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Bumpy start for the Warsaw Mechanism on climate change 'loss and damage'

by Sven Harmeling, CARE | CARE International
Thursday, 3 April 2014 12:54 GMT

A view of temporary shelters for typhoon survivors constructed next to a ship that ran aground, nearly 100 days after super Typhoon Haiyan devastated Tacloban city in the central Philippines Feb. 14, 2014. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Progress mixed at new body's first meeting, with finance set to remain a sore point

Last year’s U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, Poland, may well be remembered for giving a human face to the once abstract concept of climate change “loss and damage”. The annual conference of 195 countries began in Poland just a few days after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

The images showed the scale of damage to homes, buildings and lives. At the same time, they documented the emotions experienced by members of the Filipino delegation attending the U.N. conference. In short, Typhoon Haiyan helped to demonstrate the increasingly unavoidable impacts of climate change that are expected to occur as global temperatures rise. This was “loss and damage” in action.

For organisations like CARE, the loss and damage issue is not new. It describes what happens when measures to adapt to climate change impacts fail (whether sea-level rise or extreme events such as storms or floods) and the destruction to homes, infrastructure and lives that ensues.

It’s a concept that has been around for many years, but Warsaw finally marked its anchorage on the international stage through the establishment of a so-called Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. This is essentially a shared agreement between nations of the world to cooperate on tackling the issue.


Last week, the initial meeting of the mechanism’s governing body took place in Bonn, Germany. As an interim approach, it consists of 10 representatives from developing and developed countries from technical bodies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with different expertise.

The timing was perfect. Negotiators came together against the backdrop of the latest climate impacts report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which paints a grim picture of how climate change is going to affect almost every aspect of life on earth.

So, what happened in Bonn? The fact that the mechanism’s opening session was led by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres and Poland’s former Environment Minister Martin Korolec underscored the importance that governments are increasingly attaching to loss and damage.

Addressing severe climate impacts is no longer a pipe dream of the few, but something that all nations will have to work together to solve. Both Figueres and Korolec were there to remind delegates of the gravity of their task. The delegates from Finland and Brazil then took over the co-facilitation of the meeting.


What the members of the governance body are tasked with agreeing is a proposal for a two-year plan of activities that would be implemented between its approval at this year’s Peru U.N. climate conference (COP20 in December), and the end of 2016. This plan must clearly lead to progress in building up an effective mechanism that delivers on the functions agreed by all governments.

And it’s certainly no easy job. There is no blueprint for an “international mechanism” under the UNFCCC. And unlike other, more established UNFCCC bodies, there has not been any official draft text to help guide the governing body’s work.

The good news is that there was progress on converging towards activities for the work plan in a number of key areas. These include how to address the needs of particularly vulnerable people and communities, how to tackle non-economic losses (including loss of territory and cultural heritage), greater assistance to help vulnerable countries understand and address slow-onset events (such as sea-level rise or glacial melt), the role of climate change for the functioning of social protection systems, and climate-induced migration, displacement and human mobility.

This progress was facilitated through a generally constructive atmosphere in the rooms, with an open and intense involvement of the present observers. The delegates from Bolivia and the United States, both co-chairs of the UNFCCC Adaptation Committee, deserve particular mention since they worked very late into the night to produce a consolidated version of suggested activities.  


At the request of developing country members, the governing body also discussed the so-called “means of implementation”, which include financial, technological and capacity-building support to vulnerable developing countries. If this critical pillar is forgotten, the likelihood of making any concrete progress on the substance remains perilously low.

This meeting was not expected to be the place for discussing in detail thorny issues such as the scale and distribution of finance required to pay for climate impacts experienced by the poor. Delegates from developing countries aimed to approach these support issues on a very practical level, for example, looking at ways of engaging with financial institutions and bilateral donors and how to apply certain financial instruments.

However, even at that relatively non-political level, it seemed that in particular the delegates from the Netherlands (representative of the Standing Committee on Finance) and Poland (representative of the Technology Executive Committee) followed a strategy of allowing very little space to engage in these discussions. Yet the mechanism should not just be a place for knowledge and experience sharing, but must result in “enhanced action and support”, as the COP agreed.

So what next? It is understandable that the governance body has not yet concluded its work, given the complexity and difficulty of the issues at stake. Its members will have to continue work electronically and will likely meet again before they undertake broader consultations at the upcoming UNFCCC session in June in Bonn.  

But as the body’s delegates go home, they must also remember the bigger picture – the why and the how of loss and damage. Their work – in particular for those from developed countries - will surely be watched critically, and failure to deliver will cast a shadow over COP20.

Let’s not forget that this new mechanism must ultimately benefit those who have done the least to cause climate change, yet who are already bearing the brunt of its impacts. That must remain central to efforts to move the Warsaw mechanism forward. If their concerns are truly heeded, then 2014 may well become a momentous step forward for those living on the climate frontline.

Sven Harmeling is CARE International’s climate change advocacy coordinator.