Vanuatu’s place at the centre of the Paris climate agreement: from little things, big things grow

Vanuatu from space. Photo: NASA

Vanuatu from space. Photo: NASA

Today, the world is celebrating as the Paris climate agreement comes into legal force — and a proposal Vanuatu made in 1991 is now at the centre of the agreement.

The Paris Agreement is a UN treaty that commits the world’s countries to keeping carbon emissions “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. Like most multi-party agreements, it isn’t perfect, but the Paris Agreement is humanity’s most concerted attempt at preventing a global climate catastrophe to date.

As a Pacific island nation, Vanuatu has been hit hard by the impacts of climate change, experiencing sea level rise, cycles of drought and flooding, coral bleaching and mass fish deaths and more destructive cyclones, to name but a few.

The Paris Agreement is especially important for countries like Vanuatu. But Vanuatu also has another reason to celebrate today: with the legal activation of the Paris Agreement, loss and damage—a measure first proposed by Vanuatu in 1991, and now a key article of the Paris Agreement—becomes central to how the global community responds to climate change.


Mataso Island after being hit by Cyclone Pam, March 2015. Photo: Global Greengrants Fund

Mataso Island, Vanuatu, after being hit by Cyclone Pam, March 2015. Photo: Global Greengrants Fund

Loss and damage is another measure for tackling the effects of climate change and sits on top of more familiar measures like mitigation, adaptation and risk reduction. ‘Loss’ refers to the permanent, irreversible changes to human society and ecosystems caused by climate change, while ‘damages’ refers to the impacts of climate change that are reversible. The loss and damage concept seeks to reduce the risks associated with climate change, recognising that efforts at climate change adaptation are not always going to work, and that some loss and damage to human and natural systems is inevitably going to occur.

Vanuatu’s original 1991 loss and damages proposal sought to create a global reserve of insurance funds to compensate small island developing states for loss and damage caused by sea level rise. The proposal was unsuccessful at the time, but the concept of ‘insurance’ stuck and was ultimately included in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. It took until 2014 for the development of a mechanism for tackling loss and damage, and this was the basis for the inclusion of the loss and damage article in the Paris Agreement. The article was included despite the opposition of countries like the US, which agreed to the loss and damages article only if any discussion of liability or compensation for climate change was taken out.

The details of how the loss and damages mechanism is to work will be negotiated at upcoming UN climate talks, starting with COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco this month. Provisions for dealing with loss and damages are likely to involve some form of risk insurance and plans for dealing with specific issues such as resettlement and non-economic losses.

Nevertheless, with the Paris Agreement now activated, the global community has committed to dealing with the actual losses and damages inflicted by climate change, in addition to the existing adaptation measures. Crucially, loss and damage covers not only the monetary costs associated with climate change impacts–but also less tangible impacts, such as the loss of traditions and cultures, two areas that Vanuatu has been a consistent advocate for on the world stage.

Vanuatu may be a tiny country, but by spearheading the inclusion of loss and damages into the global response to climate change, Vanuatu has done all of humanity a great service. Vanuatu has much to be proud of today.

Article by Nick Howlett.