How do you price a life lost to floods or cultural heritage destroyed by a storm? What are the costs when an ecosystem or territory is no longer habitable due to prolonged drought, sea-level rise or salt intrusion?
These are some of the questions a recently-launched study hopes to answer in an effort to highlight the value of things that are not commonly traded in markets but hold intrinsic worth for individuals, society and the environment, and that could be lost, damaged or destroyed as a result of climate change impacts.
While there is a growing body of research on economic losses caused by natural disasters, very few experts have sought to quantify so-called “non-economic loss and damage”, said Yohei Chiba, the study’s lead researcher, at a climate change adaptation forum in Malaysia last week.
“Non-economic loss and damage can constitute as much as 50 per cent or more of the reported loss and damage. In many developing countries, it may well be more significant than economic damages,” said Chiba of the Japan-based Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES).
“Recognising and managing the risk of non-economic loss and damage should be a central aspect of climate change policy,” he added.
Such losses are often not taken into consideration in most risk assessments or when designing insurance and compensation schemes, Chiba said. They have also been largely overlooked in post-disaster evaluations and databases, he added.
The study, launched in August, will take up to two years, and cover recent natural disasters in Japan, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines and India.
It follows an agreement made at UN climate talks last November to set up an international mechanism to deal with the impacts of climate-related loss and damage.
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Richer governments, including the United States and some European Union member states, had opposed the mechanism, fearing potential claims for financial compensation based on their historical responsibility for global warming.
The results of the Asian study could help countries plan their climate adaptation programmes. Adaptation measures range from building higher sea walls and better roads, to developing resilient crop varieties and early warning systems.
Many scientists believe efforts to hold global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, the level considered as relatively safe, are failing and the world is more likely headed for an increase of 3 to 4 degrees by the end of the century.
This could lead to loss and damage “of unimaginable proportions”, warned Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, at the Asia-Pacific adaptation meeting.
Ainun Nishat, professor emeritus with the Dhaka-based Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research, said the entire coastal belt of Bangladesh was already suffering from salinisation, caused by development and worsened by climate change.
“It used to be a freshwater ecosystem three or four decades ago but we had a lot of development work in the upstream area, and freshwater was reduced or supply was stopped. Salinity went up – then came sea-level rise, so more salinity,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Storm surges of 7 to 8 metres high, now frequent in Bangladesh, bring in more sea water, said Nishat, who is collaborating with the IGES on the study.
In Satkhira, one of Bangladesh’s southernmost coastal districts with a population of around 200,000, this has led to loss of water sources and jobs, as well as social instability.
More young men are now leaving the area, already prone to migration for decades, to seek work in India. One out of every 10 males between the age of 20 and 45 has left, said Nishat.
“They come back home for maybe a few months and leave again, and that’s when the women and children are insecure. But I anticipate that very soon, (the migration) will no longer be temporary,” he added.