The Philippines and the Concept of Loss-and-Damage

In the last quarter of 2013, the Philippines, a vulnerable, low-lying country, was devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan (locally Yolanda), which killed more than 6,300 people and caused US$2.86 billion of damage to homes, businesses, infrastructure and biodiversity sites and smashing everything in its path with winds gusting to 315 kph.

It was only the latest in a long string of climate disasters. The year before, Typhoon Bopha, known locally as Pablo, was the strongest ever to hit the island of Mindanao, taking 600 lives and doing more than US$1 billion worth of damage. It originated unusually close to the equator, becoming the second-most southerly Category 5 super typhoon, reaching a minimum latitude of 7.4°N on December 3, 2012.

Other 2013 calamities included a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol that jolted the Central Visayas island chain, the severest of the year. The temblor displaced 3 million people, affected at least 70,000 churches and damaged PHP2.3 billion (US$51 million) worth of seaports, businesses and airports among others.

Sitting uneasily on the so-called Ring of Fire, where many of the earth’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur, pasted annually by a string of severe tropical storms rolling in across the Pacific Ocean, tens of millions of people have been affected by a long string of such disasters and climate-induced events.

Yet the country has no actual plan or policy to deal with Loss-and-Damage, a new catchphrase gaining importance in the wake of the 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, more popularly known as the Paris Accord, which seeks to limit the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 1.5 degrees C by 2030. The vulnerable states – for which the Philippines is a poster child – argue that the wealthy ones, whose industrial production and other greenhouse gas production should indemnify the states suffering from temperature rise, which is being blamed for rising sea levels and increasingly severe storms.

The controversy over loss and damage in vulnerable states became the highlight of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for Loss and Damage created in 2013. Four years later, the idea that the rich states should pay has gained momentum. Led by the climate negotiations’ host country, Fiji, hopes have risen for better recognition of the Loss-and-Damage concept.

Although it may seem arcane, there are specific definitions. Loss is described the permanent disappearance of objects, species or other items including human lives, while damage refers to those objects that can be restored, such as environmental objects, residences, etc.

Under the Paris Agreement, the question of remedying climate change has branched into three chapters: climate adaptation, mitigation, and loss-and-damage. Among the three, the first two have been the preoccupation of the previous climate talks, while loss and damage are considered part of an irreversible system that can’t be altered.

This year’s COP23 has raised hopes on the part of the least developed countries, or LDCs and the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS to include loss and damage in the negotiations however, it was considered too “ambitious” to become a priority in the face of more pressing climate matters.

The Philippines at large

Manila has taken the lead in 2017 climate negotiations on loss and damage, particularly in relation to rich-country emissions. The delegation has also made its voice heard on pushing developed countries for amends for the LDCs in rehabilitation and remediation and preventing them from doing more damage.

Even with a potential roadmap for loss and damage, it is still impossible to connect with the negotiating panels because of the Philippines’ overall posture in the negotiations. Parties say the Warsaw International Mechanism’s position is technical and doesn’t pave the way for direct participation.

The Philippines’ own four-year disaster recovery system from Haiyan is up to now considered substandard – far from complete rehabilitation. Criticism has erupted in the international mass media over the government’s capacity to manage the recovery. The Aquino administration received an astounding P41.8 billion (US$949.7 million) in foreign aid but much of it remains in the bank account of the country’s Office of Civil Defense.

The country is thus still being questioned over its role in the negotiations by most accounts, given that its own inability to use conventional funds made available for loss and damage have been pathetic.

The Warsaw International Mechanism

When Haiyan struck during UN-sponsored climate negotiations, the Philippines’ lead negotiator, Yeb Saño, appealed to the world to recognize the devastation and its relation to climate change. His emotional speech during the 19th session of the UN-sponsored Conference of Parties in in Warsaw, Poland not only was a plea for collaborative effort among member-nations, he reiterated a call for the implementation of a technical system that became known as the Warsaw International Mechanism, and an executive committee to supervise the mechanism.

“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness,” said Saño. Climate negotiations veteran Antonio La Viña reiterated that the loss and damage mechanism is akin to collecting contingency funds to combat global emergencies.

“It advanced in Warsaw because of Haiyan but we don’t want another Haiyan to happen for this to advance further,” La Viña says.

Did the creation of the Warsaw mechanism satisfy the LDCs? Not quite. Many plead to the high-level commission to offer inclusive political treatment rather than technical and restrictive action. There is the question of whom to blame and how to hold the offenders liable. To avoid aversive judgments, the rich countries are building historic roadmaps to address the issue.

Nevertheless, the Warsaw mechanism has introduced a body to managing the human-induced effects of climate change. LDCs see it as a milestone to recognize Loss-and-Damage as an integral part of the annual climate talks needing crucial attention.

The Philippines’ climate policies are considered a strength when it comes to the international climate agenda. It took years for the country to set its loss-and-damage priorities because of its focus on climate mitigation and adaptation under the 2015 Paris pact, and that Loss-and-Damage, the last chapter, is only an ill-served aftermath.