At the heart of the new climate change agreement negotiated by 195 countries in Paris earlier this month is a list of fundamentals that appear in each new climate agreement: mitigation efforts, adaptation efforts, and commitments to support vulnerable nations. But in addition to these, the Paris Agreement addresses the new and evolving issue of “loss and damage” that had previously been treated as a subcategory of adaptation. The concept springs from the reality that there are some climate change impacts that cannot be adapted to—impacts that are so severe that they leave in their wake permanent or significantly damaging effects.

Loss and damage of this kind can arise from extreme weather events—such as the loss of lives and property in a cyclone—as well as from slow onset events, like the extinction of species that result from ecosystem shifts, the loss of arable land to desertification, or the complete disappearance of low-lying island nations. Given the current impacts of climate change that are already hitting vulnerable communities hard and are likely to intensify, constructive approaches to addressing loss and damage are needed.

Recognizing Loss and Damage as a Distinct Issue

Loss and damage now resides within the Paris Agreement as a standalone concept, setting the stage for more focused international dialogue on what constitutes loss and damage, what the appropriate responses are, and who bears responsibility to act.

Key issues leading up to the Agreement revolved around implications of responsibility for addressing loss and damage, and the nature of appropriate responses. Many wealthier countries resisted opening up the issue without clearly delineating its boundaries; they feared setting a precedent that might create legal liability for harms attributable to climate change. Meanwhile, many vulnerable countries, especially island states, advocated for the global community to create a process for dealing with the unprecedented and potentially catastrophic consequences clearly attributable to climate change, such as the permanent loss of land to rising seas.

After days of intensive discussions among countries with divergent views on whether and how loss and damage should be incorporated into the Agreement, the text contains an article recognizing the importance of “averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage.” The article also makes permanent the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, an institution established at the climate talks in 2013 to explore initial questions about loss and damage, but which was set to expire in 2016. For vulnerable countries engaged in the issue, the standalone representation of loss and damage in the Agreement and the creation of a long-term institution for dealing with the issue both represent major progress.

The loss and damage article of the agreement calls on countries to cooperate to enhance understanding, action and support in areas such as early warning systems, disaster preparedness, risk assessment and management, and insurance. It also states the need for greater cooperation in building the resilience of communities, livelihoods and ecosystems, and in understanding non-economic losses associated with climate change, such as damage to sites with cultural or historic importance. The COP decision text accompanying the Agreement establishes a task force for addressing human displacement associated with climate change. It also includes language clarifying that the article on loss and damage does not provide a basis for liability or compensation.

Building the Understanding Needed for Appropriate Action

While many see the final agreement on loss and damage as imperfect, it is the first time that the concept has been included as a standalone issue in an international agreement on climate change. It’s an extremely important step in recognizing the differences between adapting to climate change and contending with the losses and damages associated with it. As the work on this issue continues, including in the Warsaw International Mechanism, we can expect our understanding of what constitutes loss and damage and the nature of appropriate responses to grow. The Paris Agreement sets the stage for solutions to emerge over time in a spirit of global cooperation and shared learning.