Loss and damage from climate change – will leaders respond to this present danger?

Loss and damage from climate change – will leaders respond to this present danger?

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Date: 16th November 2012
Type: Feature
Country: Bangladesh

By Kashmala Kakakhel, LEAD Pakistan, and Tom Mitchell and Emily Wilkinson, Overseas Development Institute

Join the Alertnet-CDKN twitter debate on Thursday 22 November from 12:00-13:00 UK time to ask the authors, and loss and damage experts Koko Warner and Sven Harmeling, more about the issue.

When Superstorm Sandy cut a destructive swathe across the Eastern United States, many commentators debated whether it had been caused by climate change or not. Certainly, it is possible that climate change added ferocity to the storm. If it did so, then there is some historic justice, as the United States is responsible for huge levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

What of climate change-related disasters in poor countries, though? These countries have emitted very few greenhouse gases and cannot be held responsible for the added severity or frequency of hazards associated with climate change.  For poor countries with little or no role in causing severe weather events, who should pay the monetary costs of rebuilding lives and livelihoods when they suffer loss and damage?

This is an important question, as climate change is increasingly being linked to loss and damage in vulnerable developing countries. The most recent IPCC report on extreme events and disasters found likely human influences on temperature extremes, intense rainfall and storm surges. Sea level rise and the reduction of freshwater are forcing the President of Kiribati to consider moving the islands’ entire population elsewhere. In the Sathkira District of Bangladesh, saltwater intrusion associated with storm surges following cyclone Alia in 2009 has resulted in a 55%-65% decline in rice production, increased water borne diseases and skin infections. Extreme rainfall in El Salvador in 2011, of 1.5 metres over 10 days, destroyed crops and caused a dip in GDP growth and a rise in inflation.

Fortunately, Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have been discussing ‘loss and damage’ for the last two years. In fact, the whole issue of loss and damage has been explicitly on the agenda of the UNFCCC negotiations since 2007 and recognised in scientific models of climate change impacts for much longer. As far back as 1992, the Alliance of Small Island States proposed the idea of an International Insurance Pool to tackle losses.

At the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Doha, Qatar this month, parties must decide on next steps that make substantial progress on the loss and damage agenda. Losses and damage from climate change have become a clear and present danger for many countries. Rich countries maintain a low ambition to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, indicating that ever greater loss and damage from climate change is inevitable. Precipitous action is required.

Parties have been involved in a number of recent consultations to assess three aspects:

  • What is the risk of loss and damage?
  • What types of economic and governance measures can address extreme events and slow onset loss and damage?
  • What can the UNFCCC do to enhance these approaches?

Key points emerging from these recent consultations are explored below.

What does ‘loss and damage’ actually mean? ‘Loss and damage’ has not been defined by the UNFCCC yet, though it is widely recognised that ‘loss and damage’ is short hand for ‘loss and damage resulting from the adverse impacts of anthropogenic climate change’. This has left space for other groups to develop their own definitions. A CDKN-funded consortium that is supporting the Government of Bangladesh on loss and damage issues defines ‘loss’ as ‘negative impacts that cannot be repaired or restored’, whereas ‘damage’ is ‘negative impacts that can be repaired or restored’. Such negative impacts are both direct and indirect and quantifiable economically (destroyed infrastructure) and non-economic or not quantifiable (such as loss of cultural identity, indigenous knowledge, or social cohesion). This makes the task of identifying the true costs of negative climate impacts particularly challenging, and therefore any sense of the scale of international mechanisms required to address it.

Is ‘loss and damage’ really a third pillar of managing climate change risk (to go with adaptation and mitigation) or really just a part of adaptation? The limits of adaptation are poorly defined and as a consequence it is unclear which elements of loss and damage need to be addressed through something other than existing adaptation mechanisms associated with the Convention. Certainly any measures to anticipate and reduce losses and damages – such as disaster risk reduction – are firmly on the adaptation agenda. Support for the added humanitarian needs from climate change-related disasters are not. Establishing the divisions will be key to any agreement as this has implications for the coverage and scale of potential new mechanisms to address loss and damage.

How can the costs of loss and damage associated with human-induced climate change be worked out? Identifying the proportion of loss and damage that can be attributed to human-induced climate change - compared to a host of other factors like climate variability, poor governance or poverty - is technically challenging on many levels and fraught with uncertainties. This is due to incomplete data, lack of baselines and the difficulty in disentangling variables. Any estimates of loss and damage associated with human-induced climate change will therefore be estimates at best. At the same time however, it is pertinent to recognise that the key driver for loss and damage is historical emissions and rich countries are obliged to lead in tackling the drivers at the international level and assist developing countries in dealing with the impact through an agreed mechanism.  This is clearly spelt out in the text of the UNFCCC.

Do we assess the risk of loss and damage based on projections of 2, 4 or 6 degrees Centigrade of average global temperature rise? The UNFCCC sets a target of keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees. However, current projections given by Climate Action Tracker are for 3.3 degree rise by 2100 given existing emissions reduction pledges. A new report from PwC raises the possibility of a 6 degree rise. The new IPCC WG1 report, due out in late September 2013 will add some clarity to this discussion, but the risk of loss and damage under a 2 degree or 6 degree scenario is radically different. How then is this uncertainty factored into negotiations?

How do we incorporate the risk of loss and damage associated with slow onset events? The disaster community is used to thinking about slow onset disasters, such as droughts, happening over weeks, months or a year. There is plenty of experience of dealing with such events, but very limited recent knowledge of coping with creeping climate change impacts over years or decades. Salinisation, sea water intrusion, glacial melt and biodiversity loss fall into this category. We have little data on these aspects, meaning that the projections of future risk are difficult and cost estimates vary widely. More work is needed to consider how to tackle losses in such contexts

What then can we expect to be on the agenda in Doha?

Consideration of a multi-track approach that recognises that loss and damage is already happening, action is required but political and technical challenges remain. Early action might see commitments to scale up funding to a climate-smart version of disaster risk reduction (DRR) through existing adaptation mechanisms. Given the risk of loss and damage from climate change-related extremes, such funding commitments should increase in real terms and as a proportion.

A way of broadening the engagement of scientists and other technical experts on the loss and damage agenda to make faster progress on some of the technical challenges outlined above. So far, there has been plenty of sharing of experience but only a very small group of experts providing structured inputs to the discussions. In parallel, political leaders must prioritise action on loss and damage and engage in a substantive dialogue with technical experts and other stakeholders if progress is to be made in Doha and beyond.

Debate on whether to extend the existing work programme on loss and damage to include a detailed assessment of design options for a potential UNFCCC loss and damage funding mechanism. This should include assessment of the potential for a Green Climate Fund window to support measures to address loss and damage, options for global or regional risk insurance pools and develop a mechanism to support humanitarian action and compensatory measures. Care must be taken to fully assess all the existing international mechanisms to address loss and damage, beyond the UNFCCC too, such as those associated with the humanitarian community like the CERF, with disaster risk management, such as the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction and the existing regional insurance mechanisms such as the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility or the emerging African Risk Capacity.

  • Discussions on whether progress for agreeing a UNFCCC loss and damage mechanism should also be tied to the timetable for agreeing the universal ‘legal force’ agreement on climate change in 2015 as well as continued work of a technical nature under the Susbsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) of the UNFCCC.


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