Science for climate risk management and climate justice

By Thomas Schinko and Reinhard Mechler, IIASA Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program

Discussions on dealing with the already palpable as well as future burdens from climate change have moved into the spotlight of international climate policy. They are being tackled as part of the climate negotiations via the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (Loss and Damage Mechanism), a measure for dealing with impacts and adaptation related to extreme climate events and slow onset events that was agreed in 2013. Debate on the scope, framing and on how the mechanism will eventually be implemented is still continuing, and is heavily framed around moral issues such as compensation, liability, and a need for attributing disasters to climate change, which is a difficult and complex issue.

Opening of COP 21 on 29 November 2015. Photo: Benjamin Géminel via Flickr

Opening of COP 21 on 29 November 2015. Photo: Benjamin Géminel via Flickr

To help move this contentious debate forward, we recently organized a meeting at IIASA to set up a broad scientific network to support work under the Loss and Damage Mechanism with rigorous and evidence-based research.

Since the first climate negotiations, climate justice has been a major source of contention, with countries disagreeing on the level of responsibility for climate change and the extent to which developed and developing countries should contribute to the solutions. These discussions have predominantly focused on climate mitigation responses, but over the last few years, impact and risk issues have moved into the limelight.

Discussions in the run-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention (COP 21) in Paris make it clear that answering key questions revolving around climate justice and climate finance will be pivotal for the conference to deliver on any global climate change agreement.

Even though some rich countries currently appear to acknowledge the central role of a mechanism covering losses and damages within a new global climate agreement to be negotiated at COP 21 in Paris, huge reservations remain. With changing climates, extreme weather events are likely to increase in frequency as well as in intensity. The global North fears exposure to soaring claims for financial compensation by countries of the global South, which will be facing the most severe risks from climate change. In fact, even the meaning and nature of Loss and Damage is still being debated – some suggest the Loss and Damage mechanism should be part of adaptation, while others want it to focus on residual risks that remain after adaptation efforts have been taken. For example, it could finance potential climate-induced migration.

Discussion of compensation raises complex issues about liability, and would presumably require attribution of losses and damages to emitters. Indeed, climate science has been making great progress in attribution research. Recent work has shown a significant human element in mega-events such as superstorm Sandy in 2013 in the US or the Australian heatwave in 2013. Yet, as our kick-off meeting reconfirmed, linking anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to extreme weather events and to risks for people and property will remain extremely complex, not least as risks from climate-related events are shaped by many factors, including climate variability, rising exposure of people and assets, as well as socio-economic vulnerability dynamics. While the basic case for climate justice has been made, the concrete, enforceable case remains much harder to establish.

A protest for "climate justice" at Quezon City, Philippines on 14 November 2015. Photo: RB Ibañez via Flickr

A protest for “climate justice” at Quezon City, Philippines on 14 November 2015. Photo: RB Ibañez via Flickr

For these good reasons and to not derail the debate by fixating on questions regarding liability, the debate has extended beyond the narrow focus on compensation – the omnipresent elephant in the room of the UNFCCC process. The meeting at IIASA, which brought together 14 researchers from 10 institutions and 8 countries, also suggested that for a productive discussion, it makes sense to focus broadly on managing various climate risks by fostering current policies and practices while keeping the climate justice debate in close consideration.

This proposal essentially suggests to build on a long history of managing climate-related (and geophysical driven) extremes by employing a broad portfolio of different disaster risk management tools, including financial instruments such as insurance or regional risk pools. As identified also by the IPCC’s 5th assessment report, building on this body of knowledge and practice for comprehensively tackling existing and increasing extremes, holds a lot of promise and has seen international support, e.g. by the Sendai Framework for Action.

The discussion at IIASA focused on these two angles – climate justice and climate risk management – and worked out the following specific foci and building blocks for an evidence-based research approach to support the operationalization of the Loss and Damage Mechanism:

  • Articulation of principles and definitions of Loss and Damage, including ethical and normative issues central to the discourse (e.g. liability and responsibility).
  • Definition of the Loss and Damage space vis-á-vis the adaptation space.
  • Research on the politics and institutional dimensions of the debate.
  • Defining the scope for dealing with sudden-onset risk versus slow-onset impacts.

In the coming months the novel network effort will tackle these issues and questions in order to provide actionable but research-based input into the Loss and Damage deliberations.

