Why polluters should pay, and why they haven'tBoth polluting governments and vulnerable ones need to work to ensure justice for climate victims.
In August 2014, a massive landslide in Jure of Sindhupalchowk district killed 156 people. Subsequent research by the United Nations University-Institute for Environment and Human Safety (UNU-EHS) has found that this one particular event was responsible for inflicting overwhelming damages to crops, land, and homes—losses that amounted to 14 times the average annual income of the affected subsistence households.
When climate change fueled extreme events causes death and property damage in wealthier populations, their insurance policies usually kick in, compensating people for some, if not most, of their losses. But what of poorer populations who cannot afford to pay yearly premiums? Who should compensate these people for the losses that occurred because of a global catastrophe they did not contribute to?
The Alliance of Small Island States (OASIS) first attempted to answer this question when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was being negotiated in 1991. They proposed the creation of an international insurance pool, that would compensate ‘vulnerable small island and low-lying coastal developing countries for loss and damage arising from sea-level rise’. It was proposed that each country’s contribution to the pool would be contingent on its gross national product and global emissions. However, this proposal was rejected, and the subsequently produced UNFCCC document made no mention of Loss and Damage (L&D), whatsoever.
It was another sixteen years before the term Loss and Damage made an appearance in a UNFCCC document. Even then, upon insistence from polluting economies, L&D was lumped under climate adaptation despite repeated protests from OASIS and Least Developed Countries (LDC) that L&D was a distinct issue—one that occurred when adaptative actions were simply not enough.
Eventually, in 2013, after decades of advocacy from vulnerable developing countries, the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (WIM) was established to address L&D. While this text made no reference to liability and compensation, WIM’s Executive Committee, however, did refer to insurance schemes as one of the main mechanisms to address L&D. But this proposal had a cruel twist: In blatant disregard to UNFCCC’s ‘polluter pays’ principle, vulnerable developing nations were asked to, more or less, pay for their own insurance.
In the 2015 Paris Agreement, L&D finally obtained its own separate article (indicating separation from the issue of adaptation), but only on the condition that the inclusion of L&D did ‘not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation’.
Over the years, developed countries have demonstrated relatively more willpower to finance mitigation and adaptation activities than they have with L&D. In some ways, I see this reticence as a result of the fact that any contribution they make will be seen as compensation—an acknowledgement that their emissions have created locked-in, destructive climate impacts that cannot be completely avoided, no matter how hard we try.
Another reason for this pushback though comes because the scope of L&D is, in its current form, quite vast and hotly debated. The United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) defines L&D as the ‘the actual and/or potential manifestation of impacts associated with climate change in developing countries that negatively affect human and natural systems’, This means that both extreme events (such as floods, landslides), as well as slow-onset events (such as rising sea levels), are relevant to the scope of L&D. These calculations of loss and damage also include non-economic impacts. For example, in the Jure landslide, loss and damage calculations would not only take into account lost lives, land, and property but could also potentially take into account the effect on the mental and physical health of survivors, any sentimental or cultural losses, etc.
Despite many stalling efforts, L&D gained significant momentum in the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) last year, where countries had gathered to adopt rules to implement the Paris Agreement. Guidelines for vulnerable countries to report current and anticipated climate-related losses were established, along with space for them to report the actions taken and the assistance required to avoid, reduce or recuperate these losses. Additionally, it was also decided that these reports would be included in the Global Stocktake—a process that takes place every five years to take stock of the global progress towards meeting the goals under the Paris Agreement.
While these new outcomes imply increasing responsibilities for polluting countries, it also means that vulnerable developing nations have much work ahead. Countries like Nepal need to be able to recognise and calculate L&D associated with various short- and long-term climate impacts. Whether or how we are expected to conclusively link these impacts to climate change, however, remains unclear.
When asked for feasible solutions, in the interviews conducted by the UNU-EHS researcher, the Jure landslide victims wanted the Nepali government to develop preventative measures to remove or reduce threats from such incidences and compensate victims when damages occur. As climate impacts increase, however, such compensation will become more and more impossible for small governments to cover by themselves and international assistance will become crucial. To ensure that this assistance comes, however, governments need to increase their own capacity for advocacy, research, and accountability.
Governments like Nepal need to invest more effort into L&D calculations so that they are able to file claims in the international arena when the time comes. Any current research on the subject is being conducted mostly for academic purposes only. Additionally, knowledge and technology transfer to perform attribution research—that establish causal linkages between any particular impact and climate change—needs to be advocated for. Small governments also need to clean their own acts and create policies to ensure that, when the compensation arrives, they are able to distribute it in a transparent and accountable manner.
As the international community debates the scope of L&D compensations, there is a need to ensure that UNFCCC’s ‘polluters pay’ principle is strictly upheld. Polluting economies need to pay for the climate atrocities that their carbon emissions have fueled. This is the strongest hope for justice we have for climate victims like those of the Jure landslide.