Climate scientists have warned of the negative impacts of climate change for several years now. In September 2016, scientists declared that atmospheric CO2 levels had permanently crossed 400 parts per million for the first time in 4 million years and were unlikely to decrease in our lifetime. It is amply clear that there are limits to human ability to mitigate greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change. Thus, where mitigation and adaptation fail to stem the adverse effects of climate change, the concept of loss and damage comes into the picture.

There is also no official definition of the phrase ‘loss and damage’ within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) framework. However, the following working definition is used:

“Loss and damage refers to negative effects of climate variability and climate change that people have not been able to cope with or adapt to.”

Loss and damage has rightly come to be known as the third pillar of the international climate change regime. Although the idea was originally suggested by the Alliance of Small Island States - a group of small island nations whose very survival is at stake - in 1991, it lay dormant till the Bali Action Plan was adopted by the 13th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC at Bali, Indonesia, in 2007. Gaining traction over the next few years, it culminated, in 2013 at the 19th COP at Warsaw, in the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) to address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts. In 2015, loss and damage finally found place in the text of the Paris Agreement.

Article 8 of the Paris Agreement identifies several specific areas of cooperation and comprehensive understanding with respect to loss and damage such as early warning systems, emergency preparedness, slow onset events, risk assessment and management, risk insurance facilities, and non-economic losses. Events that lead to loss and damage can be both sudden and extreme such as super-cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons, heatwaves, drought and landslides, or slow and gradual such as sea level rise, desertification, rising temperatures, ocean acidification, and increased soil salinity. Pertinently, under the Paris Agreement, there is no liability or compensation fixed for parties that have suffered loss and damage.

A simplified explanation of the concept is given by Saleemul Huq, Director of Bangladesh based International Centre for Climate Change and Development and a world expert on Loss & Damage. He states:

“Loss refers to things that are lost for ever and cannot be brought back, such as human lives or species loss, while damages refers to things that are damaged, but can be repaired or restored, such as roads or embankments.”

Loss and damage is already evident and being experienced in several places all over the world. India with its geographically diverse areas and high population density in most states is particularly vulnerable to climate change induced loss and damage. The country is, as a matter of fact, already affected by loss and damage on multiple fronts.

Year upon year extreme temperatures lead to drought in summers with catastrophic effects for both city dwellers and farmers in rural areas. Reports indicate the alarming spread of desertification in the country. Close to 25 percent of land area has turned into desert or has degraded soil putting agriculture and livelihoods at severe risk. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts that by the end of this century steadily rising temperatures are likely to reduce net cereal production in India by up to 10 percent.

This year monsoons in India left more than a thousand people dead, affected millions others, and devastated several million hectares of agricultural land. At least 18 states have been affected by floods, heavy rains, or drought with serious consequences for food production.

Coastal areas, home to a third of India’s population, are also facing a slow but certain sea level rise, ferocious cyclones, coastal flooding, and increased salinity. The famed Sunderban mangrove forests have declined by 3.71 percent and lost 9,990 hectares of its landmass in one decade. Other instances of damage include depletion of fishing stocks, fish migration, and ocean acidification.

Rising temperatures in the Himalayan region has led to faster glacial melt and increased the threat of landslides and biodiversity loss in the mountainous belt and food and water insecurity for much of the country.

Overall, India has begun experiencing the adverse effects of climate change related loss and damage with severe consequences for people’s habitats, health, and livelihoods. Apart from quantifiable losses, there is also the threat of non-economic losses i.e. loss of heritage, culture, and centuries old ways of life. Unfortunately, future weather events are expected to surpass previous ones in ferocity and magnitude. However, this does not mean that nothing can be done to stop and counter the processes which lead to loss and damage. In its intended nationally determined contribution sent to the UNFCCC Secretariat, India has recognized the connection between adaptation, disaster risk reduction and loss and damage. By undertaking suitable disaster risk reduction and disaster risk management approaches it is possible to prevent and redress some impacts of loss and damage.

Two obvious ways to do so are through insurance schemes and capacity building. A few climate risk insurance schemes are already in existence in India. These specifically provide for losses to agricultural lands, crops, and livestock.

Since insurance cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to climate change induced loss and damage, another way is to reduce the risks associated with loss and damage through capacity building at individual, community, and regional levels. This can be done in ways such as developing and enhancing climate change awareness, creating emergency warning systems for impending extreme weather events, and making people resilient to impacts of climate change.

The international climate change regime sensibly acknowledges the limits of human adaptation. At the international level, not much financial help is available to counter loss and damage. While traditionally, it is developed countries that have been overwhelmingly responsible for climate change, the Paris Agreement rules out any scope for liability or compensation. For dealing with loss and damage, therefore, countries must take steps to protect their respective populations at risk and ensure climate justice for those who are least responsible for climate change.

(This article has been written by Zeenat Masoodi  who is a Lawyer from Srinagar and is also a COP 22 online fellow for Climate Tracker. This article first appeared in Counter Currents)