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LOSS AND DAMAGE

The US could owe the world $2 trillion in climate-change damages

Activists wear masks depicting world leaders as they sit by a buffet marking the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill during the COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 5, 2021.
Reuters/Russell Cheyne
Settling the bill.
  • John Detrixhe
By John Detrixhe

Future of finance reporter

Published

Poor countries, rocked by storms and flooding from climate change, have spent years trying to hold the big carbon-emitters accountable. While most rich nations have fiercely resisted this liability, attendees at COP26 will give it another try in Glasgow.

The US is the $2 trillion elephant in the room. That figure is a rough estimate (most likely at the very low end) of how much the world’s largest economy could owe other nations if it accepted liability for the “loss and damage” caused by its historical emissions of carbon dioxide, according to Richard Tol, an economics professor at the University of Sussex. The US and Europe have pumped the most carbon into the atmosphere since the industrial era began, although China is quickly narrowing the gap.

What is loss and damage?

“Loss and damage” is the moral and legal principle that if you cause damage to a party then you are responsible for compensating them for it, Tol said. Some of these issues were demonstrated in a dispute between the US and Canada over smoke from a smelter, a dispute that was settled in 1941 and became a key international ruling on air pollution across borders and underscored the principle that the polluter pays for damages. When it comes to human-induced climate change, loss and damage can refer to severe weather or rising sea levels that endanger lives to livelihoods and cultures.

In many cases, poorer countries that have produced hardly anything in the way of greenhouse emissions will be the hardest hit by these environmental dangers. Rich countries, and the US in particular, bear the heaviest responsibility because they’ve pushed out the overwhelming majority of carbon dioxide that’s accumulating in the atmosphere, according to most academics’ reckoning. India is among the countries seeking compensation for the losses caused by disasters tied to climate change.

The concept has been discussed in policy circles for years with little to show for it. In 2013, a bloc of 132 poorer countries reportedly walked out of climate conference in Warsaw after rich nations were accused of stalling discussions on the issue. On Nov. 8, attendees at UN’s COP26 climate summit will hear from some of the communities that have been hardest hit by climate change and the growing risks they face.

“It’s not going anywhere and it has to do mostly with the US position,” Tol said of loss and damage discussions. If the US government accepted liability, “then immediately the floodgates open,” he said.

The issue isn’t just fraught because of the eye-popping liabilities the US and countries in the EU could face. Quantifying and pinning down damages is complicated and controversial. And while there are some legal precedents for sovereigns to compensate one another for loss and damage, Tol says the framework is weak and low-income countries lack the power of enforcement over politicians in Washington or London.

That said, at COP 26, Scotland became the first country to take responsibility for loss and damage to developing countries and is donating $1.35 million to the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, according to a report by The Herald. While the amount is a pittance compared to the scale of losses suffered around the world, it could increase pressure on officials in wealthy countries to accept liability and provide more financing for climate-change mitigation efforts.

Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO of Oxfam GB, said it’s important to make sure loss and damage are a regular focus of COP gatherings, even if little progress is made in Glasgow this time around: “Climate action without climate justice, I think, is morally and technically bankrupt.”

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