Climate change: Adaption or action to prevent the worst
The climate talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bangkok ended on September 5 in preparation for the 18th conference of parties (COP18), which will be held in Doha, Qatar in December.
Although not much moved forward in the Bangkok talks, one new topic that gained momentum was the issue of loss and damage from climate change. Some of the issues with regard to this new and emerging topic are described below.
At the 17th conference of parties (COP17) of the UNFCCC held in Durban, South Africa in December 2011, a work programme was adopted on the topic of "Loss and Damage from Climate Change", which consists of a series of regional expert workshops towards preparing a decision at COP18 in Doha.
The government of Bangladesh, together with a number of leading research institutes including the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh, BRAC University, North South University, and others, are also carrying out a major research exercise on this new and emerging topic.
The regional expert workshops have now been held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for Africa; in Mexico City for the Latin America region; and most recently in Bangkok for the Asia region.
While the topic is still quite confusing and there is not yet any agreed consensus on even what the terms should mean, nevertheless there seems to be some conceptual clarity emerging through these expert workshops. Some of these are described briefly below.
Measuring loss and damage:
This is a thorny topic, as there are a number of metrics for measurement, which include physical metrics (e.g. damage to infrastructure, loss of human life and livelihood, etc) only some of which can be estimated in economic or monetary terms. This makes it difficult to measure.
Past, current and future loss and damage:
There is already a long history of assessing loss and damage from natural climate events such as floods, cyclones and droughts around the world, both in terms of human lives lost as well as economic metrics. These historical data sets are available for most countries, as well as globally. The difference between such climatic events of the past and present is the additional incremental attribution from human-induced climate change, which although not quantifiable yet, is certainly no longer zero.
With regard to future loss and damage over the next five to ten decades, there is another factor that must be considered, which is the level of mitigation that is achieved over the next two to three decades. In other words, the potential adverse impacts (and hence resulting loss and damage) from a global temperature rise of four degrees Celsius (which is where we are headed at present) or two degrees (which is still possible if concerted global efforts are mobilised over the next decade). The global loss and damage under a four-degree scenario will be at least an order of magnitude greater than under a two-degree scenario.
Loss versus damage:
It is still not clear what the difference is between the two terms "loss" and "damage". One way of thinking of this difference is to consider loss to mean the complete loss of something (e.g. human life or biodiversity, or land that goes under water, etc). These losses are in fact irrecoverable. Damage, in contrast, can be considered to refer to "partial loss" or "partial damage", such as to infrastructure and human livelihoods, which can be repaired. These distinctions are of course not watertight compartments, as there will still be some overlaps between loss and damage, but it is worth keeping these terms separate in this context.
Links to adaptation:
It is very clear that the efforts to deal with potential future loss and damage from climate change will overlap considerably with adaptation to climate change, so it is perhaps useful to separate loss and damage from adaptation by considering the latter to include "loss and damage after adaptation". In other words, even with ideal levels of adaptation, there will still be some "residual impacts" leading to loss and damage. There are also limits to adaptation that will result in such residual loss and damage. Hence, for the time being at least, it is useful to consider loss and damage to refer to ""oss and damage after adaptation".
Slow-onset and rapid-onset climate events:
The recent UNFCCC regional workshop for Asia held in Bangkok focused particularly on the topic of slow-onset events, which include sea-level rise, salinity intrusion in low-lying coastal areas, loss of biodiversity, and increased temperature, which are different from the more familiar rapid-onset climate events such as floods and cyclones. Of course, there are links between slow-onset and rapid-onset events. For example, higher sea surface temperatures are likely to result in higher intensity of cyclones in future.
Expected outcomes from COP18:
The outcomes from the regional expert workshops and results from research, as well as submissions from countries, will be considered at COP18 in Doha in December and it is expected that further decisions will be adopted there. Although it is not possible to predict what those decisions will be, it is clear that this topic is growing in importance and that further work on it will almost certainly be supported. Bangladesh has an opportunity to lead on this topic, which of concern not only to Bangladesh but to all vulnerable developing countries.
Saleem Huq is senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, and director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at Independent University, Bangladesh.