Loss and damage and transboundary adaptation in the context of climate change

Dennis Mombauer

Climate change impacts countries around the world. The impacts of extreme weather events and slow-onset processes are felt from the local to the national level as they affect lives, livelihoods, ecosystems, and economic sectors. However, at the core, climate change is a global challenge that goes across and beyond national borders. While no country is immune against transboundary climate impacts and the resulting loss and damage, developing countries are often particularly vulnerable to unexpected shocks or scarcity.

The nature and key forms of transboundary risks

Transboundary risks and impacts are felt in more than one country or outside national jurisdictions, for example in relation to the high seas, the atmosphere, or outer space (the global commons). They can be connected to natural transboundary systems—such as atmospheric systems, river systems, or wildlife corridors—or to human-made transboundary systems, such as trade flows, supply chains, communication systems, or human mobility streams, i.e., migration or cross-border displacement.

If a transboundary system is affected in one country, this is likely to lead to direct or indirect ripple effects in one or more other countries, which can cause cascading loss and damage, covariate scarcity of resources, or conflict. For example, drought can lead to water scarcity in downstream countries along the same riverine system, and food shortages in one country can lead to rising prices and scarcity in an entire region.

Such transboundary impacts are not limited to climate change, and other types of impacts can exacerbate climate-induced loss and damage or erode the coping capacities of affected communities. Air pollution, microplastics, infectious diseases, overuse of natural resources, disruptions to the financial system, damaged interconnected infrastructure, and energy scarcity all have the potential to severely impact multiple countries at the same time and affect communities and economic sectors in many places—for example, as seen with the tourism sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human mobility is another aspect that requires transboundary management and cooperation, including for pastoralist and nomadic communities, but also in relation to labour migration or refugee streams. Similarly, natural ecosystems tend to stretch across national borders, and many species of wildlife regularly move between countries as they migrate or expand their habitats.

Transboundary approaches to adaptation

Given the fact that loss and damage is often connected to transboundary climate impacts or exacerbated by transboundary developments (such as global supply chain disruptions), there is a need to design and implement adaptation actions with such considerations in mind. This is especially important because transboundary risks are projected to increase across the water, energy, and food sectors, as highlighted in the recent Sixth Assessment Report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Already, some measures to address risks and invest in long-term adaptation have transboundary components. For example, weather and climate observation systems often rely on the use of global commons and international cooperation to effectively collect and manage information, including the information used for early warning or the governance of shared natural resources. There is a range of transboundary approaches and instruments that could facilitate further cooperation, including bilateral or regional cooperation and exchange agreements, international legally binding instruments (for example, the new High Seas Treaty), regional risk pools, regional associations (such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), or global frameworks, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Today, adaptation is predominantly planned on the national level, then collated on the global level under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, with a Global Goal on Adaptation currently being negotiated. The incorporation of transboundary aspects into climate change adaptation planning and implementation could be instrumental to more effectively addressing the impacts of climate change and prevent loss and damage that crosses national borders.

Measures to facilitate transboundary or regional adaptation planning could include shared information systems and databases; joint early warning systems; transboundary projects that target shared resources and ecosystems; the development of regional forums, platforms, or working groups; common climate modelling and risk assessments; valuation of non-economic loss and damage; better availability of data on human mobility; international standards for resilient infrastructure; regional climate education or training programmes; climate-resilient trade policies; shared disaster protocols; and exchange of genetic resources and technical knowledge on ecosystem-based adaptation.

Climate-vulnerable developing countries could benefit from transboundary adaptation by becoming more resilient against covariate, cascading, and unforeseen shocks; access additional knowledge, data, and resources; minimize conflict over transboundary issues, for example related to marine resources, the high seas, or plastic pollution; enhance disaster response and recovery; exploit economic opportunities; and strengthen corridors for migration and other forms of adaptive human mobility.

This blog post was originally published as a guest column in Daily Financial Times on May 13th, 2023, and is available here.

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Dennis Mombauer

Dennis Mombauer currently lives in Colombo as a freelance writer and researcher on climate change and education. He focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation and sustainable urban development as well as on autism spectrum disorder in the field of education. Besides articles and research, he has published numerous works of fiction in German and English.