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FEATURE: Loss and damage from climate change – building a critical agenda

Sam Bickersteth, CDKN’s Chief Executive, reports on key issues in the loss and damage debate, following a UNFCCC expert consultation on the topic in Tokyo, Japan.

The so-called “loss and damage” agenda has been discussed at UNFCCC fora for several years but negotiators from around the world have very different understanding of what is constituted by loss and damage from climate change.  There is no agreed definition and there are markedly differing entry points to the agenda: either from the perspective of insurance and risk transfer, or the Disaster Risk Reduction agenda.   A further definitional issue is whether it is just about extreme events and disasters or also about slow onset change such as drought and sea level rise.  Without clear definitions and boundaries, it is going to be difficult to progress this important agenda.

Some have helpfully suggested that loss and damage should be focussed on “residual loss and damage”, or a third category of climate change action beyond adaptation and mitigation when adaptation cannot work.   Whilst this overlaps strongly with adaptation and to a limited extent with mitigation actions, there is a need to communicate what is distinct about it.   Parties realise that there must be recognition of loss and damage as a spectrum of issues ranging from loss and damage related to climatic variability around current climate “norms” to climate–related disasters. Thus, it’s not only about disasterrisk management.  At the same time, negotiators acknowledge the need to find pragmatic starting points in order to move ahead swiftly. For that, loss and damage needs to build its narrative.

As we strive to refine the narrative, there is need for examples to build context into the debate. 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.   With only 50% of emissions reduction pledges in place to avoid a 2C warmer world, adaptation may not be an option for some.  The insurance industry faced its largest losses ever in 2011 with events such as the Thailand floods causing $48bn in damage alone.  For island states the threat of loss from sea level rise is very real with the prospect of permanent economic recession as their key asset, tourism, is destroyed.  For other states increased droughts or loss of glaciers are already causing substantial economic losses.

If we understand loss and damage as the consequence of failures to address mitigation and adaptation, it is the part of the climate change agenda that is at the “pointy end”,  to quote one Annex 1 delegate to the recent UNFCCC Consultation on Loss and Damage.  Without action there is a risk of the humanitarian system collapsing under the weight of climate-related disasters.

One of the international community’s foremost needs is to assess data gaps and  requirements: what do governments need to know?What data is available, and for what purpose will the data be used? So far, in assessing risk of loss and damage, there has been a lot of focus on economic aspects but there are many other areas such as ecological, social and cultural that are yet to be captured. Therefore to develop a framework and guidelines for assessments, multiple measures of both science and society-based approaches will be needed.  Technical insights are revealing that there is no ‘one approach’ solution to this, but a variety of tools will be required to undertake risk assessment.  This then leads conversation to the capacity for risk assessment, as loss and damage is different in regions and countries with varying degrees of gaps and challenges, and with differing data, technical support, and finance available. This debate ought to be understood from an angle that there never really will be absolute certainty over data and models. Even the most sophisticated models are based on proxies and assumptions, therefore the aim should not be to get hung up on exact figures as perfection can be the enemy of good if it keeps us from acting well.

For this reason, action on loss and damage must be taken at multiple levels.  While individual households, farms and businesses will face the direct consequences of climate related loss and damage, governments, regional institutions and international bodies must assist.    The UNFCCC is seeking to incorporate the loss and damage agenda into the international climate change agreements but we already see regional initiatives by governments and the private sector in place; the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) and the EU Regional Risk pools are examples.    To engage governments and private sector the data behind loss and damage needs to improve and numbers will be critical. The IPCC’s SREX report on extreme events and disasters provides some important evidence for policy makers to take up the loss and damage agenda. The Hyogo Framework on DRR provides another entry point.

With all the uncertainties around this conversation, one aspect is very clear: we are venturing into new territory, testing new concepts, trying to unearth further details.  The aim should be to increase understanding of loss and damage, and move towards demystifying the implementation options designed with enough flexibility to allow Parties and stakeholders to exchange information and move forward even without perfect certainty in all areas. Measured progress over time and the ability to design solutions that offer some benefits for all Parties will contribute to a positive dynamic and foster confidence in the process. The process should not expect to find one single solution; rather, look for combinations that can be implemented at different levels, both under the Convention and outside. The coming year will be as much a time of discussion and preparation for a decision about implementation under the Convention, as it will be about catalysing experiments, pilot approaches, and learning on the ground. Over time, loss and damage could potentially provide an avenue to raise awareness of the consequences of failing to avoid dangerous climate change and become a rallying point for increased mitigation ambition.

Most action will take place at national level and it is appropriate that consultations on loss and damage will be occurring at the regional level in the coming months to help shape a responsive agenda that can lead to action now.

Image: Indonesian village devastated by flooding. Courtesy of International Rivers.

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