Climate policy

Transparency for Loss and Damage

Loss and Damage (L&D) has been gaining traction since the Paris Agreement took the issue on as a separate article, arguably creating a third pillar of international climate policy. Debate so far has led to vague definitions of the remit of the L&D mechanism; research on actor perspectives may help to propel this discourse forward.

Transparency and trust have become of fundamental importance for the climate negotiations since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, which is largely building on voluntary commitments. Various mechanisms have been implemented to ensure transparency, mostly with regard to emissions reporting1. But there is scope for improvement with regard to climate-related risks and the budding L&D debate. The remit, definitions and language associated with the L&D Mechanism — installed in 2013 at COP 19 in Warsaw to broadly deal with climate change impacts in vulnerable developing countries2 — have been kept ambiguous in the face of calls for monetary compensation by some parties and propositions by others to more strongly consider risk reduction within national borders. Vagueness in the face of high-stakes negotiation is understandable. Yet, if joint action on climate change is to proceed and the L&D debate is to be taken beyond symbolic confines, there is a need for more transparency, opening doors for effective policy formulation, on-the-ground action and new research insights.

Negotiations seeing broad participation at COP22 in Marrakesh. Credit: UNFCCC

Writing in Nature Climate Change, Emily Boyd and co-authors3 contribute to such transparency by clarifying actor positions and perspectives on L&D. The analysis presents insights from semi-structured interviews conducted with a representative sample of leading participants in the discourse from climate policy, research and practice. The authors, perhaps unsurprisingly given the contested nature of the discussions, find substantial variation in interpretations of key aspects of the L&D mechanism, such as the role of impacts attribution, justice and links to adaptation and disaster risk management.

The paper develops a typology of four basic positions with increasingly stringent implications for policy, practice and research. The 'Adaptation and Mitigation' perspective considers L&D part and parcel of the overall United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) deliberations given its objective to “avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (United Nations, 1992)”4. A 'Risk Management' view suggests the main remit of the L&D debate is to highlight opportunities for working towards comprehensive risk management including linkages to national risk-management systems and technological solutions. The 'Limits to Adaptation' perspective pays attention to those most vulnerable, and the significant unavoided risks they are exposed to due to binding technical and socio-economic constraints. Finally, an 'Existential' perspective is identified with climate change leading to unavoidable and irreversible impacts requiring transformation of systems and communities.

As with many typologies, they are most useful and credible if they don't perfectly apply but rather point out a direction of travel. Also in this case, the authors find perspectives of groups of actors cannot all just be put into similar boxes; importantly, they find no 'simple polarization' of underlying perspectives between developed and developing countries' negotiators.

This is a promising finding because from the beginning the tabled negotiation positions have been largely polarizing. The debate started in 1991, when the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) during the negotiations leading to the UNFCCC proposed an international insurance scheme (essentially a compensation scheme without premium payments) for providing financial remuneration to small island and low-lying developing nations for impacts resulting from sea-level rise5. The proposal has seen several variants and debate continued over the years. With evidence mounting that keeping warming below 1.5–2° C will be hard to achieve6, and adaptation not always possible, particularly at higher levels of warming7, other developing countries' negotiators joined in and further pushed for a stand-alone negotiations stream. Eventually, COP 19 in Warsaw in 2013 saw the installation of the L&D mechanism — basically a discussion forum and space for further deliberation governed by an Executive Committee composed equally of developing and developed country participants. In 2015, the Paris negotiations, after vigorous deliberation, saw the adoption of a standalone L&D article in the final hour8, widely interpreted as L&D indeed becoming a third pillar of climate negotiations distinct from mitigation and adaptation9.

While all negotiators agree on the need to support those vulnerable communities and countries suffering from climate change, official positions in the debate remain divided. Calls for compensation for unavoidable loss already experienced — building on the original AOSIS proposal — have been countered with offerings of climate insurance provision to avoid and reduce future impacts10.

Working groups with participation from research and practice have been set up to bridge divides and the Executive Committee is proceeding in a genuinely cooperative working mode. For example, a working group on comprehensive risk management and transformational approaches has been recently created. Transformation, simply put for this case, would mean to go beyond business-as-usual risk-management options, and may involve support for measures for avoiding and managing increasingly intolerable risks, such as supporting alternative livelihoods (for example, switching from farming to services sectors), provision of climate-resilient social protection schemes, or assisting with voluntary migration11.

As touched upon and visualized by Boyd et al., such a broad Risk Management perspective going beyond standard approaches holds high potential for propelling the debate forward: some overlap of the Risk Management position with other perspectives, in particular, the Adaptation and Mitigation and Beyond Adaptation positions, has been found by the authors. If the transformation mission of the working group is also to be considered, the Existential position can be said to show linkages as well.

Boyd et al.'s analysis supports efforts to work towards resolution and action on L&D. Many hope that the next round of negotiations at COP 23 in Bonn run under the auspices of the government of Fiji can lead to such a step change. Fiji, intent on catalysing decisive action, particularly on climate risks for vulnerable societies, plans to deliver on its vision without 'finger pointing and laying blame' — hopefully generating dialogue among all parties characterized by inclusion and transparency.


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Correspondence to Reinhard Mechler.

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Mechler, R. Transparency for Loss and Damage. Nature Clim Change 7, 687–688 (2017).

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