Beyond adaptation: loss and damage negotiation at the United Nations

By Gabriele Messori, Research postgraduate in the Department of Physics

The 19th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place last month in Warsaw, Poland. These conferences are at the core of the international negotiations on climate change, and set the scene for future climate policies around the world. By most accounts, the Warsaw meeting had mixed results – it marked progress in some areas and stagnation in others. One of the most contentious negotiation streams, and one where some measure of progress was made, was loss and damage.

The current approach to climate change is based on two pillars: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is concerned with minimizing climate change. Adaptation is the result of the failure of mitigation to prevent climate change, and is aimed at adapting to a climate different to the one we have been familiar with in the past. However, even adaptation has it limits. For example, in the future it might become unfeasible for low-lying island states to adapt to rising sea levels. Loss and damage is meant to tackle cases where both mitigation and adaptation have failed. The concept stems from the realization that a changing climate will imply rising human and economic losses for our planet.

From a scientific standpoint, the problem of loss and damage is very complex. Any agreement on damage associated with climate change will need to have clear guidelines defining what can be ascribed to climate change and what cannot. The issue becomes particularly contentious for extreme events. In fact it is very hard, if not impossible, to associate a single weather event to changes in the state of the climate.

From a political point of view, the contentiousness of loss and damage mainly arises from two distinct considerations. The first is that the main beneficiaries of a loss and damage agreement would be low-income, low-resilience countries. A number of developed nations therefore view an agreement as a very costly form of climate finance. The second important aspect is that loss and damage is intimately tied to the idea of historic responsibility. The developed countries have been emitting greenhouse gases for much longer than the least developed and developing ones, and are therefore responsible for a large part of the cumulative emissions budget. Because of this, the agreement on loss and damage is very complicated under the legal aspect, with developed countries fearing that it might lead to the question of climate change liability.

In Warsaw, the negotiations on loss and damage were aimed at establishing a global framework to tackle the issue. Some of the developed countries, notably Australia, initially refused to commit any finance specifically to loss and damage. At the other end of the scale, a large coalition of small island states, least developed and developing countries demanded a comprehensive agreement, explicitly addressing “permanent losses and irreversible damage, including non-economic losses”. As expected, the final result was a compromise between these two extremes.

The “Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage associated with climate change impacts” requires (developed) countries to provide financial, technological and capacity-building support to address the adverse effects of climate change. Next year the executive committee of the mechanism will develop a work plan, and a review will take place in 2016. After 2016, an “appropriate decision on the outcome of this review” will be made. Crucially, the agreement explicitly mentions that “loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change includes, and in some cases involves more than, that which can be reduced by adaptation”. At the same time, however, the mechanism is placed under the adaptation pillar of the negotiations. This was bitterly opposed by many countries, which asked for loss and damage to be entirely distinct from adaptation.

The agreement was a hard-fought compromise between very distant negotiating positions, and will hopefully provide the foundations for an effective loss and damage global framework. The 2016 review, and the subsequent “appropriate decision”, remain important open questions regarding the future of the mechanism. A lot will depend on how the different parties will approach the review process. In addition to this, the scientific question of how to ascribe specific damage to climate change has largely been overlooked. Ultimately, only time will tell how effective the recent compromise reached in Warsaw will be.

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