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FEATURE: Loss and Damage – From Defining to Understanding to Action

On her return from a UNFCCC Regional Workshop in Bangkok, Kashmala Kakakhel, CDKN Project Manager, explains how loss and damage is progressing within the climate talks.

The state of the debate

It is widely accepted that existing mitigation commitments and actions will not prevent dangerous climate change related impacts. Therefore, residual loss and damage, the climate change impacts that we are unable to prevent through mitigation and adaptation efforts, will likely be the defining part of the future response to climate change.

This was first officially recognised by the 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework, which launched a Work Programme to develop policy options to address loss and damage.  A series of regional expert meetings have also been organised by the UNFCCC to enhance understanding and facilitate an exchange of ideas. It is hoped that this will allow a decision to be made at the climate summit in Doha in December 2012 on how to respond to loss and damage, both in the short term and as part of the post-2020 international climate regime.

Making the transition

Twenty years ago, when countries realised that carbon emissions are a threat to the future of human existence, efforts were put into ‘preventing’ climate change impacts – and the concept of climate change mitigation was born. Ten years later it became clear that mitigation was not happening quickly enough, and it alone would not combat climate impacts. By the seventh UNFCCC CoP, adaptation surfaced as a new area which was to assist in ‘managing’ climate change impacts.

Today, understanding on mitigation and adaptation is relatively advanced, and has resulted in some level of action to reduce the impact of climate change. However, lives are still being lost to climate catastrophes resulting in irreplaceable losses that are slipping through the mitigation and adaptation ‘nets’. This is forcing people to rethink how climate change is being tackled. The idea of loss and damage is emerging as a way of ‘responding’ to climate change impacts.

As a new issue, there is still significant debate about how to address loss and damage, with the main options being Risk Reduction, Risk Retention and Risk Transfer.

The diagram below has been developed by the CDKN funded Loss & Damage in Vulnerable Country Initiative which illustrates the potential needs, functions and thematic areas that are part of loss and damage. This is proving to be a useful entry point for advancing discussion on the issue.

(Diagram courtesy of Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Country Initiative, CDKN, 2012)

New territory

It is widely commented that when a new concept emerges within the international climate talks, it follows a four-stage process:

– Awareness of the issue, but lack of knowledge on the problem, and often confusion over terminology;
– New knowledge is generated and understanding is enhanced;
– Decision-making starts to address the issue;
– The issue is mainstreamed within ‘Business as Usual (BAU)’.

History indicates that completing all four stages takes around ten years. For, loss and damage, we are still at phase 1. But, it is hoped that by using available knowledge gained from the last 20 years of climate research and policy, progress will be speeded up.

The UNFCCC regional expert workshops held in Ethiopia for Africa, in Mexico for Latin America and most recently in Thailand for Asia, have made significant progress in providing direction on the issue. However, there are still many challenges ahead before consensus can be reached, in particular on the following key issues:

i.             Definitions

The definition of loss and damage is the most crucial and challenging area. Through CDKN’s project an attempt has been made to set the basic parameters, and then build upon it as understanding matures.

It defines loss and damage as “representing the actual and/or potential manifestation of climate impacts that negatively affect human and natural systems”.

‘Damage’ is therefore the negative impacts that can be repaired or restored (such as windstorm damage to the roof of a building, or damage to a coastal mangrove forest from coastal surges which affect villages). While, ‘Loss’ is the  negative  impacts  that  cannot  be  repaired  or  restored  (such  as  loss  of geologic  freshwater  sources  related  to  glacial  melt  or  desertification,  or  loss  of  culture  or  heritage associated with potential population redistribution away from areas that become less habitable due to climate change).

These definitions are expected to go through a series of iterations as the debate progresses.

 ii.            Gauging

A key challenge is that there is no system to estimate the full range of losses in monetary or economic terms, for example how to put a dollar figure on the  ‘cost’ of loss of human life or cultural heritage. It appears that such a system is required before a complete ‘approach’ to address loss and damage is possible.

iii.           Relationship to adaptation

Questions are being raised about how loss and damage is connected with adaptation. Consensus over the definition of loss and damage and its distinction to adaptation should help. CDKN’s working definition is that the losses and damages are impacts that still occur after adaptation measures have been taken – i.e. the residual impacts.

 iv.           Extreme versus slow onset impacts

The loss and damage debate has tended to focus on either extreme disasters or slow-onset impacts.

The initial focus was on extreme events as it is a better understood and articulated problem, and was the focus of the regional workshops in Africa and Latin America. However by the time the Asia workshop took place, the importance of and the need for deliberating around slow-onset impacts became more evident.

The reality of the Asia region also played a part in this, given here it is not a future problem, but a currently reality. Sea level and salinity intrusion is rising and causing loss of livelihood in Bangladesh, glacier melt is evident in the Himalayas. The biggest success of the Asia workshop was therefore to focus minds on why and how to tackle slow onset event impacts as part of the loss and damage agenda.

 v.            2 degree vs. 4 degree reality

As Saleem ul Haq, CDKN’s partner for the project stressed at the Asia workshop: With loss and damage now being seen as the residual impacts after adaptation, it is important to consider the differing scenarios of a future world where average global surface temperature has increased by 2 degrees vs. 4 degrees. He suggested that with the current trajectory we should plan for a 4 degrees increase, and as such the magnitude of loss and damage could require an entirely different set of approaches to what we are currently considering.

Expected outcomes from COP18

Like adaptation a decade ago, loss and damage is an emerging field and an increasingly relevant topic for the international community given current success rates with mitigation and adaptation. Thus any approach to loss and damage – particularly at the international level – must seek to increase international commitment to mitigation and adaptation, the parameters that influence the extent of residual loss and damage.

The upcoming 18th COP in Doha in December will be a critical moment for moving forward on this issue. The decisions made will certainly inform the direction and progress of understanding and action on loss and damage.

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