Egypt’s vast coral reef system, which is home to the charismatic orange and white striped clownfish, corals of blue, purple and pink, and vast underwater structures, brings in $7bn (£6.15bn) a year in tourism – more than in any other country in the world.
If the planet warms by 2.5C – roughly as estimated – over a tenth of Egypt’s coral cover would disappear, unable to cope with hotter seas packed with more carbon. And so would almost 40% of that income it gets from the reef, the global Ocean Panel initiative has predicted.
The coral reef cannot simply adapt to climate breakdown, neither can the thousands of people relying on it for food and work.
Meanwhile, as the sea level on northern Egypt’s Mediterranean coast creeps higher, it batters cities like Alexandria and salt poisons the ground in the fertile Nile delta.
“Many people are losing their livelihoods there. It impacts on agriculture. It impacts on fisheries and it has an impact on the infrastructure,” says ambassador Mohamed Nasr, Egypt’s lead climate negotiator.
Such losses and damages that are beyond the realms of human adaptation inflict huge economic and social costs.
The question of compensation has long haunted United Nations climate talks, but this year furious developing nations are hoping it will take center stage at the upcoming UN climate talks COP27 in Egypt.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the issue a “litmus test” of how seriously governments take the growing climate toll on the most vulnerable countries. Developing nations say there can be no success at COP27 without new and additional cash.
The devastating floods in Pakistan this summer reignited the debate over who should pay for climate catastrophes. The flooding not only killed 1,700 people and uprooted 33 million more, it also inflicted $10bn (£8.54bn) of damage.
But Pakistan has contributed very little to the climate change that fueled the devastation, and neither have most developing countries who are also suffering the most severe impacts.
“People are losing their homes. People are losing their livelihoods. Coastlines are sinking, islands are being submerged and in the end, histories are being destroyed,” campaigner Vanessa Nakate told Sky News.
Analysis of 173 countries by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) think-tank found those at highest risk of such losses are developing countries Burundi, Somalia and Mozambique, which are some of the lowest emitters in the world, while those facing the lowest risk were developed nations Luxembourg, Switzerland and Ireland.
“Our contribution to climate change is negligible, yet we are hit first and worst by its impacts. And every impact exacerbates existing development challenges,” said Madeleine Diouf Sarr, head of climate change at the environment ministry of Senegal.
For years, wealthier countries resisted acknowledging the need for compensation.
Concerns are “very much wrapped up in what precedent that sets in terms of reparations, slavery being a major one for the US,” Clare Shakya from the IIED told reporters in October.
Concept of ‘finance’ for loss and damage
Ms Diouf Sarr said developed nations used to claim that countries could simply adapt to climate damages like drought, sea-level rise, flooding and so on.
“We adapt, but we are not fine,” added Ms. Diouf Sarr, who is chairing the negotiating group of 46 least developed countries at COP27 this year. “This can no longer be ignored, and we are increasingly seeing a willingness to engage on the issue across the board.”
It is regarded as somewhat of a coup that the concept of “finance” for loss and damage looks likely to make it onto the official agenda at a UN COP conference for the first time.
Previously, vague terms like a “mechanism” or “facility” were all that made it through the battle to get onto an agenda.
Climate damage ‘so intense, so real, for so many countries’
Africa, small island states and vulnerable countries have been pushing the issue for years.
The idea of compensation gathered significant traction at COP26, in an agreement to set up a “dialogue” – hailed as a success but dismaying developing countries who want cash to cope, not a conversation.
Leaders say they “need more time to discuss and see what they can do. But a child that is starving in Turkana has… no time for more dialogue,” Vanessa Nakate said.
And now the climate damages “have become so intense and so real for so many countries that they recognize that it is a big issue and there is a greater openness” to discuss compensation, Ms Shakya said.
This year, Europe suffered its worst-ever wildfires amid savage drought, certain crops in England are expected to fail by up to half following record heat.
Some 600 people have died during flooding in Nigeria, and Hurricane Ian has devastated citrus and melon, vegetable and cattle farming in Florida, costing $1.5bn (£1.3bn).
In September, Denmark became the first country to pledge proper compensation for climate damages, committing 100 million Danish Krone (£11.7m).
The figure is not even a drop in the ocean of what’s needed but breaks a taboo for wealthier countries about even acknowledging the need for financial compensation.
Pakistan, still reeling from climate breakdown at home, is also chairing the powerful negotiating group of 77 countries (G77) this year, meaning the bloc is likely to take a stronger stand.
And developing countries hope that having Egypt as COP host will also help propel the debate. Egypt certainly thinks it can.
“I think we will be able to deliver funding pathways… that should be decided on within a very limited timeframe,” ambassador Nasr said.
‘Whole regime in question’
But the challenge is not just defining of funding loss and damage, it’s about how. Should it be delivered through the COP process, multilateral development banks, or a new initiative, and is it funded by taxes, windfall profits, or in the form of insurance or loans?
The cold hard truth is that the slower that wealthier countries are to slash their polluting emissions – and they are already well behind – the worse the climate damages, and the louder the calls for compensation will grow, including from their own citizens.
COP negotiations rely on international co-operation and trust, and countries must bring something to the table if they expect others to do the same.
Wealthier countries have already missed a promise to channel $100bn a year by 2020 to developing countries to help them cut their emissions and adapt to climate change.
But the money is vital to help grease the wheels of negotiations and encourage or even enable developing countries to take action on the climate. They’re asked to leapfrog the chance of their own industrial revolution, because the global north is already polluted with theirs. That requires money.
“Finance has always played the role of trust-building,” Mr. Nasr added.
“If we lose on finance delivery, then this whole regime will be in question.”