As countries meet in Paris for the COP21, all efforts must be made to avoid the effects of climate change, and to approve a new agreement that promotes the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and ensures justice for the most vulnerable.
As previously explored in a RIO+ Centre blog post, mitigation and adaptation are the main ways that the impacts of climate change can be dealt with, each with their strategies and methodologies of implementation. Mitigation attempts to avoid the source of the problem by reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for increases in the temperature of the planet. Adaptation, on the other hand, seeks to build resilience to the impacts of climate change by assessing and predicting the effects, and adopting measures –social, economic and environmental – that can reduce its negative impacts.
Nonetheless, despite the efforts being made to promote changes through mitigation and adaptation strategies, we have achieved a point in which a certain degree of impacts due to climate change is already a reality, and such impacts are commonly known in climate change debates as ‘loss and damage’.
Loss and damage deals with the consequences that were not possible to avoid through mitigation and adaptation. As IIED and ICCCAD’s Senior Fellow Saleemul Huq puts it, “loss and damage from climate change would refer to the complete and irrecoverable loss of some things and the repairable damage of other things due to the impacts of human induced climate change”. It is a compensatory practice to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries to deal with the unavoidable effects of climate change, which are already taking place. A study carried by the United Nations University (UNU) showed that adaptation efforts were not enough to refrain the negative effects caused by climate change, and that 96% of households in selected districts in Ethiopia and 78% in Nepal suffered impacts due to climate related phenomena in their households’ budget.
In scientific terms, associating climate change with loss and damage is a controversial and highly debated issue. It is complex to define if an extreme climate event is the result of climate change, or if it is an adverse event due to climate natural variability. While this discussion is taking place at the policy and technical level, currently loss and damage is mainly related to “slow onset events”, such as sea level rise, land and forest degradation, rising temperatures, glacial retreats, among others, but must also integrate other impacts, such as climate-induced migration.
While much can be argued about its definition, effects due to the intensification of such extreme climate events are a reality, and countries must find a way to negotiate the compensation of loss and damage. At the COP19 in Warsaw, the most vulnerable countries succeeded in pushing loss and damage into the agenda, through the creation of the Warsaw International Mechanism, which will be further assessed most likely at COP22 – next year’s climate conference. While it is still unclear how loss and damage will be included in a new agreement, developing countries are pushing to include a financial commitment that places the onus on developed countries for the financing of potential loss and damage actions.
Loss and damage is also an underlying concern for the achievement of a sustainable development model. When countries create their strategies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they must also keep in mind such unavoidable effects of climate change. The SDGs must push countries to leapfrog over old development practices that no longer have space in a climate changing world while building the resilience of the most vulnerable so they are better equipped to cope with climate shocks and negative impacts.
Promoting loss and damage strategies is a necessary measure for tackling inequality within and amongst countries. As explored in our previous blog post, there are several equity and justice concerns around climate change. Without the proper means, least developed countries will continue to lag behind, while having to bear the additional costs of climate change.
Loss and damage will also require technology transfer to developing regions in order to cope with the effects of climate change. SDG17, which calls for a global partnership for development, stresses the need to create such partnership mechanisms, which would facilitate financial and technological transfers, as well as the institutional framework needed to integrate the broad development and climate agendas.
Coping with loss and damage must not be our main or only strategy to deal with climate change. Countries must put all their efforts into reducing greenhouse gases and into increasing people’s resilience to climate change. Loss and damage deals with the residual consequences that were not possible to be avoided despite action of mitigation and adaptation, and the larger the effort made to avoid climate change effects, the less loss and damage strategies will be needed. At this stage, at least some consequences due to climate variability that were not refrained by previous strategies are already a reality, and therefore we must also cope with those consequences.
Nowadays, loss and damage is a necessary mechanism to achieve the SDGs’ objective of leaving no one behind. The most vulnerable countries need to take into account unavoidable climate extreme phenomena while formulating their sustainable development strategies, and this challenge once more reinforces the need for a global, integrated sustainable development agenda.