energy demand, which mostly comprises fossil fuels .
Two main drivers affect food security globally. Along with global conflict, extreme weather events due to climate change have led to world hunger . The MENA region has witnessed worsened increasing extreme weather patterns over the past decade, including situations of increased heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires leading to difficult local farming . Out of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world, the MENA region is home to 11 of them. Compared to 70% of water going to agriculture worldwide, the region’s agricultural sector utilizes up to 80% of its water supply. This greatly limits the region’s ability to diversify its water supply use due to channeling the bulk towards agriculture . Concurrent with increasing water scarcity and a lack of sufficient arable lands, domestic food production is at risk. These environmental stresses put domestic agriculture at risk due to the lack of innovation levels and resources needed to be combatted. Most MENA countries focus on agricultural strategies that promote exporting profitable crops, which require large amounts of water and arable land while importing staple foods. These issues are further amplified by the lack of stable infrastructure, rural development, and policy consistency . Locally, social stigmas associated with agricultural work and lower earnings expectations for small-scale farmers also demotivate local efforts for domestic production. Collectively, these factors, amongst others, have led to the highest urbanization rates in the world with high rural-urban migration and farmer displacement rates . The MENA region also experiences one of the highest rates of population growth worldwide. Food demand rates increase accordingly while resources are depleted, and future production prospects remain neglected. High temperatures are leading to heightened demand for increasingly scarce resources such as water. The region has suffered from spatial and temporal extents of pest infestations in addition to an increase in extreme events such as dust storms, droughts, and floods. These are all factors that have led to an overall increase in the cost of agricultural production. Adaptation to such scenarios witnessed in the MENA region, with a particular increase of above 2 degrees Celsius in average global temperatures, becomes increasingly difficult and more expensive .
To combat the high cost of food and food production, some MENA countries implemented subsidies to offset the burden on citizens . Subsidies continue to burden already weak economies and eventually become unsustainable, leading to social upheavals . Further, deteriorating agricultural production has caused a rise in local and cross-border migration adding to the stress of governments and host communities. In 2023, this was evident in at least five countries in the region that have witnessed food inflation of more than 60%. Lebanon and Syria both faced triple-digit food inflation of 138% and 105% respectively, while Iran, Turkey, and Egypt experienced annual food inflation of more than 61%, causing populations to experience difficulty in affording essential food items such as bread, rice, and vegetables . Globally, food prices remain at a 10-year high even with the slight global price decrease in recent months. By February of this year, 4 out of 15 countries in the region, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, and Iran, were on WFP’s currency watch list due to depreciated currencies of between 45 to 71%. Over the past three years, the number of food-insecure people across the region increased by 20%, amounting to 41 million people since 2019 .
Different countries in the MENA region maintain different levels of food security statuses based on an array of factors. Gulf countries rank among the most food secure in the region with the United Arab Emirates ranking at 26 and Qatar at 29 globally out of 170 countries . Despite lacking local production, their ability to purchase food imports on global markets is primarily derived from their substantial financial resources, largely stemming from their oil and gas revenues.
On the other hand, Syria ranks at 148 while Yemen ranks at 160 in food security due to the ongoing turmoil in both countries; despite Syria’s previous status as the region’s breadbasket and its geographical location on the “fertile crescent” . Syria and Iraq have also suffered from prolonged droughts and conflicts, which have decreased food production and reduced cultivation areas. The entire region has similarly fallen victim to prolonged droughts and heat waves, wildfires, flooding, erratic rainfall, and landslides . These issues have festered into today’s worsening situation which has been repeatedly tackled with temporary solutions exacerbating the rising food prices and food insecurity. Concerns increase regarding the long-term implications of rising food prices and food insecurity in the MENA region. The strategic mitigation of food price inflation and food insecurity is at the forefront of MENA countries’ policy priorities. One main reason for the increased interventions by governments in food systems is their fear of rising food prices and insecurity fuelling social discontent.
As the criticality of food insecurity persists in the region, governments and the international community must take action to address this issue. This begins with addressing the underlying causes of instability, conflict, and turmoil in the region. With skyrocketing humanitarian needs and increased societal struggle due to hunger and water scarcity, climate change remains the top driver. As one of the key pillars at the upcoming COP 28 in Dubai, sustainability is an essential component in creating resilient and adaptive solutions for locally-led initiatives focused on water and food. According to the COP 28 presidency, the region will be presented with “plans and opportunities in crisis settings to move from the provision of relief to climate-resilient development” . The investment in advancing agricultural research and improving food production is necessary to utilize the diminishing resources available, optimize yields, and move forward toward a sustainable future. Food security remains a global issue and inter- and intra-regional cooperation today is vital like never before.
In a vicious cycle of climate change, food insecurity, and increasing geopolitical tensions, COP 28’s presidency efforts in prioritizing food as a topic of discussion and focus are greatly encouraged.
About the Author
Mira Machmouchi is a Climate Change and Environment Researcher at IFI.