By Erin Roberts and Julie-Anne Richards
21 / 09 / 2023
The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, convened the Climate Ambition Summit at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City on the 20th of September 2023. Image Credit: UNclimatechange via Flickr, licenced under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

Yesterday on the margins of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, convened the Climate Ambition Summit. Speeches were made and words were spoken. Some impassioned calls for action were made. In the wake of the discussions, only time will tell if it leads to the level of ambitious action we need to limit global average warming to below 1.5°C and enable all humans on planet Earth to adapt to the impacts of climate change and address loss and damage. Because words are just that —simply words— until they are translated into action. 

Here is our analysis of the Summit with a focus on Loss and Damage and our thoughts on how to translate the words spoken yesterday into action on all fronts to avert, minimise and address loss and damage. 

When the UN Secretary General called the Climate Ambition Summit a few months ago, it was an opportunity for governments, particularly those in high income countries, the UN system, institutions such as multilateral development developments (MDBs) and international financial institutions (IFIs) and civil society to rise to the occasion. Guterres and his team set the scene for the Summit by developing a framework for gaining entry. Countries had to meet a threshold for climate action in order to attend the Summit and had to demonstrate ambition to have a speaking slot.

Guterres set the scene with opening remarks that painted a picture of loss and damage being wrought on societies throughout the world not in a bleak, dystopian future but now, today, this very moment: 

“Humanity has opened the gates of hell. Horrendous heat is having horrendous effects. Distraught farmers watching crops carried away by floods; Sweltering temperatures spawning disease; And thousands fleeing in fear as historic fires rage. Climate action is dwarfed by the scale of the challenge. If nothing changes we are heading towards a 2.8 degree temperature rise – towards a dangerous and unstable world. But the future is not fixed. It is for leaders like you to write it.”

There was a significant “vibe” that the climate was changing —devastatingly so— and that this should presage a change in how countries act, a change in how the financial system operates, a change in how MDBs like the World Bank respond to those changes. 

Some actors got the memo —there was an increase— a groundswell of sorts —of countries recognising fossil fuels as the source of the problem. We also saw some leaders calling out the greenwashing, hypocrisy, straight up lying and delusion that enable the fossil fuel industry to maintain both its profits and its hold on the economy. Gabriel Boric, the President of Chile had the courage to say what many were thinking: 

“If what we’re all saying here is true we would have several reasons to sleep easy and be optimistic. However, what is being said here is not true. Those of us here present —does that mean we are lying to each other? Presenting our good intentions? . . . . No it does not. But the problem is there is a minority within society —a powerful minority— that doesn't attend these debates, abide by democratic rule . . . If we’re not able to make these groups yield to our will … we won’t meet our targets. The climate change crisis is a fossil fuel crisis. We have to leave fossil fuels behind. We have to react to the greenwashing that major businesses are undertaking. They continue and are stepping it up, and sometimes supported by countries.”

The time for letting powerful lobbies shape decision making processes and bend politicians to their will, is over. That has no place —it can’t have a place—  if we are going to limit global average warming to 1.5°C to avert future loss and damage. 

More political leaders joined Boric in calling out the fossil fuel industry as those most responsible for creating the climate crisis and who persist to worsen it: The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, said that he comes from a state which is: 

 “burning up, choking up, heating up, wildfires, places and lives being destroyed in front of our eyes. It's time for all of us to be a lot more clear. This climate change is a fossil fuel crisis - the burning of gas, coal, oil. We need to call that out. For decades the fossil fuel industry has been playing us for fools. They have been buying off politicians, deceit and denial going back decades has created the conditions we face today.”

Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley took this a step further making the link between mitigation and Loss and Damage urging those most responsible for climate change to be held to account to pay for the cost of addressing loss and damage: 

“With the fossil fuel industry making profits of 2.5 trillion USD, they can contribute to the Loss and Damage Fund and have more than enough profit left to “fill their belly”.

The Prime Minister of Samoa, Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa, representing the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) - a bloc of 39 small island states (SIDS) said: 

“[The] pursuit of profit over the wellbeing of humanity is not right. It is unjust.”