Note: The authors thank the researchers present at the kick-off event at IIASA for their input on the topic and this blog post: Florent Baarsch (Climate Analytics, Berlin), Laurens Bouwer (Deltares, Delft), Rachel James (University of Oxford), Stefan Kienberger (University of Salzburg), Ana Lopez (University of Oxford), Colin McQuistan (Practical Action, Rugby), Jaroslav Mysiak (FEEM, Venice), Ilan Noy (University of Wellington), Joeri Roegelj (IIASA), Olivia Serdeczny (Climate Analytics, Berlin), Swenja Surminski (LSE, London), Koko Warner (UNU-EHS, Bonn)

Bouwer LM (2013). Projections of future extreme weather losses under changes in climate and exposure. RiskAnalysis 33(5):915–930

Herring, S.C., Hoerling, M.P., Peterson, T.C., Stott P.A. (eds) (2014). Explaining extreme events of 2013 from a climate perspective. Special Supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 95(9)

James, R., Otto, F., Parker, H., Boyd, E., Cornforth, R. Mitchell, D. and M. Allen (2014). Characterizing loss and damage from climate change. Nature Climate Change 4: 938-39

Mechler, R. Bouwer, L., Linnerooth-Bayer, J., Hochrainer-Stigler, S., Aerts, J., Surminski, S. (2014). Managing unnatural disaster risk from climate extremes. Nature Climate Change 4: 235-237

Peterson, T.C., Hoerling, M.P., Stott, P.A., Herring, S.C. (2013). Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 94: S1–S74. doi:
Trenberth, K.E., Fasullo, J.T., Shepherd, T.G. (2015). Attribution of climate extreme events. Nature Climate Change 5: 725–730. doi:10.1038/nclimate2657

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Accounting for land use in EU climate policy

By Hannes Böttcher, Senior Researcher, Öko-Institut, previously in IIASA’s Ecosystem Services and Management Program

In or out?  Debit or credit? The role of the land use sector in the EU climate policy still needs to be defined

The EU has a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. This is an economy-wide target and therefore includes the land use sector, which includes land use, land use change and forestry. The EU is currently in the process of deciding how to integrate land use into this target. This is not an easy task, as we show in a new study.

© Souvenirpixels |

Land use includes activities, such as logging, that can release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But the sector also includes other processes that can remove greenhouse gases from the  atmosphere. Accounting for these processes is a complicated task. © Souvenirpixels |

The land use sector has several particularities that make it different from other sectors already included in the target, such as energy, industrial processes, waste, and agriculture. The most specific particularity is that the sector includes activities that cause emissions but also can lead to carbon being removed from that atmosphere, and taken up and stored in vegetation and soil. However, this removal is not permanent. Harvesting trees, and burning wood releases the carbon much more quickly than it was stored. Another particularity is that not all emissions and removals are directly caused by humans. This is especially true for removals from forest management.

In the past, the EU reported that uptake and storing of carbon through land use activities was higher than emissions from this sector. The European land use sector thus acted as a relatively stable net sink of emissions at around -300 to -350 Megatons (Mt) CO2 per year. But this might change in the near future: projections show the net sink declining to only 279 Mt CO2 in 2030.

Adding up carbon credits and debits
The emissions and removals that are actually occurring in the atmosphere are not exactly those that are currently accounted for under the Kyoto Protocol. Rather complicated rules exist that define what can be counted as credits and debits. Depending on how these rules develop, the EU sink may be accounted for to a large degree as a credit, or it could turn into a debit because the sink is getting smaller compared to the past. It is not likely that the entire sink will be turned into credits. Especially for the management of existing forests, which contributes a lot to the net sink, negotiators of the Kyoto Protocol have developed special accounting rules for the time before 2020. Under these rules, carbon credits only count if measured against a baseline.

The rules for the time after 2020 have not yet been agreed, however, as the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2020. In order to assess the impact of including the land use sector in the EU target in our new study, we had to make different assumptions, for example about how much wood we will harvest, the development of emissions and removals, and what the baseline for forest management should be. We then applied the existing Kyoto rules and alternative rules and assessed their impact on the level of ambition required to meet the EU’s target. It quickly became obvious: the assumptions we make and the rules we apply have very large implications for the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework.

One option of including land use discussed by the Commission is to take agriculture emissions out of the currently existing framework of the so-called ESD (an already existing mechanism to distribute mitigation efforts among EU Member States for specific sectors such as transport, buildings, waste and agriculture) and merge it with land use activities in a separate pillar. In our study we estimated the net credits that the land use sector could potentially generate, and found these credits could be as high as the entire emission reduction effort needed in agriculture. This would mean that in agriculture no reductions would be needed if the credits from land use were exchangeable between the sectors.

