“I was wondering if it was a dream,” said Walter Edwin, who sells honey from more than 50 beehives in Dennery on the Caribbean island of St Lucia. He had just received a phone call telling him to go to the bank for an automatic insurance payout following the major hurricane that struck in 2014.
Beekeeper Walter Edwin with his wife Marcella Photograph: Basia Cummings/UNU-EHS
“I used that very same money to get some syrup to look after my bees,” he said. Storms destroy the flowers the bees need for food, and falling branches damage the hives. Edwin is one of millions of people around the world vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather already benefiting from low-cost insurance schemes.
But on Tuesday, leaders at the UN climate change summit in Bonn, Germany, revealed a huge leap in ambition: to help protect 400 million poor and vulnerable people around the world by 2020. The project, called the InsuResilience Global Partnership, aims to provide insurance against the damage increasingly being caused by global warming.
The issue of climate change impacts is perhaps the most sensitive among the 196 parties negotiating in Bonn, with the potential to explode into a row that derails other issues. Developing nations are adamant that rich nations, who they say caused climate change, should pay for the “loss and damage” that results. This year’s series of huge storms and floods across the world has intensified the debate.
The InsuResilience scheme, started in 2015 by the G7, is one response. Patricia Espinosa, the UN’s climate chief, said: “People devastated by recent weather events and communities vulnerable to climatic impacts are looking to the nations meeting in Bonn for an answer. This new, higher ambition initiative represents one shining example of what can be delivered.”
“Instead of only reacting to catastrophes we want to shift to planning, preparing and protecting,” said Thomas Silberhorn, a senior official in the German government, which on Monday announced an additional $125m of funding.
The UK donated £30m in July and so far the $550m raised means 160 million people could be covered by 2020. But the scheme, which has now expanded to involve more nations like Ethiopia and Madagascar, insurers including Allianz, Swiss Re and Munich Re and NGOs like Care International, expects to expand to reach the 400 million target.
Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the economy minister of Fiji, which is running the climate summit, said: “When we had cyclone Winston in 2016, 40,000 houses and 225 schools were devastated. We need to be able to get people back quickly to day-to-day living after disaster strikes. But at the moment only 10% of homes in Fiji are insured.”
Key to the scheme is slashing bureaucratic assessment and claims procedures, with many, like Edwin’s, simply paying out when weather data passes trigger points. In September, $55m was paid to 10 Caribbean countries within 14 days of hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaking disaster on the islands. The scheme is also active in Zambia, Paraguay and elsewhere.
However, the initiative has been met with suspicion by some delegates in Bonn.
“It pushes the poor people of the poor countries to pay the insurance premiums from their limited resources,” an African diplomat told Climate Home. Julie-Anne Richards of the Climate Justice Program said: “The insurance mechanism is a clever initiative of developed countries to pushing the developing countries to pay for climate risk for which they are not responsible.”
Gebru Jember Endalew at COP23 Photograph: Kiara Worth/IISD
Gebru Jember Endalew, the Ethiopian chair of the 47-strong Least Developed Countries negotiating bloc at the climate talks, pointed out homes have to be resilient to be insurable at all. “When you go for health insurance, they ask you if you are already ill,” he said. “So first we need to address the vulnerability of infrastructure.”
The disagreement about loss and damage could turn ugly, according to Prof John Schellnhuber, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and who has advised both Angela Merkel and the Pope. “Loss and damage could turn into a bombshell,” he said. But he is optimistic this can be avoided and said disputes over damages were moving into lawsuits in the courts.
Silberhorn defended the insurance plan: “It is one tool among many others and it is a very effective tool. It is a different tool to loss and damage.” He said action on cutting emissions and funding adaption must also continue: “Insurance tools do not mean we do not have to change our behaviour.”
Taking action like paying the $8 per month insurance premium has been very important to Edwin, who is in Bonn to tell his story: “If we just stay sitting there our bees are going to suffer. It is a very good thing.”
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