Several other leaders, particularly from lower income and highly climate-vulnerable countries, provided recommendations on what we need to do to address loss and damage already occurring and that which is likely because of locked-in emissions. Kenyan President William Ruto gave an overview of the Nairobi Declaration, an outcome of the recent Africa Climate Summit which proposes (among other things): 

1. New debt relief to productively manage debt default through extension of tenure; 

2.  Issuing new special drawing rights (SDR) allocations dedicated to the climate; crisis of similar magnitude pandemic response; 

3. Scaling up concessional financing by at least 500 billion USD;

4. Eliminating credit rating disparities which are manifestly unfair towards lower income countries; and  

5. Global taxation including a universal tax on fossil fuels, levies on maritime transport and aviation and a global financial transaction tax.  

Ruto closed his remarks by saying: 

“Neither Africa nor the [rest of the] developing world stands in need of charity. We need fairness.”

It’s imperative that these demands for the biggest polluting sectors —coal, oil and gas, international maritime and aviation—  be followed up with policies and legislation to not just ask but to enforce, to mandate that they make a fair contribution (based on their profits and contributions to loss and damage) to the Loss and Damage Fund. We need a roadmap including a timeline and an action plan for making this happen. This call was an outcome of the Africa Climate Summit, and it was applauded by many at this Climate Ambition Summit. 

However, it is currently a missing piece from the work of the Transitional Committee, mandated to make recommendations to the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 28) and the fifth meeting of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 5) on the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund established at COP 27. Yet, alternative sources of funding are clearly indicated in their mandate from COP 27.

After the opening of the Summit, during the official lunch break, the Secretary General a Convening on Loss and Damage was held, with a focus on the principals of international financial institutions (IFIs) and other relevant entities to identify the most effective ways of providing funding to address loss and damage. This is in response to an invitation from decision 2/CP.27 and 2/CMA.4 which also invited the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to consider at their spring meetings the potential to contribute, including through new and innovative approaches, to funding arrangements to respond to loss and damage from the impacts of climate change. 

The session began with a moving presentation on the science of climate change from climate scientists and author of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Adelle Thomas. Thomas painted a horrifying and alarming picture of loss and damage being experienced world wide. Of the world’s 8+ billion people, 3.3 billion live in climate-vulnerable countries where human mortality is 15 times higher. Millions are living in chronic food security. Climate change has brought havoc - both economic and non-economic loss and damage - with the poor, women and children and Indigenous Peoples suffering the most. Yet despite the magnitude of escalating loss and damage, institutions have failed, they are failing to address loss and damage. It is unjust and unsustainable for those least responsible for climate change. In conclusion she stated that the scientific evidence is undeniable and urgent action is imperative. It is against that backdrop that the conversations - or rather the read out from speakers - began, moderated by Rachel Kyte

All in all, the session was highly disappointing. Most of the institutions present gave read outs of what they are doing but didn’t consider the question of what they might do. The invitation was therefore left on the table. It was clear that the vast majority of IFIs and MDBs are unable to consider a Loss and Damage response that does not include their normal mode of operation - that is loans, co-financing and favouring a private sector response, including insurance. If ever there was a time for a non profit motivated approach, it is in response to loss and damage. 

Whilst the Africa Development Bank identified that many African countries are already under debt distress and cannot afford additional indebtedness, the other MDBs largely suggested continuing a loan and co-financing approach. This is not appropriate for addressing loss and damage, not just due to high existing levels of debt, but also as vulnerable developing countries have done little to cause the climate crisis, the emitters - with those bearing the greatest historical responsibility taking the lead —should be the ones to pay for the result of the repercussions of their activities. 

By emphasising the need to ‘avoid fragmentation and duplication’ the MDBs were continuing their advocacy that they were the ones best suited to fill the mandate of the new fund. It felt like a grab for cash and power, most particularly from the World Bank whose recommendations to to “simple and quick”, to “avoid complexity”, and to phase establishment first, and expansion of action second, support the approach they have been taking to advocate for the World Bank to be the body that manages the Loss and Damage Fund. We also wondered where the IMF was as they did not make a statement nor appear to be present in the event. 

