The first study to assess the economic impacts that individual countries have had on other countries — through their contributions to global warming — confirms that culpability for warming rests primarily with a handful of major emitters and that this warming has resulted in their enrichment at the expense of the poorest people in the world. The study may provide a boost for efforts to get wealthy nations to cough up for loss and damage they’re largely responsible for.
‘I hope this provides evidence that it is politics, not science, that is preventing meaningful changes on climate mitigation and loss and damage. What is clear is that the people who have benefited from greenhouse gas warming have damaged the economies of the poorest people in the world, while they were enriched by those same activities.”
So said Justin Mankin, Assistant Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College and senior researcher on the study team, in reflecting on what messages vulnerable nations could take from the study he worked on, titled: National attribution of historical climate damages.
The study, which involved an integrated end-to-end attribution analysis, established — among other things — that there exists a sound scientific basis for climate liability claims between individual countries. Put simply, the study confirms that the amount of economic damage one country has done to another by virtue of its greenhouse gas emissions is quantifiable and calculable.
“Greenhouse gas warming has been an international wealth transfer from the poor to the wealthy, and we can now perform that accounting, which is a powerful and extendable framework. As such, I hope the most-affected countries feel empowered to advance loss and damage claims because, given our analysis, physics is on their side,” Mankin told Our Burning Planet.
Charity Migwi, regional campaigner at 350Africa.org, explained what is meant by “loss and damage”.
“Within the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ‘Loss and Damage’ refers to the destruction brought upon lives, livelihoods, biodiversity and infrastructure as a result of the impacts of human-induced climate change.
“These may range from the sudden onset of events such as cyclones and heatwaves to gradual changes like sea level rise encroaching on coastal lines and drowning low-lying islands to desertification that turns once productive farmlands into dust.
“It is usually used to refer to impacts of climate change that a community cannot adapt to, or in cases where options to adapt exist, the community does not have the resources to access those options.
African nations ‘most vulnerable’
“While African nations contribute the least to the climate crisis, they are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. They, therefore, bear the brunt of the destruction and economic and non-economic losses from the impacts of climate change.”
“Through the UN climate talks, developing nations have been pushing for developed nations, which are the leading polluters and contributors to the climate crisis, to not only be held liable but also compensate developing and vulnerable nations for these losses,” Migwi said.
Our Burning Planet previously reported that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basisreport said of Africa as a region that, among other impacts, the rate of surface temperature increase has generally been more rapid on the continent than the global average, “with human-induced climate change being the dominant driver” and that “the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events are projected to increase almost everywhere in Africa with additional global warming”.
The World Weather Attribution initiative, a collaboration between climate scientists from around the world, has previously confirmed that climate change increased rainfall associated with tropical cyclones hitting highly vulnerable communities in Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi.
Asked about the potential implications of having a scientific basis for climate liability claims, Migwi said “the science to support climate liability claims has the potential to create a shift from a focus on climate negotiations, appeals for climate finance support and voluntary pledges, to litigation and legal enforcement of loss and damage payments.
“The nations that contribute the least to climate change while being most affected by it, would likely have a basis to justify seeking legal redress and enforceable financial commitments toward loss and damage.”
Migwi said “the results of this study give developing nations evidence to support linking the actions of developed nations to the devastation and losses caused by climate impacts in these vulnerable nations by mapping out culpable emitters.
“This evidence could provide much-needed backing to support the push for compensation for loss and damage during the UN climate negotiations (UNFCCC COP). If they are not able to deny their role in the devastation of developing nations by climate impacts, the world’s biggest polluters could be forced to compensate for loss and damage in the interest of climate justice.
US and EU resistance
“Developing nations have been seeking to establish liability and compensation for loss and damage at UN climate negotiations, but this has been met by resistance from the United States and the European Union, who are historically the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
“The current provision for loss and damage within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is in the form of the Warsaw International Mechanism which was established at COP19 in 2013. The mechanism, however, places no liability or obligation on the top polluters in the developed world to compensate the developing nations for losses resulting from climate change,” said Migwi.
Migwi said that “the information [from the study] can have a significant role in building momentum for a facility to compensate for loss and damage at COP27. African nations are among nations that have long pushed for climate justice in the form of financial compensation for loss and damage at COPs.
“As COP27 is being held in Africa, this information could offer up an opportunity for the continent to renew calls for decisive climate action that delivers justice to African nations that continue to be ravaged by the climate impacts due to the actions of top emitters.”
SA a ‘unique case’
But what of South Africa, a developing country in its own right, but also the leading polluter on the continent and the 13th-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world?
To this point, Mankin said South Africa was a unique case.
“I think South Africa’s role as both a claimant and emitter is interesting, given its geographic placement. And the set of countries it aligns with (those damaged, or those who have caused damage) will be incredibly important for any wider mobilisation for mitigation,” he said.
Glen Tyler-Davies, South Africa Team Lead at 350Africa.org, elaborated on Mankin’s point, saying that “as one of the continent’s most polluting economies and countries, South Africa and South African companies should be paying close attention to this study. Unlike other African countries who have done relatively little to contribute to climate change, South Africa’s coal-intensive economy is a major culprit.
“As South Africans, we should be joining civil society’s call for action on climate change, and particularly a renewable-only response to the country’s energy and climate crises.
“We cannot let departments like the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy continue to block progress towards a just transition, and development finance institutions like the Development Bank of Southern Africa continue to finance regressive, expensive fossil fuels.
“Fossil fuels are already a more expensive way to generate electricity than renewables. If we will be held to account for their pollution in future, it only adds weight to the argument that is already heavily stacked in favour of renewables. Solar and wind power are cleaner, more affordable and quicker to build than fossil fuels.”
Though the study may bolster attempts to secure a formal mechanism for financial compensation for loss and damage, Tyler-Davies also offered words of caution.
“The scientific evidence to support climate liability claims may strengthen the case for compensation for loss and damage to the vulnerable countries. This should however not be a licence for those found culpable of causing this devastation to persist in their polluting practices, provided they can offer relevant compensation.
“Ultimately, the world needs to move with speed towards a just energy transition away from fossil fuels, which are the primary driver of climate change, and avoid a vicious cycle of pollute and pay.”
Backing from UN
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in video remarks to the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, threw his weight behind the calls for compensation for loss and damage.
“Loss and damage has languished on the sidelines for too long. It is eroding the trust we need to tackle the climate emergency together. I have seen first-hand the impact of sea level rise, crippling drought and devastating floods.
“Loss and damage is happening now,” said Guterres.
“We need a concrete global response that addresses the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people, communities and nations. The first step is to create a space within the multilateral climate process to address this issue — including on finance for loss and damage.
“This has to be the decade of decisive climate action. That means trust, multilateralism and collaboration. We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide.” DM/OBP
Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.