The impact on thannes-fighe target of 40% emissions reductions can be more than 4 percentage points if land use is included and the rules are not changed. This means that the original 40% target without land use would be reduced to an only 35% target. Other sectors would have to reduce their emissions less because land use seems to do part of the job. The target as a whole would thus become much less ambitious than it currently is. But this does not need to be the case. If accounting rules are changed in a way to account for the fact that the sink is getting smaller and smaller, land use would create debits. Including debits in the target would make it a 41% target instead and increase the overall level of ambition. This would be bad for the atmosphere because effectively emissions would not be reduced as much as needed.

It thus all depends on assumptions and rules. Before the rules are announced, the contribution of the land use sector cannot be quantified. Given this, we argue that the best option would be to keep land use separate from other sectors, give it separate target and design accounting rules that set incentives to increase the sink.

Böttcher H, Graichen J. 2015. Impacts on the EU 2030 climate target of inlcuding LULUCF in the climate and energy policy framework. Report prepared for Fern and IFOAM. Oeko-Institut.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Would addressing climate change improve energy security?

By Jessica Jewell, Research Scholar, IIASA Energy Program

How would action to mitigate climate change affect energy security for countries around the world? In two recent studies that I worked on with colleagues in IIASA’s Energy Program and three other European research centers, we explored this question under a range of different policy scenarios. We found that in the long term – 40 to 90 years from now – climate policies would actually benefit energy security. Our studies showed that policies to limit climate change would lead to lower oil and gas trade. Since both of these fuels are supplied by only a few countries, shifting to other fuels could alleviate concerns for countries which import these energy sources. Our research also shows that a climate-friendly energy system would be more resilient to energy supply and price shocks as well as economic and fossil resource uncertainty.

An oil rig off the coast of California. New research shows that transitioning away from fossil fuels would be good for long-term energy security. Credit: Arby Reed via Flickr: Creative Commons License

An oil rig off the coast of California. New research shows that transitioning away from fossil fuels would be good for long-term energy security. Credit: Arby Reed via Flickr: Creative Commons License

Taking action to slow climate change requires a massive change in how our society supplies and uses energy. But achieving a low-carbon energy system – one which releases less greenhouse gases – will only be possible if it doesn’t compromise national energy priorities. One of the main energy priorities for decision-makers is ensuring energy security – that is, the stability and resilience of energy supply and infrastructures.

In our studies, published in Energy Policy and Climatic Change we aimed to figure out whether phasing out fossil fuels would alleviate energy dependence concerns or if decarbonization would simply replace existing vulnerabilities with new ones. Intuitively, addressing climate change would mean increasing renewables and would clearly lead to lower energy dependence. After all, Putin doesn’t own the wind. But would climate policies lead to some unintended consequences? Would oil be phased out only to be replaced with biofuels and Brazil as the new fuel-exporting superpower? And what would happen without climate policies? Would energy trade naturally decline as oil and gas reserves are used up or would it continue to increase?

In our research we used a number of energy scenarios which depict:

  • a world with an energy system which continues to develop in the same way it has developed over the last 50 years (i.e. business as usual)
  • a world which implements ambitious policies to mitigate climate change and stabilize the climate at 2°C above pre-industrial levels (i.e. climate scenarios).

We looked at each type of world under a range of different policy choices: for example, phasing out nuclear energy or limiting the penetration of solar and wind energy, and including uncertainties such as different growth rates and fossil fuel availability over the long term.

We found that under a business as usual scenario global trade in oil, gas, and coal quadruples. Under a range of different climate-friendly scenarios, trade stabilizes at between half and twice the current level by 2030 and then falls throughout the rest of the century.

Falling trade would have significant implications for the interconnectedness of different world regions. In a business as usual scenario, the energy systems of all world regions remain interconnected, and becomes even more so. But under climate policies, regional energy systems diverge as each region gravitates to its own energy mix. This could decrease states’ investment in existing energy institutions and lead to a massive upheaval in the global energy governance landscape – thus rendering existing institutions obsolete.