This session was far from a thoughtful consideration of how IFIs and MDBs could adjust their operating modalities to take into account the extreme loss and damage already being experienced by vulnerable developing countries. There was little —almost no— consideration of the extreme level of debt that is now facing developing countries. 40% of which find themselves in, or at risk of, debt distress in equal parts due to the loss and damage they are already facing and the policies of these very same IFIs, MDBs and rich countries who have forced high levels of expensive debt upon these countries, trapping them into a debt spiral. Whilst the widespread recognition of the need for debt clauses is welcome, this story cannot end here. When COP26 requested this session to happen, it was with a view to these institutions undertaking in depth considerations of how they could change, in line with the changing circumstances of the countries they serve. This process should be undertaken by each and every MDB and IFI with urgency and with humility. 

In undertaking these reviews the IFIs and MDBs should incorporate the criteria for finance from MDBs and IFIs to count as Loss and Damage finance outlined by Harjeet Singh of the Climate Action Network, on behalf of Indigenous Peoples, Women and Gender Constituency and environmental organisations in his intervention at the end of the Convening on Loss and Damage. These include to: 

1. Recognise and aim to comprehensively address Loss and Damage;

2. Be obligatory and compensatory;

3. Be grant based and non-debt creating;

4. Be new, additional, predictable and adequate;

5. Be equitably governed;

6. Ensure the meaningful participation of affected communities, with direct access; and

7. Be Intersectional with human rights, labour rights, and gender equality.

In addition it is urgent that a process of debt restructuring and cancellation be undertaken under the aegis of the United Nations. The international tax architecture must be urgently addressed alongside debt reform. As Kenyan president William Ruto underscored in his statement in the opening session of the Summit, the global tax regime is unfair and unjust and facilitates finance moving out of developing countries, which reduces fiscal space to the extent that loans are required to meet the immediate and basic needs of populations within developing countries. 

In the thematic sessions in the afternoon, one of which was was focused on “Delivering climate justice: Accelerating ambition and implementation on adaptation and early warnings for all”, there were some announcements on adaptation including two new partnerships in the Adaptation Ambition Accelerator: one between Tuvalu and Australia and another between the Dominican Republic and Spain. This is incremental progress when we need transformative change. At COP 26 developed countries were urged to at least double adaptation finance by 2025 —which is still just a tiny drop in the ocean of needs on adaptation. We also noted that the session was billed as one focused on climate justice, yet Loss and Damage was notably absent. 

In this closing remarks the Secretary General urged for immediate and ambitious action: 

“If something was proven today it is that the 1.5°C degree goal can be achieved. It can be real if we mobilise all our energy to make it happen. The conditions are not right yet. We are in many aspects moving backward. I was at the G20 and I was very disappointed. The geopolitical divides need to allow for a compromise to come together respecting common but differentiated responsibilities and all recognizing they need to do more and they need to do more together bringing together their resources to accelerate the transition that is required . . . To all the first doers I say: Scale up. Bring together all that you can bring with you. Go for it.” 

We must now translate the positive words from yesterday’s Summit into action. 

Tomorrow a ministerial will take place convened jointly by the COP 27 and COP 28 presidencies. It will be important for Ministers to be clear that they are not walking back from the agreement made at COP 27 for a Loss and Damage Fund that addresses the full scope of loss and damage - from both slow onset climatic processes and extreme weather events and to both economic and non-economic loss and damage, ongoing and ex-post (including rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction). Ministers must demonstrate that they are still committed to a Fund capable of providing new and additional resources at the scale of needs. 

