Climate-related 'loss and damage' in cities: exploring a new urban frontier

Highlighting and assessing the urban impacts of climate change can help cities find a more consistent, multi-level approach to climate adaptation.

Diane Archer's picture
Insight by 
Diane Archer
23 October 2014
Informal settlements such as this one in Durban, South Africa, are adversely affected by climate-related impacts (Photo: David Dodman)

Informal settlements such as this one in Durban, South Africa, are adversely affected by climate-related impacts (Photo: Copyright David Dodman)

The threats climate change poses to cities in terms of risks, impacts and vulnerabilities is increasing worldwide, but the distribution and severity of these threats varies greatly between and within urban centres.

Some cities are very exposed to slow onset changes, such as sea level rise, while others face extreme events of increasing severity and frequency, such as floods, or a combination of both. These climate impacts cause 'damage' — impacts that can be recovered from. But there is also 'loss' — which cannot be recovered.

We know that effective climate adaptation is possible, but it requires risk-reducing infrastructure, effective institutions, the capacity to learn from past events, and finance, which is lacking in many towns and cities. This means there will probably be considerable residual loss and damage, arising from the climate change impacts that cities cannot cope with or adapt to. At present, the extent of this loss and damage is difficult to quantify, and nobody really knows what policy changes are needed to address this at local and national scales.

Working out a wider accounting approach

The concept of 'loss and damage' has now been accepted by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), although the implications for urban areas remain unclear.

To begin to grapple with these issues, IIED convened a two-day workshop for academics and practitioners working on urban areas, climate change and loss and damage (New Delhi, India, 16-17 October). The workshop was organised in collaboration with partners involved in the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN).

The participants brainstormed some key issues, including:

  • What is driving loss and damage, from extreme events to slow onset climate changes – and how loss and damage assessments can include both types
  • The types of things that can be damaged in urban contexts, such as infrastructure, public services and ecosystem services, and the knock-on effects of their damage both locally and beyond
  • The types of loss and damage that affect individuals and households, such as loss of assets, health, life, and productivity
  • The economic, political and social drivers that will shape these losses and damages, from the quality of urban services and shelter, to power relations and urban policies.

Unquantified, often informal, but not unimportant

While data might exist about insurable economic loss and damage following extreme events, there is a big gap in the assessment of non-economic losses, from the health effects of climate change to lost culture and damaged ecosystems.

The informal economy plays a key role in the growth of developing countries' cities, yet usually remains unaccounted for in official estimates following a disaster. For example, the damage to uninsurable assets, such as people's homes in informal settlements, is rarely taken into consideration, yet these are vital to residents' livelihoods and security.

Recognising and estimating losses in all sectors and of all types should be a key consideration in developing appropriate climate adaptation policies in urban areas.

Complex calculations

There remains a need to explore ways to quantify losses, in a context where data are often lacking. The workshop examined existing methods drawn from rural loss and damage assessments to see what was transferrable and what would need to be specific to urban contexts, such as access to basic infrastructure and services.

This highlighted the fact that local governments differ in their capacity to invest in risk-reducing infrastructure, and raised the question of whether calculations of avoided loss could be used to incentivise investment in such infrastructure.

A further complicating factor is the number of unknowns that cities face: not only climatic uncertainties but also human-induced uncertainties such as population growth and developer-driven changes in land use. It can be hard to disentangle the impacts of climate change from these human-induced changes, which complicates policymaking for climate change adaptation in urban areas.

But the workshop has opened the door for loss and damage in urban areas to be considered more consistently. Ultimately, if assessments can offer a more complete understanding of the losses and damages suffered by individuals, households and society, as well as across economic sectors, investment in urban climate change adaptation could be much better targeted.

Diane Archer ( is a researcher with IIED's Human Settlements Group.