Climate policies would affect not only the volume of energy trade but also how and where energy is exported and imported. Today, oil accounts for over 90% of transport demand and there are no real substitutes for fuel cars, trains and planes. Half of all countries in the world import more than 75% of their oil from only a few number of countries. That makes oil the most problematic fuel for energy security (for more on this see the Global Energy Assessment). Under the business-as-usual scenarios, these dynamics get worse over the next few decades.. However, under de-carbonization oil is phased out and no other fuel takes on similarly problematic dynamics.

It’s important to note though that over the short-term, climate policies could make oil even more of a problem: as cheap unconventional resources rise in price due to their carbon intensity, the geographical concentration of oil production would actually rise.

However, over the medium and long-term (three to four decades), climate action would make the energy system much more resilient compared to the business-as-usual case. Resilience, or the capacity for energy systems to respond to disruptions is just as important as avoiding risks such as decreasing energy dependence. Under climate scenarios, the diversity of energy options rises which means all our “energy eggs” would be distributed between different baskets. In addition, the energy system would become less sensitive to fluctuations in GDP, fossil resource assumptions, and energy intensity. This means that a low-carbon energy system would be less exposed to both price and supply shocks.



Jessica Jewell, Aleh Cherp, Keywan Riahi. (2014). Energy security under de-carbonization scenarios: An assessment framework and evaluation under different technology and policy choices. Energy PolicyVolume 65, February 2014, Pages 743–760

Aleh Cherp, Jessica Jewell, Vadim Vinichenko, Nico Bauer, Enrica De Cian. (2013). Global energy security under different climate policies, GDP growth rates and fossil resource availabilities. Climatic Change. November 2013.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Towards a climate risk management approach for adaptation

By Reinhard Mechler, IIASA Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability Program

On March 25, member countries of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) started discussing the key findings of the second volume of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in Yokohama, Japan. The report focuses on climate-related impacts, risks and adaptation. Once approved by the 150+ governments present, together with IPCC’s other two parts of the report on physical climate science and mitigating greenhouse gases, it will constitute the scientific backbone for informing national and international climate policy over the coming years.

Flooded marketplace in Jakarta. Credit: Charles Wiriawan/Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Flooded marketplace in Jakarta. Credit: Charles Wiriawan/Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A key aspect in climate adaptation is dealing with extreme events including natural disasters. It has become clear that extreme event risk constitutes a large part of the adaptation problem, particularly for developing countries and communities.

Despite this growing awareness, the international adaptation policy process is moving forward only slowly. Specifically, there is need for concrete advice for the Loss and Damage Mechanism, the main vehicle under the Climate Convention for dealing with climate-related impacts, which was agreed in Warsaw at the last Conference of the Parties in late 2013

In our commentary, published today in Nature Climate Change with colleagues from LSE, IVM and Deltares, we suggest that better understanding climate-related disaster risk and risk management can inform effective action on climate adaptation and point a way forward for policy and practice.

A key to moving forward is an actionable concept of risk. This involves identifying efficient and acceptable interventions based on recurrency of hazards—a concept known as risk layering. For example, for flood risk, this could mean identifying physical flood protection to deal with more frequent events, considering risk financing for infrequent disasters as well as relying on public and international compensation for extreme catastrophes. Risk layering overall points towards considering risk comprehensively as determined by climatic and non-climatic factors as well as considering portfolios of options that manage risks today and in the future.

The concept of risk layering underlies many areas of risk policy and management in agriculture, finance and insurance. It has been applied for disaster risks, mostly for insurance options, but not informed thinking on comprehensive risk management portfolios. Such broad understanding of risk management can also be helpful in identifying risks that are  beyond adaptation–meriting international support, such as from the Green Climate Fund.

Climate risk management has now moved beyond theory. As one example, the megacity of Jakarta currently is setting up a multi-billion dollar program to manage increasing risk from sea level rise with large levees. This effort is integrated with a concern for managing flood risk and land subsidence, which are shaped by non-climatic factors, such as unplanned urbanization. The effort, therefore, involves options to implement acceptable building and zoning regulations for reducing exposure and vulnerability of houses and infrastructure to flooding.

Many policy-and implementation-specific questions remain. Over the coming months, IIASA researchers and our network will take the agenda on climate risk management forward with a focus on informing policy as well as providing actionable information on the ground.


Reinhard Mechler, Laurens M. Bouwer, Joanne Linnerooth-Bayer, Stefan Hochrainer-Stigler, Jeroen C. J. H. Aerts, Swenja Surminski & Keith Williges. 2014.  Managing unnatural disaster risk from climate extremes. Nature Climate Change. March 26, 2014.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

How can Europe cope with multiple disaster risks?

