Understanding the concepts of adaptation and loss and damage


A major prediction has come out of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) this week, which says the world will almost certainly cross the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global atmospheric temperature rise within the next five years or so. This confirms that the world has already entered the era of losses and damages attributable to human-induced climate change and no country is prepared for what is to come in terms of adverse impacts.

One of the confusions that people are concerned about is the relationship between adaptation to climate change and addressing loss and damage. One way to understand the difference is using the new lens of averting, minimising, and addressing loss and damage from human-induced climate change as the most up-to-date terminology for climate change. In other words, what we called mitigation before is now better described as averting or avoiding loss and damage, and what we called adaptation is now to be called minimising loss and damage.

This does not at all mean that the efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change should be abandoned – far from it. But addressing the actual impacts that are already visible and will continue to occur every day, week, month and year from now on has become the biggest priority.

The good news is that, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), at the last annual climate conference (COP27), a breakthrough agreement was reached unanimously by all countries to establish a funding mechanism to address loss and damage. A Transitional Committee was then set up to come up with recommendations to be discussed and negotiated at COP28 (due in November-December 2023).

This Transitional Committee has already held its first meeting and a workshop and plans to hold several more meetings before COP28. One of the important aspects of these discussions is the relationship between adaptation and loss and damage, as well as the concern that the funding to address loss and damage should not cannibalise adaptation resources, which are not enough to begin with.

Let me explain where adaptation ends, and loss and damage begin. This is most clearly demonstrated by adaptation to extreme events such as cyclones, floods, heatwaves or wildfires. An interesting example of this occurred in the Bay of Bengal just last week, when Severe Cyclone Mocha was heading for Bangladesh and we warned and evacuated hundreds of thousands of people in the coastal areas in preparation. Fortunately for Bangladesh, the cyclone veered eastward hours before making landfall and thus hit only the southern tip of Bangladesh. Myanmar bore the brunt of the cyclone and suffered significant loss of lives. This is an example of how good adaptation in Bangladesh helped minimise the loss and damage from the cyclone, while poor adaptation in Myanmar caused much more loss and damage.

The other concern about loss and damage management eating up adaptation funding is a legitimate concern. Thus, raising funds to address loss and damage should not be focused only on public funds from governments; rather, it should rely on innovative funding mechanisms, preferably ones that make polluters pay for loss and damage.

There are a number of proposals being floated by different groups to raise such innovative funds, including a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies as well as levies on maritime and air travels.

I along with several others put forward one such proposal – an international solidarity levy on air passengers that can be applied by any government under its own jurisdiction to get passengers to pay into a fund to address loss and damage. This proposal is based on a very successful model which was implemented by France for a number of years, where every air ticket purchased in France had a levy of a few euros only imposed by the government and collected by the airlines to contribute to the Global Health fund. This has successfully raised nearly 200 million euros a year for the last 10 years or so. Our proposal is for other countries such as the UK, Germany, the US and others to apply a similar levy to generate solidarity funds to address loss and damage.

Indeed, these levies can also be applied by individual airlines on their own. For example, if the three major airlines of the Middle East – Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad – were to charge a few extra bucks per ticket, it would not affect their competitiveness while raising several hundred millions a year.

Finally, addressing the impacts of climate change will inevitably become a higher priority for every country whether they acknowledge this or not, and countries that prepare well can minimise the losses and damages that are going to occur.

At the same time, every country, and indeed every town and community, must also enhance efforts to minimise potential losses and damages through adaptation. We now need to treat adaptation and addressing loss and damage from human-induced climate change as a nexus approach, rather than separately.

Dr Saleemul Huq is director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and professor at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).

Originally this article was published on May 23, 2023 at The Daily Star.