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Loss and Damage: the urgent planetary imperative

Key messages

  • Losses and damages are already happening and will increase significantly on current trajectories, but rapid mitigation and effective adaptation can still prevent many of these.
  • While many losses and damages can be calculated in monetary terms, there are also non-economic losses and damages that need to be better understood and accounted for.
  • A coordinated, global policy response to losses and damages (known by the capitalised Loss and Damage) is urgently needed.

Insight explained

Cutting GHGs and adapting to climate realities can only take us so far. The harms caused by climate change impacts that are difficult or impossible to avoid through mitigation and adaptation are known as losses and damages (l&d). Communities everywhere are beginning to experience l&d to their livelihoods and ancestral lands, including vulnerable communities in nations that bear minimal historical responsibility for climate change – placing this issue at the heart of climate justice.

Losses and damages from climate change are not just a future risk, but are already a present reality as a result of slow-onset climatic changes and extreme weather events that can increasingly be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. For example, low-lying coastal areas face existential risks from flooding, while heat-stressed places face more life-threatening heatwaves as the magnitude of climate change impacts in these places exceeds what can be adapted to (see Insight 1). Current trends are expected to cause l&d to increase significantly, including for example in the lowest-lying island nations, which are at risk of becoming uninhabitable. The IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report states with high confidence that “with increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits” (IPCC AR6 WGII, SPM, 2022).

The policy response to l&d – known as (upper case) Loss and Damage (L&D) – is gaining traction, but it is yet to emerge as distinct from adaptation, whether at the national or international level. Meanwhile, political disagreements around the role of historical responsibility and compensation have slowed progress on L&D policy at the UNFCCC level. Climate financing for L&D remains a major barrier in the negotiations. Insurance plays a role in addressing l&d in cases that have not been (or could not be) avoided by adaptation, but it is no help to people who have suffered l&d that cannot be monetised (see the In focus box, below). Innovative international legal mechanisms, including potentially climate litigation, will be necessary to protect impacted individuals’ rights, as well as to, for example, guard nations’ exclusive economic zones in the sea that are drawn relative to land territory (which may be lost).

IN FOCUS

The broadening definitions of loss and damage


Losses and damages (l&d) can manifest in many different ways, and current approaches to “avert, minimise and address” them span four broad strategies: risk reduction, risk transfer, risk retention and transformational approaches. The upper case Loss and Damage (L&D) refers to the political and policy response to addressing l&d but lacks a consensus definition, with at least four distinct perspectives observed: adaptation and mitigation, risk management, limits to adaptation and existential.

Not all l&d are reducible to economic terms; rather we also need to consider, for example, life, health, mobility, territory, identity, agency, sense of place, social cohesion, cultural heritage, Indigenous knowledge, biodiversity and ecosystem services. These non-economic losses and damages (NELD) are already being experienced in communities. Failing to consider NELD distorts understandings of climate change impacts (e.g. loss of cultural rituals due to failed harvests), discounts peoples’ experiences (e.g. destruction of sacred places or cemeteries), and skews future decision-making (e.g. towards capital and away from capabilities).

Implications & Recommendations

Climate negotiators and decision makers at all levels – international, national and local – need to:

  • Improve the accuracy of calculations of ongoing and future l&d. This is crucial, among other things, so that l&d can be included in global stocktaking.
  • Treat L&D as a distinct policy area, notwithstanding that there are clear overlaps with adaptation.
  • Broaden understandings and definitions for NELD.
  • Seek innovative legal and financial mechanisms to protect individuals’ and nations’ rights in response to l&d.
Figure 8. Mitigation, Adaptation, and Loss and Damage: Current impacts of climate change can be prevented from turning into losses and damages through adaptation, while future impacts can be avoided by adaptation and mitigation. But when this is insufficient, Loss and Damage measures and finance are needed to ameliorate the losses and damages borne largely by the most vulnerable.

Where do we stand?

Earth system

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Why care?

Impacts

What to do?

Solutions and Barriers

 

Year

1

Questioning the myth of endless adaptation

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2

Vulnerability hotspots cluster in ‘regions at risk’

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3

New threats on the horizon from climate–health interactions

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4

Climate mobility: from evidence to anticipatory action

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5

Human security requires climate security

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6

Sustainable land use is essential to meeting climate targets

Read more
7

Private sustainable finance practices are failing to catalyse deep transitions

Read more
8

Loss and Damage: the urgent planetary imperative

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9

Inclusive decision-making for climate-resilient development

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10

Breaking down structural barriers and unsustainable lock-ins

Read more
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