Four days into COP27, the latest global effort to save the planet, and there's modest but discernible momentum toward having richer countries pay some of the bills for climate damage.
"I believe that we need to have an open and frank conversation about loss and damage, which countries like Canada and many developed nations have refused to do so far," said Steven Guilbeault, Canada's minister of Environment and Climate Change, in an interview at Canada's pavilion at the summit venue in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau skipping COP27 to focus on other events in Asia, Guilbeault is Canada's highest-ranking representative at the UN summit.
Guilbeault said that richer countries have tended to "park" discussion about loss and damage "in a very technical area, refusing to have a real political conversation about this, and I've seen how incredibly frustrating it is for developing countries."
For many nations in the Global South, it's a fiercely held conviction that greenhouse gas emissions from wealthier countries are at fault for irreparable damage to their ecosystems, and that they should be compensated.
The idea has kicked around various UN gatherings for decades and many African nations were intensely frustrated it never made it onto the formal agenda of last year's COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.
This year, however, Egypt is hosting, and a determined pre-summit diplomatic push by its foreign minister and COP President Sameh Shoukry, backed by other African nations as well as Pakistan, has changed the dynamic.
So how much would the potential bill be, and who would pay it?
Too soon to say, says Guilbeault, adding everything has to be negotiated. But he's signalling one of the key concerns about the discussions.
"It can't be about liability. Developed nations cannot sign onto something that would make the Canadian public and the European public and the American public liable for lord knows how many hundreds of billions of dollars of damages."
More specific numbers
Some European nations have given tentative signals about what they believe initial amounts might be.
Germany has said it will make €170 million ($230 million Cdn) available to a potential loss and damage fund. Belgium will ante up €2.5 million ($3.3 million) that's already earmarked to to help Mozambique. Scotland, which hosted COP26, is dipping into a "climate justice" fund to provide roughly $10 million, while Denmark, the first country to contribute, is providing roughly $18 million.
But the amounts are tiny in comparison to the potential cost of climate disasters.
Britain's Chatham House reported potential irreparable losses from climate-related damage worldwide could hit more than $1 trillion US by 2050.
"Loss and damage" due to historical emissions is seen as distinct and separate from another key UN climate initiative dealing with future mitigation and adaptation.
Canada and Germany have been tasked with rounding up $100 billion US annually from richer nations to help developing countries upgrade their infrastructure and support a transition to green energy.
Canada's contribution to the fund is $5.3 billion Cdn over three years. The total sum of money now in that fund is unclear, but before COP26, it was roughly $17 billion short.
UN Secretary General António Guterres has suggested as much as $340 billion a year in adaptation and mitigation may be needed by 2030.
Compensation vs. mitigation
The tension between mitigating future climate damage versus providing compensation for past actions has pitted the world's two largest emitters, the United States and China, against each other.
China's current emissions account for roughly 27 per cent of all greenhouse gases poured into the atmosphere, which is more than two and half times those of the United States. Historically, however, no country has emitted more carbon than the U.S.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. government wants to focus on addressing climate adaptation costs going forward, while China is more interested in getting the U.S. to pay for its past actions, said Nick Mabey, founder of E3G, an independent climate change think-tank in London, U.K.
"China is backing vulnerable countries and asking for money on loss and damage despite the fact it's worried about compensation claims, too," Mabey said. "The U.S. is backing demands for more mitigation."
China's top climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, appeared to confirm that dynamic when he told COP27 delegates on Wednesday that "those countries such as ours, who have not contributed greatly to the [historical] emission of greenhouse gases," should not have to pay up.
So far, American climate envoy John Kerry, who's been highly visible at the event in Egypt, has refused to put any U.S. money behind loss and damage.
While the British government under new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak supported putting loss and damage on the COP27 agenda, there are plenty of detractors within the ruling Conservative Party.
Former PM Boris Johnson said in an interview that because the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, his country has been pumping carbon into the atmosphere longer than anyone.
"What we cannot do, I'm afraid, is make up for that with some kind of reparations," he told the New York Times during an online forum in Sharm el-Sheikh.
A columnist in Britain's right-leaning Daily Telegraph went further, stating poorer nations "owe us" for inventing cars and factories, and dismissed outright the notion of paying any country compensation.
Canada as 'voice of reason'
The Egyptian hosts of this year's summit are attempting to prevent such polarized views from reaching the negotiating rooms.
"The reality today, irrespective of the historical legal responsibility in this context, is that a continent such as Africa is responsible for only four per cent of global emissions with about 18 or 19 per cent of the global population," said Wael Aboulmagd, Egypt's Special Representative of the COP27 President, in an interview with CBC.
From 2010 to 2014, Aboulmagd served as Egypt's ambassador in Ottawa. He said that "as a voice of reason," Canada can play a constructive role as the climate summit wrestles with the details of how a loss and damage fund would work.
"The expectation is with the general traditions of empathy and justice and fairness that define Canada ... they'll be at the forefront of those willing to provide financial assistance, technology, capacity, building," said Aboulmagd.
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Without Trudeau's presence, Canada has lacked the profile of having a national leader at the forum. Most European countries, for example, sent their president or prime minister; U.S. President Joe Biden will arrive on Friday.
However, Guilbeault pointed out Canada will have a prominent role at COP15, a big UN summit on biodiversity next month in Montreal.
The environment minister also said Canada's moves to cap emissions of the oil and gas sector and move toward selling only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035 demonstrate climate leadership.
Canada accounts for about two per cent of global emissions. Canada's greenhouse gas emissions have been slowly falling since 2007. They peaked again in 2018, at the equivalent of 740 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, and have fallen the last two years for which there is data, said Guilbeault.
"We don't have the numbers yet for 2021, but I understand and share the impatience and the frustration of people who would want to see emissions go down rapidly."
Nick Mabey from E3G was less effusive.
"I think Canada has kind of 'gone off the boil,' after being an active player [in climate action] for quite some time," he said.
"It's slightly surprising for such a major emitter and a large technological power, [Canada] seems to have dropped back from the leadership end of the pack, and is kind of the rest-of-the-pack now."