Cruising in a boat along an estuary near Devi’s mouth in Odisha, I was struck by the beauty of the dense mangrove forests, a common feature of India’s eastern coast. Known for their remarkable ability to grow in saline water, mangroves are a powerful weapon in our fight against climate change.

They absorb 4-5 times more carbon than conventional forests, helping mitigate emissions. But perhaps the most important role of mangroves is protecting coastal communities from the damaging impacts of natural disasters like cyclones..

In many parts of the world, people do not have ecosystems like mangroves or the infrastructure necessary to protect them from natural disasters or extreme weather events. Developing countries, who are working hard to balance socio-economic growth with emissions reduction, also bear the added burden of losses from these disasters.

Earlier this week, COP27 ended in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, after an extended period of negotiations. It could not bring any major decisions on phasing down fossil fuels and scale-up of climate financing.

The current combined National Determined Contributions or NDCs, the targets voluntarily set by countries to tackle emissions and mitigate climate change, are leading our planet to at least 2.5 degrees Celsius warming, well above our target of 2 degrees Celsius agreed in Paris in 2015. With another COP gone without strong commitments from countries, we are desperately running out of time.

One silver lining, though, was a decision to establish a ‘loss and damage’ fund to compensate countries particularly vulnerable to climate harm. India has played a key role in advocating for this fund, which will finance infrastructure rebuilding and economic recovery in developing countries facing huge losses due to climate change induced disasters.

This is about climate justice. Many communities and nations are already suffering the impacts of climate change because of emissions caused by other countries. They, therefore, must be suitably compensated or supported to rebuild their lives and economies. ‘Loss and damage’ recognises that humanity will continue to face a rise in the number and intensity of natural disasters due to the current trajectory of the climate crisis, so we must find solutions to minimise the loss of lives and livelihoods, and damage to infrastructure.

In the first nine months of 2022 alone, the world saw 29 weather catastrophes and events of the largest scale, where the economic damage is estimated to be over $1 billion. These are harming poor and marginalised communities the most, widening existing social and economic inequalities. A study by Oxfam estimates that the projected economic cost of loss and damage by 2030 is nearly $400 billion per year for developing countries alone. It can go up to $1-1.8 trillion per year by 2050 if corrective measures are not taken.

These countries cannot muster up so much finance on their own. Developed nations must come forward. The decision to set up a loss and damage fund at COP27 is a positive step. But there are a lot of unknowns that need answering: What events can be defined as loss and damage? How much money do we need? Will wealthy countries put money in this fund?

India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It is also among the most disaster-prone. As a long-term advocate of loss and damage compensation for developing nations, India has an important role in driving this agenda forward globally/regionally, while strengthening frameworks to manage and mitigate loss and damage at home.

On the global stage, the India-led Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, or CDRI, is implementing intergovernmental programmes to develop climate resilient infrastructure. CDRI is well positioned to support the structuring of the loss and damage fund, including developing an operative mechanism, and helping deploy funds to vulnerable countries.

India is taking over the presidency of the G20 in a week, a powerful forum representing 65 per cent of the global population, 75 per cent of world trade and 85 per cent of global GDP. They are also responsible for 80 per cent of total emissions worldwide.

Critical platform

With Brazil and South Africa to assume the G20 presidency after India, the global south is rising at the world stage, and G20 will be a critical platform to mobilise finances, technical expertise and human resource for the loss and damage fund.

High population density and its vulnerability in South Asia exacerbate impacts of recurrent natural hazards like cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, floods and droughts.

With similar geographies and threat profiles across international borders, financing mechanisms that can address regional instead of national priorities might be more effective.

India’s south-south cooperation initiatives along the Bay of Bengal, one of the most densely populated regions globally that is highly vulnerable to oceanic disasters, and across the Hindu Kush Himalaya, home to the largest reserves of ice and freshwater after the polar regions, will be instrumental in accessing finance from the fund as well as creating platforms for technology transfer and knowledge exchange.

India must also prioritise creating a framework for assessing loss and damage as a part of its national and sub-national action plans on climate change and disaster risk reduction. Social protection schemes like MGNREGA that are creating climate-resilient infrastructure at the grassroots, and weather index-based crop insurance to protect farmers demonstrate how minimising loss and damage can become a part of public welfare programmes.

The situation may look grim, but efforts and hope exist at the community level. We stop at an eroded patch near Devi’s mouth where mangroves were destroyed due to a cyclone. UNDP is working with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the state government to restore them as part of an initiative to enhance the resilience of India’s coastal communities.

The restoration is an intensive exercise requiring lots of time, money and effort, but local communities and government officials believe that together, they can revive these forests, which protect them from floods and cyclones.

We must deliver on this hope — for communities and countries.

The writer is Resident Representative, UNDP India