We also expect ministers to make it clear that these resources should come from developed country contributions as well as the alternative sources of finance highlighted at the Climate Ambition Summit. These include a tax on the fossil fuel industry, taxes or levies on other polluting sectors such as the international maritime and aviation industries, and taxes on the wealthy, and a financial transaction tax. The Transitional Committee, which is mandated to make recommendations on the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund, must take this guidance into their next meeting —to take place from October 17th to 20th in Aswan, Egypt— and provide concrete recommendations to COP 28 on how to implement them or to give sufficient guidance to the Board, including expected timeframes, to ensure they become a reality. The Loss and Damage Fund is too important to be swallowed by the politics as usual that surrounds the Loss and Damage agenda.

Rather than thinking about what’s “realistic” or “politically palatable” (because we know whose palate needs to be satisfied), we must reverse engineer a fund that meets the needs of the ground. We must create a fund that enables the most vulnerable households, communities and countries in the global South to address loss and damage. We can create a world in which all humans have the resources and tools they need to thrive, not just survive, in the midst of global challenges. 

With COP 28 now just two and a half months away we have very little time to do the political work needed to translate the words from yesterday's Summit into the action needed to create a better tomorrow. And we need to work on multiple fronts and in multiple arenas to make that happen on mitigation (to avert loss and damage), adaptation (to minimise loss and damage) and Loss and Damage (to address loss and damage). 

What we need at COP 28 is an ambitious outcome of the Global Stocktake (GST) which recognises the gaps in action and support on all fronts —mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage— to avert, minimise and address loss and damage. The next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) is critical to limit warming to 1.5°C, which is essential to the survival of many countries and certainly to the billions of people living on the frontlines of climate change in the global South. The outcome of the GST must also recognise and address gaps in finance, technology and capacity and provide for how they will be closed to ensure support for scaling up adaptation at the level needed to minimise loss and damage and addressing loss and damage not averted or minimised by mitigation and adaptation. 

To address some of the immediate needs in developing countries we need to see the Santiago Network fully operationalised at COP 28 to catalyse technical support for Loss and Damage. In the meantime the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must step into its role as interim secretariat to respond to requests from developing countries and link them to the providers of technical assistance equipped to address their needs. Developed countries must step up to ensure that the Santiago Network is fully resourced to do this work. 

We must have some serious discussions about how we are going to fill the Loss and Damage Fund and meet the needs on mitigation to avert loss and damage, adaptation to minimise loss and damage and address loss and damage. The New Quantitative Collective Goal on Climate Finance (NCQG) must be aligned with the needs on the ground. We see developed countries pushing back on even the most modest of goals and we all know that the goal of mobilising 100 billion USD a year to support mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries has yet to be met. Yet trillions have been mobilised during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the recovery process, demonstrating that it is political will, not lack of money, that is the challenge. 

As a global community we need to have some serious conversations with ourselves about how we allocate resources, to whom and for what. How much does it cost to explore space? How much does it cost to wage war? How much are we willing to pay to address climate change? How much are we willing to pay to avoid its impacts entirely? To limit warming to 1.5°C? 

Yesterday we heard heads of state and government and many others call for change. But are they willing to do what it takes to get there? To be the change we need to see? To earn the term “leader”?  Because creating visions of alternative futures, empower and inspire others to collectively work towards it. Leaders see opportunities where others see challenges. But managers? They maintain the status quo. They keep things the same through planning, organising and controlling. There is a role for managers. But right now we need leaders to step up. And we need developed countries to take the lead. Because they’re the ones who got us here and they have the greatest capacity to get us out of what Guterres called in his opening remarks, “the gates of hell.” 

Erin Roberts is the founder and global lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She is a climate policy researcher with a focus on the role of leadership in climate policy and has worked on Loss and Damage policy at all levels. She follows the Global Stocktake. 

Julie-Anne Richards is the strategy lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She has over two decades experience working on climate justice and has been working on Loss and Damage for over ten years. She follows Loss and Damage finance, including the work of the Transitional Committee in developing recommendations for the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage fund.

The development of this article has also been funded by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung New York Office with support from the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The publishers are solely responsible for the content of this publication; the opinions presented here do not reflect the position of the BMZ. We also note that views and any errors, are the authors alone and that the content of this brief does not necessarily represent the views of all the members of the Loss and Damage Collaboration (L&DC).