Interview with IIASA risk expert Nadejda Komendantova

In a new study, IIASA Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability Program researcher Nadejda Komendantova and colleagues from Germany and Switzerland examined how natural hazards and risks assessments can be incorporated into decision-making processes in Europe on mitigation of multiple risks. 

A cyclist rides along the flooded Danube River in Braila, Romania, in 2010. Credit: cod_gabriel on Flickr

A cyclist rides along the flooded Danube River in Braila, Romania, in 2010. Credit: cod_gabriel on Flickr

Why did you decide to conduct this study?
European decision makers currently have a number of methods that they can use to assess natural hazards and risks and apply to the decision-making process. These methods include risk and hazard assessments, probabilistic scenarios, and socio-economic and engineering models.  The variety of tools is enormous and volume of knowledge and data is growing. However, the process of communication  between science and practice leaves a lot of open questions for research.

Researchers have developed a few tools to provide multiple risk assessment of a given territory. But even though these models have been tested by operational and practicing stakeholders, there is limited information about how useful the models are for civil protection stakeholders to use in practice.  In order to communicate results from science to practice and make it possible for decision-makers to use such tools, it helps to involve decision-makers in the development process. Participatory modeling, which is an important part of risk governance, allows us to not only to take into consideration the facts, but also values and judgments that decision-makers bring to their actions.

What questions did you aim to answer in your study?
The decision-making process becomes even more complex when we talk about situations with multiple risks – multi-risks – which involve interactions between several risks. How will decision-maker will prioritize their actions on risk mitigation or on resources allocation when facing not single but multiple risks? We also wanted to find out if the tools developed by science such as decision support models could be suitable for these tasks. Another question is if there are differences in perceptions of the usability of decision-support tools between different stakeholders, such as academia (based on more theoretical considerations) and civil protection (based on practice).

What are the multiple risks or hazards that face Europe?
Across Europe, people suffer losses not just from single hazards, but also from multiple events in combination. The most important hazards for Europe are earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, wildfires, winter storms, and floods along both rivers and coastlines.

What methods did you use to conduct your study?
To answer our research questions we collected feedback from civil protection stakeholders on existing risk and hazard assessment tools as well as on the generic multi-risk framework to understand interrelations between different risks, such as conjoint and cascade effects. The new study was based on a method developed by Arnaud Mignan at ETH Zürich, with a decision-support tool developed by Bijan Khazai at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Through a participatory approach, the decision-support tool allowed  stakeholders to assign relative importance to the losses for different sectors for each of the scenarios likely to occur in the region.

We collected data through questionnaires on existing risk assessment tools in Europe and their implementation. Then, using the new framework, we conducted focus group discussions in Bonn and Lisbon, and decision-making experiments applying the developed tools. Afterwards we had a chance to collect feedback from stakeholders.

What did you find?
The study showed that general standards for multi-risk assessment are still missing—there are different terminologies and different methodologies related to data collection, monitoring, and output. According to stakeholders from practice, this variety of data, assessment methods, tools and terminology might be a barrier for implementation of the multi-risk approach.

The study also found a sharp divide in understanding of the usability of the tools and areas for their application. Academic stakeholders saw the risk-assessment tools as being useful to understand loss and communication of multi-risk parameters. The stakeholders from practice instead saw  the tool as more useful for training and educational purposes as well as to raise awareness about possible multi-risk scenarios.

What should be done to help decision-makers make better decisions?
The study made it clear that we need to work on training and education, both for policymakers and the public. The models we have developed could be useful for educating stakeholders about the usefulness of a multi-risk approach, and to disseminate these results to the general public. It was recommended to use the tools during special training workshops organized for decision-makers on multi-risk mitigation to see possible consequences of a multi-hazard situation for their region. Participatory modeling, involving cooperation between scientists and decision-makers from practice, could not only improve communication processes between science and policy. In addition, decision-support models can become a part of dialogue to help to avoid judgment biases and systematic errors in decision-making and to help in complex decision-making process grounded on human rationality and judgment biases.

Nadejda Komendantova, Roger Mrzyglocki, Arnaud Mignan, Bijan Khazai, Friedemann Wenzel, Anthony Patt, Kevin Fleming. 2014. Multi-hazard and multi-risk decision support tools as a part of participatory risk governance: Feedback from civil protection stakeholder. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.