Thursday, 13 October 2016

Unpacking Loss and Damage due to Climate Change

It is no longer news that the Climate Change trajectory is incredibly unpleasant and scary. The human and ecological systems around the world are faced with constant perturbations as a result of the changing climate. As pointed out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report(AR5), the global surface temperatures have been on the rise since 19th century, with the 2000’s being the warmest years on record. Just recently, the atmosphere entered into an unfamiliar territory where the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) hit a record 400 parts per million in 4 million years. 

The results of such changes are further seen and felt in the day to day life. The risk of occurrence, frequency and intensity of extreme climate events like drought, heavy precipitation, floods and heat waves continue to be on the rise. The increasing climatic risks further and constantly expose vulnerable human and ecological systems to loss and damage. 

A boy quenching his thirst in Turkana, 
one of the arid areas in Kenya.

 What is Loss and Damage?

The recently released United Nations (UN) Environment report defines Loss and Damage as “the adverse effects of climate-related stressors on natural and human systems that cannot be, or have not been, avoided through mitigation or managed through adaptation efforts”.  The report extensively outlines a few case studies on loss and damage due to extreme weather events in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. These are just but a tip of the iceberg – cases of loss and damage due to climate change and spread wide and deep. Verheyen (2012) argues that while mitigation and adaptation remain the most important actions for preventing future adverse effects, researchers, practitioners and policy-makers have realized that future losses and damages may be unavoidable. Furthermore, research has revealed that despite the on-going mitigation efforts, limits to adaptation are already being reached.

In highlighting the Local-level evidence of loss and damage from nine vulnerable countries, Warner and van der Geest (2013) conclude that loss and damage occurs beyond adaptation – either when adaptation measures are insufficient, not implemented, or impossible to implement in order to avoid the impacts of climate change; or when adaption measures themselves have costs that cannot be recovered, or in turn make people more vulnerable. It is also worth noting that loss and damage has two distinct faces – economic and non-economic losses – with the former referring to the loss of resources, goods and services that are commonly traded in markets due to their monetary value, and the later referring to those losses that are not commonly traded in markets, for example, loss of life, livelihood, territory, cultural heritage, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Where it all began...

Loss and damage as a concept emerged from the international negotiations that resulted in the establishment of the UNFCCC back in 1991, when Vanuatu, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), made a proposal for an international insurance mechanism to help them deal with future losses associated with sea level rise. Unfortunately, the proposed mechanism was not incorporated into the UNFCCC as the negotiations focused mainly on mitigation. However, following the findings from the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment in 2007 indicating that mitigation and adaptation alone cannot avoid all the impacts of climate change, the concept of loss and damage was then introduced in the 13th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in 2007, in the context of disaster reduction strategies. The Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) on Loss and Damage was then established in 2013 to address the many unresolved issues around the concept. The Paris Agreement adopted in December 2015 recognizes the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage due to climate change through close collaboration between the Warsaw International Mechanism and relevant entities.

Dr Saleemul Huq talks about Loss and Damage and the “Road to Paris”

The policy environment

Dealing with loss and damage substantially depends on enabling polices at all levels - sub-regional, regional and global. Among the major policy instruments that contribute towards addressing loss and damage are the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda set to be agreed upon in Quito, Ecuador during the Habitat III Conference. We can all agree that in the end, its the actions taken by countries that will determine whether the human and ecological systems will withstand the loss and damage force.

What next?

This blog is an assessment towards a Module in MSc Climate Change (GEOG3057: Global Environmental Change). In the subsequent posts I will endeavor to document cases, news and analysis of loss and damage issues around the world in the context of climate change. Keep reading