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Beyond Adaptation and Mitigation

Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh

Among the many topics on the table in Doha is a relatively novel one, the question of how to deal with loss and damage caused by climate change. I believe it characterizes a new paradigm in addressing the issue, which must acknowledge that mitigation and adaptation will not, by themselves, go far enough.

Included as a new element in the Cancun Framework on Adaptation, adopted at COP 16 in December 2010, loss and damage was elaborated into a one-year work programme in Durban a year ago. Workshops have been held in Japan, Mexico, Ethiopia, Thailand and Barbados and a further decision will be taken at COP 18.

The International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh, the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University and GermanWatch have been carrying out a series of case studies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean and taking part in all the technical and regional workshops. Participating in these processes has left me with personal impressions on the state of play of this emerging subject.

There is still a lack of common understanding about the terms and their use in the UNFCCC process. To the disaster risk reduction community, which already has quite a lot of experience in estimating loss and damage from natural disasters, this looks like an old and already well understood topic. And many people in the climate change community view it as being almost the same as adaptation, with which they are already quite familiar.

I feel that while it has elements of both, it is also a new and emerging topic, unique to the UNFCCC process. Hence the definition of what that means does not yet exist and will need to be negotiated and agreed.

The UNFCCC process - and the corresponding scientific process under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - have gone through a number of phases over the last two decades. Each has characterised the main problem in a different way and hence come up with corresponding solutions. The first characterised the problem as primarily an environmental one of emissions of greenhouse gases. The solution was mitigation: the Kyoto Protocol for example was almost entirely about this.

The IPCC's third assessment report (AR3) in 2001 emphasised that for the next two to three decades a certain amount of climate change impacts were now unavoidable and no amount of mitigation would prevent them. So a new solution was needed in addition to mitigation, and the focus was shifted to include adaptation.

The AR3 also showed that the adverse impacts of climate change in the near term would fall on poorer countries, and on poorer communities in all countries. Thus climate change was no longer only an environmental problem but also a development one – and many. more stakeholders from developing countries became engaged with it.

I would argue that we are now entering a new paradigm of the climate change problem (and hence its solutions) which goes beyond mitigation and adaptation, while not negating the need to continue to focus on them. It is characterized by the topic of loss and damage.

Both mitigation and adaptation are solutions that seek to avert the adverse impacts of climate change, by "preventing" them (through mitigation) or "minimising" them (through adaptation). But we now need to accept that neither will be able to prevent some amount of them. So we need to think about how to deal with such "Loss and Damage after adaptation". The UNFCCC is not well designed to do this, but it needs to come to an agreement on how to tackle the topic.

A few examples of elements that will need to be addressed are:

Long term future loss and damage: Over the next nine to ten decades, the world may face either a 4 degree centigrade global temperature rise (at present rates of emissions) or a 2 degree one (the agreed limit). However, the loss and damage that will occur from those two scenarios is not that one would be twice as bad as the other, but that the effects of 4 degree rise will be orders of magnitude bigger than those from a 2 degree one.

Slow onset events and rapid onset events: So far there has been a focus on rapid onset events such as floods and hurricanes, where there is much past experience in assessing loss and damage. However, slow onset events such as sea level rise and higher temperatures will give rise to new problems, such as loss of low lying lands in islands and river deltas. The loss of some island nations, such as Tuvalu, would present an entirely new dimension in global diplomacy and security.

Attribution of loss and damage: While it is not yet possible to attribute any given climate event to human induced climate change, it is clear that the magnitude of major climatic events such as floods, droughts and hurricanes are no longer due entirely to nature. Even if the percentage of human responsibility cannot yet be determined, it is no longer zero.

Over time (in fact sooner rather than later) scientists will be able to make such attributions for events with a high degree of credibility. This will open up the hitherto taboo subjects of assigning liability and claiming compensation for such loss and damage.

I would argue that the UNFCCC - while not designed to be the locus for these arguments on liability and compensation - is still the best place to think about, discuss, argue and agree on them, as the alternatives (of litigation or even retribution) are far worse.