What does ‘loss and damage’ mean?
Loss and damage normally refers to the destructive impacts of climate change that cannot be or have not been avoided by what is known as ‘mitigation’ (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) or ‘adaptation’ (adjusting to and building resilience against current and future climate change impacts).
This reflects the fact that climate change is already having substantial negative effects on ecosystems, infrastructure, and people’s health and livelihoods around the world. However, there is no internationally agreed definition for loss and damage.
The term ‘Loss and Damage’ is commonly used in reference to international climate negotiations on the topic and its surrounding politics. It also refers to plans and policies focused on addressing loss and damage.
Loss and Damage is a priority for many climate-vulnerable countries in the UN climate negotiations due to the severe climate effects they are experiencing.
In some instances, for example for many small island states, such impacts pose an existential threat.
Loss and Damage has been considered a contentious issue by many, given its links to the historic responsibility of developed countries in causing human-induced climate change, and with associated calls for them to provide compensation (see below). However, over time the topic of Loss and Damage has become less ‘taboo’ in the eyes of developed countries.
Loss and damage is often divided into economic loss and damage, which includes harms to livelihoods and property, and non-economic loss and damage, which includes loss of life and losses to biodiversity and cultural heritage.
Loss and damage encompasses destruction caused by extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change, as well as harms arising from slow-onset events, such as the melting of glaciers.
What is the extent of loss and damage so far?
The extent of current global loss and damage is difficult to quantify. It ranges from damage to infrastructure as a result of flooding to loss of life due to extreme heat. However, it is clear that loss and damage is already occurring on a large scale, and that it will only worsen as global warming increases.
Tuna migration habits in the Pacific Ocean, for example, are changing due to the heating of the ocean. This could have an enormous impact on the small island states whose food supplies and economies depend on tuna fishing, and could cause an estimated $140 million loss in average government revenue per year.
In the Lake Chad region, temperatures have risen nearly 2 degrees since the 1960s. Extreme weather events, from flooding to droughts, are affecting the livelihoods of 40 million people in this region.
This has contributed to lower fishing, agricultural and livestock yields, the loss of indigenous culture due to the displacement of communities, and conflict over arable land.
The costs for loss and damage are primarily being met by the communities and countries most impacted by climate change. Rural families in Bangladesh, for example, spend much of their income protecting themselves from climate impacts like flooding and storms. Indeed, women-headed households use up to 30 per cent of their total spending to do so.
The economies of the V20 – a coalition of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries – have lost an estimated $525 billion in the last 20 years due to the impacts of climate change.
These costs make it harder for these states to recover, prepare for future events or reduce their current greenhouse gas emissions.
Who is responsible for loss and damage?
Many countries that suffer severe loss and damage – such as the least developed countries and the small island states – are least responsible for global carbon emissions both currently and historically.
The Maldives, for example, contributes only 0.03 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions but sea-level rise poses an existential threat to the country since four-fifths of its islands are only a metre above sea level.
Similarly, the entire continent of Africa has contributed only 3.8 per cent to global greenhouse gas emissions yet it is the most vulnerable continent to the impacts of climate change and is already suffering severe loss and damage.
Consequently, politicians and civil society stakeholders in some developing countries have highlighted the historic responsibility of developed countries in causing climate change and have called on them to provide compensation for loss and damage.
In the past, developed countries have been wary of discussing Loss and Damage finance largely because they have feared they may become legally obligated to provide vast sums in compensation to climate-vulnerable states.
Large emerging economies account for an increasing share of global greenhouse gas emissions. These countries support calls for loss and damage finance in the climate talks but are increasingly coming under pressure to contribute funding themselves, given their growing emissions and increasing economic strength.