Time to agree on a definition of Loss and Damage from Climate Change

International action on loss and damage from climate change is lagging behind the rising frequency and escalating intensity of real impacts. As the Executive Committee members of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) begin to implement the Lima Work Programme on Loss and Damage agreed upon at COP20, an operational definition of loss and damage will enable and guide the next steps. Submission of an agreed-upon definition by the Executive Committee of the WIM to COP22 in Morocco will drive further productive discussion and facilitate the development of focused and coordinated international action.
Although evidence of climate impacts continues to accumulate, no authoritative definition of L&D exists to guide efforts to tackle losses and damages from climate change. Loss and damage has been a fraught issue in the UNFCCC negotiations in recent years, and definitions of the concept have been hotly contested. Creating a definitive loss and damage description has proven challenging due to the political and scientific context of the negotiations, and negotiators have been forced to bypass the issue in order to make progress in other discussions. At the eleventh hour of the 2013 UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Warsaw, disagreements about the scope and the role of an L&D mechanism drove compromises in the wording of the text, and the definition of L&D was left open-ended. The move was a necessary political maneuver: the deliberately ambiguous description enabled negotiators with different perspectives to agree on the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. Parties on different sides of the arguments surrounding loss and damage could claim their own definitions. 
Now that the COP has approved the WIM, the Executive Committee will begin to implement the first steps of this decision. Initial actions are outlined in a two-year workplan agreed upon at COP20 in Lima, and the Executive Committee is beginning to operationalize this decision through workplan activities. As they move forward towards implementing the Lima Work Programme on Loss and Damage, the Executive Committee must agree on a definition in order to guide next steps. A operational definition has important implications upon the future of loss and damage: it may clarify loss and damage’s relationship with other policy agendas, inform next steps, and influence the way loss and damage is assessed and addressed.
The Executive Committee is best positioned to provide leadership and consensus-building around the development of an authoritative definition through the work programme. Of course, the Executive Committee’s recommendation is only the beginning; we recommend that the committee forward the agreed-upon definition to COP22 in Morocco in December 2016 for adoption.
At a critical juncture in loss and damage policy-making, clarity on a definition will provide guidance and impetus for further action. Although compromise was necessary in 2013 to produce an agreement for WIM, it’s time to agree on a definition of loss and damage from climate change.


Written by: Saleemul Huq, Director, ICCCAD and Alexis Durand, Researcher, Brown University Climate and Development Lab

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