It Is A Term...

The term “loss and damage” (small “l” and “d”) is the term used to describe the manifestation of climate change impacts which are not or cannot be avoided by adaptation and mitigation efforts (i.e. reducing emissions).

Whereas “Loss and Damage” (big “L” and “D”) is used to describe the policies and plans that are used to address loss and damage, such as those that are negotiated at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Loss and Damage has been described as falling along a spectrum which begins with mitigating climate change, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then progresses to adapting to the impacts of climate change, and finally to addressing loss and damage from those climate change impacts that are not or cannot be avoided.

It Can Be Avoided,
Or Un-Avoidable
To reflect the relationship between mitigation, adaptation and other efforts to avoid and reduce loss and damage, it is differentiated by that which is avoided (avoided loss and damage), for example by building a sea wall, that which is not avoided but which could have been through more mitigation and adaptation (un-avoided loss and damage) by doing such things as by preparing a community for when a cyclone hits, and that which cannot be avoided (unavoidable loss and damage), such as when a glacier in the Himalayas is lost forever.

It Is Economic
And Non-Economic
When we are talking about loss and damage that has taken place or might take place in the future, a distinction is made between economic losses, goods and services commonly traded in markets, things like property, cars and belongings and non-economic loss and damage (NELD), items which are not commonly traded markets. Examples of NELD include loss of life, health, territory, cultural heritage, sense of place, agency, identity, indigenous and local knowledge, biodiversity and ecosystem services. 

To illustrate this, imagine an atoll state like Tuvalu was to disappear due to sea level rise, the people who once called Tuvalu home would have incurred both economic and non-economic loss and damage.

Economic losses and damages would include things such as the loss of a house and the property on which it stands, and non economic losses could include such things as the loss of a territory, loss of cultures including traditional practices and sacred sites, connection to the land and sense of place as citizens are resettled and dispersed across many other countries.

It Happens Quickly and Slowly
Loss and damage from climate change impacts can result from extreme weather events such as storms and floods as well as from slow onset climatic processes which include: increasing temperatures, desertification, loss of biodiversity, land and forest degradation, glacial retreat and related impacts, ocean acidification; sea level rise; and salinisation.  

In 2015 after four years of climate exacerbated drought in California 2.7 billion USD and nearly 21,000 jobs were lost in the agricultural sector. This is an example of loss and damage from a slow onset climatic process, which occur over time but are still devastating. In recent years, extreme weather events are occurring with a greater magnitude and frequency.  When climate intensified super cyclone Amphan hit Bangladesh and India in May 2020 it caused 128 fatalities and over 13 billion USD in economic loss and damage alone notwithstanding significant non-economic impacts arising from the trauma of such high magnitude events which includes forced migration, displacement and relocation. 

Developed and developing countries alike are affected by loss and damage. However, developing countries lack the resources to reduce and address loss and damage that developed countries have at their disposal making global solidarity on Loss and Damage critical to create a resilient world in which every citizen is thriving. In addition to that, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the UN’s scientific body on climate change, has acknowledged that even with if mitigation and adaptation can reduce warming to 1.5 °C there will still be losses and damages that will have a greater impact on the most vulnerable people, communities and countries, the majority of which are in the global South.
What Is The History
Of Loss And Damage Under The UNFCCC?
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992 after the UN General Assembly recognized that loss and damage represents a threat for humankind. While the UNFCCC was being negotiated, Vanuatu on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) submitted a proposal for a mechanism to address loss and damage from sea level rise in small island developing states (SIDS). This proposal did not move forward, though the UNFCCC does acknowledge the obligation of developed countries to support developing countries in their efforts to address climate change. 

The ultimate objective of the UNFCCC is to ensure that collective mitigation efforts stabilize greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere in a timeframe that allows ecosystems to adapt naturally, does not threaten food production and allows economic development to proceed unimpeded. The UNFCCC includes 197 Parties (or countries which have ratified the Convention) which make up what is called the Conference of the Parties (COP). Typically there are two negotiating sessions each year; an intersessional which takes place in Bonn, Germany in the spring and the COP, the term used for the biggest meeting of the UNFCCC each year, which takes place in a different region each year according to the country that is currently the president of the COP. 

Initially, after it was established in 1992, the UNFCCC was focused on mitigation to reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and limit climatic change to avoid loss and damage altogether. When it was clear those efforts were inadequate, developing countries advocated for more focus on adaptation. Eventually it became clear that loss and damage from climate change would not be avoided (and was already occurring in many countries). 

At COP 13 in 2007 Bali the term “loss and damage” was first seen in a UNFCCC decision, driven by AOSIS and other vulnerable developing country Parties. In 2010 at COP 16 in Cancun a work programme was established to increase the understanding of how to assess and address climate related loss and damage. That led to the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism on loss and damage (WIM) with the objective of addressing loss and damage in countries particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The WIM has three functions or roles to play which include: 

(1) enhancing knowledge and understanding of comprehensive risk management in addressing loss and damage; 

(2) strengthening dialogue, coordination, coherence and synergies amongst relevant stakeholders; and 

(3) enhancing action and support to address loss and damage. 

The WIM is governed by an Executive Committee (or ExCom) which includes ten individuals from developing countries and ten from developed countries.

