Cracked Earth in Nature Reserve of Popenguine in SenegalThe focus of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) originally was the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as emissions associated with land-use change and forestry. However, by the 2000s scientists and policymakers realized that emissions targets were too low to avoid serious negative impacts, necessitating the development of adaptation responses as a complement to mitigation.

In the past few years, it has become clear that historical emissions have “locked in” a certain level of climatic change, making some serious impacts unavoidable. Moreover, the feckless response of the world in arresting emissions makes even graver unavoidable impacts likely. These “residual” impacts, over and above what can be addressed through mitigation and adaptation are termed “loss and damage.” Loss and damages include those related to extreme events, such as heatwaves, flooding, and drought, as well as so-called slow-onset events, such as rising sea levels. The potential direct costs of loss and damage will be huge. For example, UNEP estimated that loss and damage will cost twice as much as costs associated with adaptation across Africa in the next century.

While there have been international calls to address loss and damage, only recently have the Parties engaged in earnest on the issue. Following two years of deliberations, the UNFCCC established the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts, as the main vehicle to address loss and damage. The Mechanism calls for efforts to address gaps in understanding, initiatives to foster collaboration among stakeholders, and facilitation of efforts to mobilize finance, technology and capacity-building. It also establishes an Executive Committee to implement the Warsaw International Mechanism.

However, questions remain about the ultimate vision for the loss and damage mechanism. While a number of developing countries believe that the mechanism should focus on reducing risks associated with climate change, many also advocate that it should establish the foundation for responsibility for climate damages. This could pave the way for liability, and ultimately compensation, by major greenhouse-emitting States.