Climate Talks, COP21 - Paris, Loss & Damage

Loss and Damage vs. Detection and Attribution

This article is written by Gabriele Messori and Aglaé Jézéquel.

Traditionally, actions tackling climate change pertain to two main areas: mitigation and adaptation. The first area aims to limit the extent of the change, for example by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The second aims to reduce our vulnerability to the climate change that will inevitably happen. It has further been recognized that it will not be possible to mitigate or adapt to all aspects of climate change, and that there will be climatic events which will cause significant social and economic damage, for example the loss of lands due to sea level rise or the social and economic consequences of more frequent heat waves.


The aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

The term Loss and Damage, which has gained the headlines in recent Conference of the Parties (COPs), refers to actions responding to economic and non-economic damage caused by climate change. The concept was first proposed in 1991, albeit not under the present name, but a Loss and Damage mechanism within the UNFCCC was only agreed upon at COP19 in Warsaw in 2013. Even though the concept of Loss and Damage is meant to go beyond adaptation, since it applies to the cases where neither mitigation nor adaptation will suffice, it should be noted that the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage currently falls under the adaptation pillar of the UNFCCC negotiations and is not yet a separate category within an international treaty.

In the road to COP21, Loss and Damage has been one of the most controversial parts of the draft agreement. Some developed countries fear that loss and damage will be a costly form of additional compensation, with potential legal implications related to climate liability. As a result, they would prefer to keep the concept under the Warsaw Mechanism and outside of the Paris agreement. On the other hand the developing countries – especially those who will be most impacted by climate change like the small islands states – see it as a necessary progress on climate justice in the negotiation process. As the Minister of Agriculture of Fiji stated during a side event at the COP, an ambitious and equitable climate agreement is about « our right to live, our right to existence ». These countries therefore want to see Loss and Damage appearing in a dedicated paragraph underpinned by a financial mechanism of the final Paris text.

To date, the negotiations around Loss and Damage have mainly focused on conceptual aspects, while the actual implementation of the Warsaw Mechanism is still in its early stages. As young climate scientists, working on the specific subject of detection and attribution, we are especially interested in what scientific challenges the implementation of Loss and Damage could pose.

The adverse impacts of climate change likely to be covered under Loss and Damage can be broadly split into two classes: slow onset events and climatic extremes. The attribution of slow onset events to anthropogenic climate change, while not always straightforward, generally has a lower uncertainty than is the case for extreme events. For example, sea-level rise is largely a consequence of rising global temperatures and therefore has a clear link to past greenhouse gas emissions. The attribution of individual climatic extremes to anthropogenic climate change is more problematic. The concept started with an article by Stott et al., released in Nature in 2003. It has been included in the IPCC since the third Assessment Report, after tough negotiations, and has expanded to fill an entire chapter in the last Assessment Report. The idea is to calculate the fraction of attributable risk, namely the probability of a given climatic extreme happening in a world without climate change compared to the probability of the same event happening in the real world. However, the uncertainties are often large and may vary between different regions and different types of extremes. This might favour specific countries or regions at the expense of others, and poses a clear challenge to an effective implementation of Loss and Damage.

During the Leaders opening event here at COP21, President Barack Obama committed 30 millions of dollars to an insurance fund to help Caribbean islands to face the effects of potential disasters. While the financial effort in of itself is certainly commendable, there is the fear that this might be an attempt to divert Loss and Damage towards and insurance-based approach; in other words, a way to address Loss and Damage without calling a spade a spade.


President Obama at COP21

Climate insurance, namely an insurance policy against climatic damages, can certainly be an effective tool in helping the countries most vulnerable to climate change face the challenge. However, it should be kept in mind that insurance only covers economic damage, and that slow onset events are generally not insurable. Any Loss and Damage action based entirely on climate insurance would therefore betray the original meaning of the term.

In the current draft text for the Paris Agreement, published this morning, there are two possible options for Loss and Damage. One is to have an article – Article 5 – extensively addressing the subject; the other is to have no specific article at all. There could still be other options added and there are rumors of an informal bridge text to be proposed by the U.S.A. It is very difficult as observers to have a clear idea of what is happening in the informal negotiations, but the general picture we get is that there is work going on under the table to find a compromise. The parties themselves seem to have no single idea of what the precise definition of Loss and Damage should be, and this confusion is being used by developed countries as a pretext to exclude Article 5 from the draft. The U.S.A. might ultimately agree to have Loss and Damage included the final Paris Agreement, provided the wording is not too ambitious and there is no mention of climate liability.

Will loss and damage ultimately make the cut, and will it be strong enough for vulnerable countries even if it does? It is still too early to answer this question; however, we are not entirely sure that Loss and Damage should necessarily become one of the major points of the Paris Agreement. The inherent complexities in attributing extreme events to anthropogenic climate change make a Loss and Damage mechanism difficult to implement. If, for ease of implementation, Loss and Damage were to be extended to all climatic extremes, as opposed to only those attributable to anthropogenic climate change, this would then create class A and class B tragedies. For example the hypothetical Loss and Damage mechanism would kick in for the victims of typhoons but not for those of earthquakes.

However, we are well aware that Loss and Damage is ultimately about both international solidarity and global recognition of the tangible effects of climate change in vulnerable countries. Whatever form it may take under the UNFCCC, we should avoid focusing only on the attribution and implementation problems of Loss and Damage, and also remember the important psychological value it would have for those most affected by adverse climate events.


About the authors: Gabriele Messori: « I am research scientist at the UK Met Office. My research interests focus on the link between the large-scale circulation and regional climate extremes. » Aglaé Jézéquel : « I am a phD student in climatology, working specifically and the detection an attribution of extreme events. I am a member of CliMates since 2013. I have followed UNFCCC negotiations with CliMates team several time. »

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