Climate change and non-economic loss and damage

November 20, 2023

The adverse impacts of climate change have resulted in diverse losses and damages to different aspects of our lives. This includes both economic as well as non-economic losses and/or damages.

While economic losses and damages could be described as those that could be allocated a monetary value, non-economic loss and damage (NELD) remains difficult to address due to the need for evaluation and identification of forms and measures through which it could be addressed.

Understanding NELD

NELD refers to a wide range of losses and damages to goods that are not generally traded in markets. This would include impacts on individuals such as loss of life, health, mobility, and in a collective sense, loss of cultural heritage and identify, indigenous or local knowledge, and loss of territory.

In addition to these, loss of biodiversity and ecosystems could be also considered as non-economic losses, while some impacts to the environment could be categorized differently.

NELD remains an area which has a wide range of aspects which need to be explored, through inter-disciplinary approaches and the engagement of multiple expertise, which could contribute to minimizing losses and damages which are climate-induced.

Human mobility

Climate-induced migration and displacement as well as resulting cultural loss are key components of NELD or form integral aspects that contribute to NELD.

In instances where communities are impacted by climate change which prevent them from having access to natural resources needed for living or loss of livelihoods, we see many individuals and communities moving away from their places of usual residence in search of better living conditions. Sometimes this movement remains temporary or seasonal, where individuals of communities would move from one place to another, internally or otherwise, in search of income, while in dire conditions, this would result in circumstances where communities shift in search of places that would provide them a way to survive. This in turn would result in loss of ways of life, cultural heritage, and local and indigenous knowledge.

Loss of culture, knowledge, and identity

From ways of agriculture that are practiced and knowledge that is passed from one generation to another, to languages or skills and knowledge such as weaving, climate change impacts the ways of lives of those most vulnerable to climate change.

Additionally, being uprooted from one’s usual habitat and way of life result in loss of identity for those who are forced to move from their territories due to climate impacts. This includes impacts on cultural values or practices that are attached to a place or region as well as community-based collective identities interlinked to practices and ways of life that are left behind.

Additionally, the loss of belonging and identity, as well as the lack of choice that the impacts of climate change have had on individuals, also cause stress and other mental health issues on those already burdened with many forms of adversities due to climate change.

Addressing NELDs

While addressing losses and damages to goods that are not commonly traded in markets remain important, there are several challenges on which one needs to focus.

Some of the challenges include the lack of information and data regarding the losses and damages. For example while a community migrates or seasonally moves from one place to another, the change of life-style may be not as noticeable to be documenting the impact of the cultural values or heritable. This in turn presents difficulties in identifying solutions to address such loss in a timely manner, due to the lack of evidence of the cultural loss that could be documented in an efficient and accessible manner. 

Challenges in valuation and monetizing of loss also results in the lack of importance and attention allocated to addressing NELDs, but also difficulties in concretely finding solutions to addressing non-economic impacts of climate change. Could one value a cultural heritage? Is there a common denominator for such valuation? How could one attach value based on one’s own experience to a way of life, and a territory? All these remain aspects to be considered and addressed.

Evidence and knowledge

Generation of evidence and research, as well as documentation and knowledge management could contribute to addressing NELDs and ensuring that some impacts could be averted or minimized. Working with communities that are highly vulnerable to climate impacts and identifying ways of preserving their cultural heritage and ways of life would play a key role in contributing for taking action on non-economic losses and damages.

This includes research on existing cultural practices in areas which are highly impacted to climate change; working with communities to identify their cultural practices and impacts of climate change on their ways of life; and generating solutions that are community-driven.

It is equally important to better understand the gendered implications of NELDs, for example, how human mobility being restricted or forced could create impacts on families; how women and girls and men and boys face impacts; how social cohesion is affected; or what loss and damage means for individuals’ health and security.

Capacity-building to better address these concepts as well as generation of evidence and research which will contribute to generating policy processes with positive impacts at the ground level would be vital for scaling up resilience of communities highly vulnerable to climate change. This could be built on inclusive processes where communities are presented with a choice on ways to conserve their ways of life, culture, knowledge, territories, identity, and sense of belonging.

Note: This article has been published on The Morning as part of the author’s weekly column.

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About the Author
Vositha Wijenayake

Vositha is an attorney-at-law specialising in public international law, with a focus on international environmental law, UN human rights law, refugee law and EU law. She has over a decade of experience in working on climate change, at national and international level. Vositha is a member of the national expert committee on climate change adaptation of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, national expert on vulnerability and adaptation measures for the Third National Communication of Sri Lanka to the UNFCCC for the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, and is a delegate focusing on compliance, adaptation, loss and damage, and gender for the Sri Lankan delegation to the UNFCCC since 2016. She is also a consultant to the UNFCCC national adaptation plans and policy unit, and worked as a country support consultant to the UNDP NAP Global Support Programme. Vositha has an LLM in public international law from University College London, and an LLB from University of London. ‍