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When the damage is done

A flooded slum in Manila (Aug 2012)
A flooded slum in Manila (Aug 2012) (Jason Gutierrez/IRIN)

UN climate change talks in Doha could be on the verge of adding a focus on "loss and damage" to its framing of the global response to climate change. The new issue area would supplement existing emphases on the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change - underscoring the growing realization that simply adjusting to a warmer world may no longer be an option.

There is no agreed-upon definition for "loss and damage", but the phrase broadly refers to a range of harms incurred in developing countries from the impact of climate change that cannot be avoided either through mitigation or adaptation.

The issue has been contentious, as the term could allude to a right to compensation and a legal obligation on the part of developed countries to provide it.

Its inclusion in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiating texts was resisted until the 2010 UN meeting in Cancun, Mexico. The phrase was featured in the Cancun Adaptation Framework, which called for a work programme to explore the concept.

''The concept of loss and damage is increasingly important because we have not mitigated or adapted to climate change in time''

The programme, after two years of series of meetings and studies, will report its findings in Doha, and there is some expectation that a separate mechanism to address funding or guidance on how to deal with loss and damage could be announced. One of the main debates will be how to institutionalize loss and damage more formally, says Sönke Kreft, policy officer with the NGO Germanwatch.

Losses inevitable

Saleemul Huq, the lead author of the chapters on adaptation in the last assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), describes loss and damage as the third paradigm in the UNFCCC process. "It opens up a major new strategy to respond to climate change beyond mitigation and adaptation. The discussions around this topic are still in their infancy but will undoubtedly grow in importance over time."

“The concept of loss and damage is increasingly important because we have not mitigated or adapted to climate change in time: whatever we do now, there will still be losses and irreversible impacts,” said a joint paper produced by the NGOs ActionAid, Germanwatch, Care International and the World Wide Fund for Nature. 

"Loss and damage is a reality for millions of people now and is likely to become important to many more as we learn to live with climate change," writes Sam Bickersteth, chief executive of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).

Loss and damage (L&D) resources
 The Work Programme (UNFCCC)
 L&D in Vulnerable Countries Initiative
 L&D due to Climate Change (UNU)
 Into Unknown Territory...(ActionAid, Germanwatch, WWF, Care)
 Loss and Damage (Third World Network)
 Progress in Cancun, work begins on Durban
 Climate change in-depth
 Sinking Islands

Bangladesh started a programme to examine these issues, the Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative, which is funded by the UK government. CDKN has appointed a host of organizations to the initiative, including Germanwatch, the United Nations University-Institute for Environmental and Human Security, the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and the Munich Climate Insurance Initiative.

"People now have to go past the notion that with adaptation we can manage all climate impacts,” said Kreft. “I see this development particularly prominent among the G77 group, which as a whole devotes much more resources and thinking on this issue than one or two years ago."

Vulnerability and liability

Small island countries, led by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), have been strongest and most persistent advocates for the need to address loss and damage, rallying their position around the fact that their ability to adapt to climate change will be limited when their land is being drowned by rising sea levels.

Issues over liability have long been brewing. In 2011, the Pacific island nation of Palau sought an advisory opinion from International Court of Justice (ICJ) on whether countries have a legal responsibility to ensure that any activities on their territory that emit greenhouse gases do not harm other countries.

Human rights expert Roberto Espito told PBS, the American broadcaster, that while “ICJ advisory opinions are non-binding and technically have no legal teeth… [they] are held in the highest regard in the international community and have, on more than one occasion, sown the seeds of development in international law”.

There have been several recent, grim reminders of the inevitability of a much warmer world. The UN Environment Agency (UNEP), in its annual Emissions Gap Report yesterday, warned that the globe is already set to grow two degrees Celsius warmer this century. And earlier this week, a new report for the World Bank painted the even worse scenario of a possible four-degree increase in global temperatures this century.

Even a two-degree rise in global temperatures would have catastrophic effects: water stress in arid and semi-arid countries, more floods in low-lying coastal areas, coastal erosion in small island states, and the elimination of up to 30 percent of animal and plant species.

Exploring options

The Cancun Adaptation Framework’s work programme has indicated that "loss and damage will grow to become a major issue affecting economies and livelihoods in developing countries," according to a briefing paper by Juan Hoffmaister, loss and damage coordinator for G77 and China, and Doreen Stabinsky, professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic in the US. 

Germanwatch's Kreft points out that the work programme has been placed under the umbrella of the UNFCCC's Subsidiary Body for Implementation, which allows for discussion on various options. But he expects dissent to arrive again as the debates take a "liability/compensation tone".

There are also plenty of technical issues to consider, for instance, how loss and damage could be addressed through the new climate deal expected to be worked out at the end of 2015, he added.

Risk reduction, risk retention and risk transfer are approaches often prescribed in response to loss and damage. But the work programme found that these approaches are also limited.

"Risk reduction, like adaptation, becomes impossible after a certain point, for example, when a territory becomes uninhabitable," write Hoffmaister and Stabinsky. "Migration and planned relocation are only coping mechanisms in that situation.

"Risk retention, when countries assume the costs of damage and loss in national accounting, is not an option for many countries. Risk transfer is a broad category of mechanisms to transfer the cost of damage and loss to a third party, usually through some form of insurance. There is potential for risk transfer and other risk-sharing mechanisms like insurance to address a subset of losses and damage; however insurance works best for low-probability, high-impact events.

“Insurance is not appropriate for events of 100% certainty, such as sea-level rise and increased temperatures."

But global community still hasn't gone the past main hurdle of defining loss and damage.

IPCC assessment author Huq, who also heads ICCCAD, pointed out in the Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star that "the main issue at the moment is the lack of clarity both about the terms ‘loss and damage’ (they seem to mean different things to different people) and also about the ‘international mechanism.’ These will be the main negotiating issues, with AOSIS (backed by the [Least Developed Countries] and Africa) arguing for strong actions to be taken, while the rich countries try to agree to the weakest possible outcomes.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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