For vulnerable developing countries it is critical that there be more emphasis on the third function of the WIM: enhancing action and support. Loss and Damage is included in the Paris Agreement, established in 2015, with its own article. Developing countries consider Loss and Damage to be a “third pillar” of the UNFCCC alongside mitigation and adaptation. While it is important that Loss and Damage is recognized as separate from adaptation in the Paris Agreement it also includes reference to “averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage”. As described above this serves to dilute focus on the important work of addressing loss and damage from climate change impacts. 

At the most recent COP in Madrid in December 2019 the WIM was reviewed and as developing countries had hoped, it was strengthened. The Santiago Network on averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage (SNLD) was established as part of the WIM under the COP and the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA), the body which governs the implementation of the Paris Agreement, to catalyse technical assistance in developing countries particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. For developing countries it is critical that the Santiago Network mobilize action and support (the third function of the WIM) to address loss and damage. This could be done by helping countries develop proposals to fund approaches to address loss and damage as part of a comprehensive framework. Ultimately, however, finance for Loss and Damage will need to be scaled up significantly to meet the scale of the needs. The economic costs of loss and damage in developing countries alone have been projected to be between 290 billion USD and 580 billion USD by 2030. This is likely a vast underestimate given the setbacks in development brought by the CoVID-19 pandemic and does not include non-economic loss and damage.
Why Does It Matter?
Loss and damage matters for several reasons. First, it represents the manifestation of climate change impacts which are disproportionately felt by developing countries, particularly those most vulnerable due to pre-existing vulnerability and exposure to climate hazards (such as storms, floods, droughts and sea level rise). Secondly, the fact that loss and damage is occurring means that the UNFCCC has not been successful at limiting anthropogenic (human induced) changes to the climate. So when we talk about climate justice and a climate just future, we are really talking about loss and damage and the need to support those who are already being adversely impacted by it and those who might be impacted in the future. 

Unfortunately, Loss and Damage has become a controversial topic under the UNFCCC because it emphasises the historical responsibility of developed countries for the existence of climatic change. This despite the fact that the UNFCCC has recognised that historical responsibility for climate change is not equal. The UNFCCC differentiates between countries that have historically benefited from emissions and have become wealthy as a result and those developing countries that will be most adversely affected by climate change and that have contributed marginally to total global carbon emissions. We must not let Loss and Damage continue to be characterised as a political and controversial issue as this delays progress. We must focus on action on the ground and getting support to where it is needed most. 

The Loss and Damage discussions under the global climate regime (the UNFCCC) are important because developing countries urgently need support to address losses and damages from climate change impacts. Developing country policy and decision makers are already overwhelmed with the implementation of development policies and plans such as those aimed at improving health and wellbeing, livelihoods and infrastructures. There are historical reasons why these many countries are still struggling to develop and these must also be acknowledged and addressed.

To put it simply, developing countries are being asked to prepare for a difficult climatic future for which they are not responsible; often at their own expense. These costs have implications such as delaying development. A study in Kenya found that when faced with loss and damage many households adopted “erosive coping strategies” whereby they sell off belongings that will ultimately make them more vulnerable to future climate change impacts. These choices are even more challenging and critical in light of the COVID-19 pandemic which has hit the most vulnerable the hardest.
Why Do Developing Countries Need Support To Address Loss and Damage?
Vulnerable developing countries need support on several fronts to address loss and damage. First and foremost they finance, technology and capacity building which meets the scale of the evolving needs to reduce and address loss and damage from the impacts of climate change. They need technical assistance to address loss and damage, including developing comprehensive frameworks of action, and they need funding to help decision makers, already overwhelmed with the need for such things as disaster reduction and sustainable development, develop strategies to develop and implement measures to reduce and address loss and damage. 

Why Is It Important
To Emphasize “Loss And Damage”?
Within the global climate change regime under the UNFCCC developing countries and their allies are advocating for funding to address losses and damages from climate change. To support developing countries it is important  to use the phrase “loss and damage” when referring to the impacts of climate change that are un-avoided or un-avoidable. This creates solidarity with vulnerable developing countries and also helps raise the profile of Loss and Damage with global change makers who might not be working on climate change, but who might have influence over political decision makers, including heads of state and government. 

In addition, it is also critical to focus discussions on addressing loss and damage, the mandate of the WIM and the role of the UNFCCC vis-a-vis Loss and Damage. The Paris Agreement recognises the importance of averting loss and damage (through mitigation) and minimising loss and damage (through adaptation). Scaling up both mitigation and adaptation is essential, particularly in light of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report. However, we must not let developed countries divert focus from the important work of addressing loss as the impact of climate change intensity in frequency and magnitude.
How Can We Support Climate Vulnerable
Developing Countries?
There are a few ways in which we can support vulnerable developing countries in our collective effort to ensure that they have the support they need to address climate change. When speaking about the impacts of climate change we should ensure that we use the phrase “loss and damage” and emphasise both the economic and non-economic costs of climate change. This will help amplify loss and damage as a cause and increase its profile in the global climate change regime under the UNFCCC. 

In discussions on the resilient recovery from COVID-19 we need to ensure that there is emphasis on both the impacts of COVID-19 on the ability of vulnerable countries to build resilience to climate change as well as the importance of ensuring that the resilient recovery provides support for vulnerable developing countries to address loss and damage.

Image Credit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2016), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO