Loss and Damage

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Last updated October 11, 2015

There are limits to adaptation. Some climate impacts are already exceeding the the abilities of affected populations to adapt, causing loss and damage. The question of how to address these losses and damages is a key issue in the international negotiation process.

Because the climate system works on long cycles, the current level of warming is already locked in and will continue to rise until all greenhouse gas emissions cease. It will not be possible to adapt to all of the resulting impacts. The resulting losses and damages are projected to increase significantly in the future.

The phrase ‘loss and damage’ applies to the devastation wrought by climate change, both when the destruction can be repaired (damage) and when it cannot be repaired, resulting in permanent ruination (loss). In the latter case, losses caused by climate change extend beyond the loss of human life.: For example, territory can be lost as whole island nations or large stretches of low-lying coastline are submerged by sea level rise. Livelihoods can be lost when farmland or forests are turned to desert by climate-driven drought, or when fisheries are wrecked by temperature extremes and increased ocean acidity. Finally, social and cultural practices can be lost as societies are displaced from their homes.

Some of these losses or damages are intrinsically economic, but others are mainly cultural or social, particularly for indigenous peoples and other communities whose identities, livelihoods, and lifestyles are affected. It is generally harder to affix an asset value to social and cultural losses.

In the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)  negotiations, ‘loss and damage’ refers to the effort to build an overarching understanding of how the global community will respond to these challenges. Negotiators must decide what kind of legal recognition will be given to losses and damages, as well as explore how to anticipate, manage, measure, and respond to loss and damage. Often, countries and populations that are particularly challenged by loss and damage are those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions driving the losses.

A brief chronology of loss and damage in the UNFCCC process:

  • 1991: AOSIS first introduced the concept to UNFCCC discussions in the form of an insurance mechanism for sea level rise, with the aim of motivating greater mitigation ambition. From that early date, insurance was written into the UNFCCC Convention.  

  • 2007: The phrase ‘loss and damage’ made its first appearance at the Bali meetings.

  • 2008-2009: AOSIS pushed for recognition of the topic at COP14 in Poznan, Poland and called for a three-window mechanism.

  • 2010: A decision to undertake serious deliberations on loss and damage was included in the Cancun Adaptation Framework, one of the principal outcome documents from the COP16 meetings.  A work program on surveying the topic of loss and damage was launched soon after the Cancun meetings.

  • 2013: The UNFCCC established a timeline and proposed a vehicle, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (the WIM), to address the issue. The working group was charged with developing a preliminary work plan and establishing an Executive Committee for the Warsaw Mechanism.

  • 2014: The working group approved the preliminary work plan at COP20 in Lima.

  • 2016 (expected): When the WIM was conceived in 2013, the Warsaw decision also officially codified plans to review the organization and effectiveness of the Loss and Damage Mechanism in December 2016 at COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco. However, this work plan is intended to review the technical design of the mechanism, and will not be the correct forum for debating the legal basis and implications of loss and damage reparations.

The topic of loss and damage has both legal and technical dimensions. There is an ongoing effort to establish durable legal recognition of the issue in international agreements. There is also a continuing push to design a specialized mechanism for calculating costs and providing restitution for the destructive impacts of climate change borne disproportionately by vulnerable countries.

As the timeline shows, the technical treatment of loss and damage (currently embodied in the WIM) is slated to be reviewed after the 2015 climate agreement in Paris. Proponents of loss and damage restitution argue that it will be necessary to address the legal dimensions in the 2015 international climate deal. However, the agreement reached by countries in Lima last December outlining the major elements of the Paris deal did not include loss and damage.

In addition to AOSIS, the originators of the concept, the Least Developed Countries bloc (LDCs) are particularly strong proponents of including loss and damage in the Paris agreement. Together, countries in these two blocks are some of the most susceptible to climate change devastation.

There are two principal reasons that these blocs are pushing so strongly for loss and damage to be included in the Paris agreement. AOSIS members and LDCs are experiencing adverse effects from climate change now. Some are facing shrinking borders or complete territorial loss, and they want to ensure that the issue and the WIM are anchored in the new climate regime for post-2020. Also, proponents of the loss and damage mechanism recognize the high-profile nature of the Paris agreement, and want to ensure that any mechanism is legally relevant to the global climate deal.  

If the issue of loss and damage is included in the Paris agreement, it would likely carry greater force in the years to come. Countries in favor of the Warsaw mechanism have more leverage in 2015 to get their demands on the table than they will after the agreement is finalized, as each country can advocate for their own issues as a prerequisite for signing the deal. Some advocates for the loss and damage issue doubt that they will be able to get developed countries to agree to the Warsaw mechanism if discussion is postponed until after Paris. For both these reasons, proponents of an internationally recognized understanding of loss and damage have placed increasing emphasis on the issue in international climate discussions over recent years.

Those in favor of addressing loss and damage, both inside and outside the official negotiations, are pushing to use 2015 as a year to discuss what can be done to address current costs of climate change impacts. These discussions will consider loss and damage compensation both in addition to and in place of the WIM, in the event that it is delayed or blocked in 2016.

Loss and damage has become one of the most fraught issues in the international climate negotiations. Developed countries hold significant historical responsibility for producing the emissions driving climate change, but are largely unwilling to open themselves to the financial liability of compensating foreign countries hit by climate-related disasters. Many developed countries are arguing that the Warsaw Decision set a different timetable for this issue, which would mean that loss and damage is not currently set to be decided on as part of the Paris Agreement, unlike the issues of adaptation, mitigation, and finance.

The push and pull between developed and developing nations has caused significant confusion. The confusion is compounded by the blurred relationship in the draft Paris negotiating text between the issues of adaptation and loss and damage. Several paragraphs mentioning loss and damage were inserted in the text in Geneva, however, these mentions are mostly embedded in the section of the text on adaptation. Many advocates for the recognition of loss and damage are pushing for the topic to not only be referenced or anchored in the Paris agreement, but for it to be distilled in its own section of the draft text. These proponents argue  that loss and damage should not be grouped with adaptation, as loss and damage only becomes relevant after adaptive capability is exceeded.

Countering this position, parties who are less supportive of loss and damage mechanisms have expressed reluctance to moving the topic to its own section, preferring instead to keep the issue as a minor element within the section on adaptation. Countries that hold this position rationalize that loss and damage was articulated as part of the Cancun Adaptation Framework and cannot be disconnected from that agreement.

More extreme opponents to addressing loss and damage have sought to excise mentions of the topic from the agreement text entirely, stating a preference to move these elements to an accompanying COP decision.

It remains unclear how the issue of loss and damage will ultimately be reflected in the Paris Agreement text, or whether it will be included at all.

However, during the August - September Bonn round of negotiations, developed countries - particularly the United States - dropped their opposition to including loss and damage in the Paris agreement marking a major breakthrough on not only this issue but in the level of trust and understanding around the cross-cutting issue of differentiation more generally. The iteration of the negotiating text released by the co-chairs of the ADP platform in early October includes a brief section acknowledging loss and damage in the official agreement text (considered anchoring text for the issue) and carves out a space to elaborate loss and damage in the accompanying decision section of the text although, at this juncture, this space is simply occupied by placeholder language explaining that parties still need to work out how fully to articulate loss and damage in the decision section and how closely it will incorporate policy actions in its articulation of loss and damage.

 

Key Terms

ADP

The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) is a body created by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Its mission is to "develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 in order for it to be adopted at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020." 

African Group of Negotiators

The African Group of Negotiators (AGN) represents African nations in the United Nations system. At the 20th Conference of Parties, the AGN associated itself with the G77 and China and has historically had strong ties with the positions of that negotiating bloc.  

 

AILAC

The Independent Association of Latin American and the Caribbean (AILAC) represents six regionally proximate countries with similar positions on climate change. AILAC is officially comprised of Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, and Peru. 

ALBA

ALBA, formally known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, is a negotiating bloc with 11 member countries in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. It is associated with socialist and social democratic governments and operates under a vision of a Hispanic system of solidarity and mutual aid.

 
Annex I

A term used to refer to industrialized countries that were members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992, and countries with economies in transition. Examples of Annex I countries include the United States, member states of the European Union, and the Russian Federation.

AOSIS

The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) represents 44 island and low-lying coastal countries with similar development challenges and environmental concerns. AOSIS lobbies and negotiates for small island developing states (SIDS) in the United Nations system. Climate change is a fundamental threat to many SIDS, and AOSIS has called for major global  emissions reductions at every international climate negotiation. Some members include Cuba, Samoa, Trinidad and Tobago, Marshall Islands, and Maldives.

AR5

The 5th Asssessment Report (AR5) is an extensive document of the future threats and current impacts of climate change, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013 and 2014. 

ASEAN

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) represents ten member states in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. ASEAN has a special working group on climate change that focuses on addressing climate change in the global community.

BASIC Group

The BASIC group consists of Brazil, South Africa, India, and China. These four newly industrialized countries walked out of the Copenhagen climate summit, and often argue for equitable development and consideration of common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities (CBDR-RC). There is a high level of overlap between BASIC and BRICS nations.

 
BRICS Group

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa make up the BRICS nations. These five major emerging national economies play a significant role in global negotiations and represent around 40% of the global population. There is a high level of overlap between BASIC and BRICS nations.

 
CACAM Group

Central Asia, Caucasus, Albania, and Moldova (CACAM) have formed a negotiating group for United Nations proceedings.

Cartagena Dialogue

The Cartagena Dialogue is an informal alliance of around 40 developed and developing countries party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. The dialogue meets outside of the formal negotiations to discuss progressive climate objectives.

 
CBDR-RC

A guiding principle as well as a source of contention in the UN climate negotiations, Common but Differentiated Responsbilities and Capabilities (CBDR–RC) takes account of a country's historic contributions to climate change, as well as its ability to contribute to a global response.

Climate Finance

Mechanisms established to help fund countries in their efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

COP15

The 15th Session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Copenhagen, Denmark.

COP17

The official and commonly used acronym for the 17th Session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP17), held in Durban at the end of 2011. At COP17, countries – including the United States, China and India – agreed to reach a legally binding treaty to address climate change post–2020, by 2015.

COP20

The 20th Session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Lima, Peru. At COP20, the draft text for the Paris Agreement was produced, including proposed language for a long term goal.

COP21

A common acronym for the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is being held in Paris in November and December of 2015. 

Copenhagen

Capital city of Denmark and host of the 15th Session of the Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2009.  

Copenhagen Accord

The result of the 15th Session of the Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The accord included a long-term goal of limiting warming to no more than 2˚C above pre–industrial levels, but excluded practical terms for achieving this goal.

Durban Platform

A common label applied to the deal reached at the 17th Session of the Conference of Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Durban at the end of 2011. Countries – including the United States, China and India – agreed to reach a legally binding treaty to address climate change post–2020, by 2015.

EIG

Formed in 2000, the Environmental Integrity Group (EIG) is made up of Mexico, Liechtenstein, Monaco, South Korea, and Switzerland. These nations formed this group because they did not feel represented by any groups that arose out of the 4th Conference of Parties (COP4) in 1998.

 
European Union (EU) Group

The European Union (EU) consists of 28 member states, and meets privately to develop unified negotiating positions. The European Commission presidency is rotated between members every six months, and the president is responsible for speaking for the EU and all member nations. The EU can be itself a party to the climate convention or to other organizations, but generally does not have a separate vote from its members.

 
G77

The Group of 77 (G77) is the largest group of developing countries participating in the Paris climate talks. This group is very diverse and represents a broad variety of interests and positions. Some notable members of the G77 include Brazil, China, Mexico, South Korea, Chile, India, and Saudi Arabia.

GCF

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is a fund set up through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the intent to raise money from the developed world to help developing countries to reduce emissions and cope with the impacts of climate change. 

GHG

A greenhouse gas (GHG) traps heat in the atmosphere, which leads to global warming. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (NO) are three common greenhouse gases.  Most greenhouse gasses are addressed by the UNFCCC, but a small handful of fluorinated GHG (aka F-gases) are currently addressed by the Montreal Protocol which seeks to manage a different issue, ozone depletion.

INDC

Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) are outlines of the actions that countries intend to take to address climate change, submitted ahead of the Paris negotiations. 

International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI)

An initiative advanced by Norway to help establish a global, binding, long-term post-2012 regime to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C. It contributes to multilateral and bilateral initiatives including the Brazilian Amazon Fund, Congo Basin Forest Fund, Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and Forest Investment Program.

IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to scientifically assess and communicate the risks and challenges posed by climate change. 

Kyoto Protocol

An international climate agreement that commits countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions toward established, legally binding targets, linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was adopted in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, and came into force in February 2005. 

League of Arab States

The League of Arab States represents 21 independent Arab states in northern and northeastern Africa and southwest Asia. The League of Arab States was founded by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, although Syria is currently suspended.

Least Developed Countries (LDCs)

Forty-eight countries are categorized as least developed countries (LDCs) by the United Nations. LDCs have been active as a negotiating bloc in the climate change talks in recent years, and often advocate for adaptation financing.

 
Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) Group

The Like Minded Group of Developing Countries (LMDC) is a new negotiating bloc that represents over 50% of the global population. The LMDCs, which include Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and India, indicated during the 20th Conference of Parties that common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities (CBDR-RC) would be a critical issue during the negotiating process. Adaptation financing and historical responsibility are two common negotiating points for the LMDCs. The LMDCs also often advocate for the maintenance of the differentiation between developed and developing countries (Annex 1 and Annex 2, in UN parlance).

 
Lima

Capital city of Peru and host of the 20th Conference of Parties (COP20) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Long-Term Goal (LTG)

A long-range goal that would help orient and guide global activity to avert catastrophic climate change. The shape and nature of this goal is still being determined, but may form a key piece of the Paris agreement.

Loss and Damage

A term used to describe climate impacts that occur when the limits of adaptation are reached. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has developed a work programme on loss and damage to help address the issue, particularly for the developing countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

LTG

A long-term goal (LTG) that would help orient and guide global activity to avert catastrophic climate change. The shape and nature of this goal is still being determined, but may form a key piece of the Paris agreement.

LULUCF

A greenhouse gas inventory sector that covers emissions and removals of greenhouse gases resulting from direct human-induced land use, land-use change and forestry activities.

Non–Annex I

Mostly developing countries, many of which are recognized as being at greater risk from the impacts of cliamte change or whose economies are disproportionately reliant on fossil fuel production. Examples of non–Annex I countries include Angola, Bangladesh and Fiji.  

OPEC

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is an intergovernmental organization that often states positions on international negotiations. Twelve countries currently belong to OPEC, which was founded by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. OPEC has taken a strong position against long-term goals that mandate shifts away from fossil fuels.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

Thirty-four member countries and the European Commission take part in the work of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD is dedicated to global development and understanding economic, social, and environmental change. Notable members include Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

 
Pacific Alliance

The Pacific Alliance is a Latin American trading bloc consisting of Chile, Columbia, Mexico, and Peru. They have collectively called for concrete measures toward a global agreement on climate change.

Paris Agreement

A label widely used to refer to the international climate agreement countries have committed to creating before the end of the talks being held in Paris in November and December of 2015.

Paris Climate Talks

A commonly used shorthand for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framewrok Convention on Climate Change, which is being held in Paris in November and December of 2015. 

SICA

The Central American Integration System (SICA) consists of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Belize. As members of the Group of 77, this negotiating bloc aligned itself with the Lima statement from the G77 and China.

South-South Cooperation Fund

A climate finance fund announced by China in September 2014 with the intent to provide greater assistance to developing countries in tackling climate change. 

Umbrella Group

The Umbrella Group is an informal group made up of non-EU developed countries. Its formation occurred following the Kyoto Protocol adaptation, and its non-codified member list usually includes Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Kazakhstan, Norway, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

 
UNDP

The United Nations Development Programme works with 170 countries around the world to eradicate poverty and reduce inequality and exclusion. 

 

UNFCCC

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is a near-universal climate treaty established at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.