What is loss and damage?

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Earth Journalism Network, Rotterdam, Netherlands

What is exactly meant by loss and damage in chapter eight of the Paris Agreement on climate change is fueling debate among academics and practitioners at the 4th international climate change adaptation conference the Netherlands Government is hosting here in Rotterdam this week.

Experts say a definition on what exactly is loss and what is damage is required because the Paris Agreement is silent and quite ambiguous on its definition. While there is agreement on the fact that loss and damage is a standalone item of the Paris Agreement and that this mechanism goes well beyond adaptation, experts attending the Rotterdam conference argue that there are still aspects of the mechanism that require a lot more clarity.

Photo: Queen Maxima of Netherlands addresses the 4th international climate change adaptation conference in Rotterdam, Netherlands

A researcher with Deltares, an independent research institute in the Netherlands, Dr. Laurens Bouwer believes the confusion reigns because the loss and damage mechanism needs to specify which aspects of climate change it applies to: human induced climate change or the general naturally caused changes in the climate.

He said the general understanding is that the loss and damage component of the Paris Agreement should only apply to anthropogenic climate change, the ones caused by humans, and that it should not be used for the slow onset types of climate change or climate change that is caused by nature.

According to Dr. Bouwer, authoritative literature like the most recent report of the Inter-Governmental Panel of scientists on climate change, the IPCC, determines that there is “low confidence” in applying loss and damage to anthropogenic climate change.

This lack of definition of what constitutes loss and damage has prompted scientist Dr. Rachel James of the University of Oxford in the UK to conduct a study on the subject. In this study, Dr. James says she has interviewed over 40 experts comprising policy makers, practitioners and researchers in the field of climate change as to what they think is the meaning of loss and damage in chapter 8 of the Paris Agreement.

She explains that the loss and damage mechanism under the Warsaw Agreement was introduced primarily for the sake of small island states as they are the most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Dr. Swenja Surminski of the London School of Economics tolda session at the Adaptation Futures 2016 conference that insurance, for her, does not provide the solution in the debate on loss and damage.

She also believes that while other countries, particularly the heavy polluters and industrialised economies, prefer not to use the term ‘compensation’ in loss and damage, there is no escaping the fact that countries who suffer losses due to the onset of climate change needs to be compensated for the losses that they did not cause in the first place.

This session on loss and damage comes as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) releases its Adaptation Gap Report at the Rotterdam conference which will conclude on Friday. The report confirms the huge gap in the cost of climate change adaptation to the money made available by countries and international financiers.

To 2014, public financing made available for adaptation amounted to US$22.5 billion, the UNEP report says. Yet “previous estimates place the cost of adapting to climate change at between US$70 to $100 billion annually for the period 2010-2050, a figure based on a World Bank study from 2010,” a statement from UNEP states.

“The Adaptation Finance Gap Report, which is written by authors from 15 institutions and reviewed by 31 experts, builds upon these earlier estimates by reviewing national and sector studies.

“As a result, the report finds that the World Bank’s earlier figures are likely to be a significant underestimate. The true cost of adapting to climate change in developing countries could range between $140 and $300 billion per year in 2030, and between $280 and $500 billion per year in 2050, it says.”