About NELD

When we talk about NELD, we are discussing heritage, culture, languages, ecosystems, identity – the very essence of who we are and how we understand and relate to the world around us.

These can be negatively impacted and even lost as climate change affects populations around the world. However, it is tricky to put a monetary value on the loss of NELD and therefore they are often not considered in decision making processes.

Imagine the following scenario:

An island community is forced to relocate because sea-level rise has rendered the land uninhabitable. What are the changes an island community faces? At first infrastructure is left behind; cultivated land is lost and crops can no longer be harvested; fisheries are abandoned and income opportunities at least temporally lost. Then the community resettles in some other, remote and safer area. If all goes well, new income opportunities arise and individuals diversify their skills. They earn a living and some of them may thrive in those new surroundings; comparing per-capita income before and after relocation may show the latter´s beneficial effects. Things look good. Apart from the infrastructure and a year or two of income not much seems lost, and that may eventually be outweighed by the beneficial effects of higher earnings.

The picture changes when a focus on non-economic loss and damage is applied. Not only arable land is lost, but so are landscapes. Not only fisheries are lost, but so are traditions. Not only are new ways of income generation learnt, but old ways of knowing and relating to the environment lost. The task of adapting to new realities may cause stress, a sense of loss and disorientation. A community of fishermen and farmers dislocated from the sea and their lands: What has happened to their identity, has that been lost too?

The concept of non-economic loss and damage (NELD) takes into focus such items – the material and non-material dimensions that defy quantification and/or monetization, but that still matter to people.

Categories of NELD

NELD refers to the adverse consequences of climate change, that have not been or cannot be adapted to,[1] on items (both tangible and intangible) that are not traded in markets.

For prospective policies aimed at avoiding NELD, they may require decision-making frameworks that do not rely on monetary estimate of different actions, for example through the establishment of safeguards, which should not be breached.

For responsive policies aimed at reacting to irreversible NELD, a fair and transparent framework will be required to ensure NELD items are identified and valued according to the context in which they occur.

The following broad categories of NELD have emerged from the current literature:

·      Human Life ·      Cultural Artefacts
·      Identity ·      Health (including mental health)
·      Agency ·      Ecosystem Services
·      Intrinsic Values ·      Biodiversity
·      Communal Sites ·      Meaningful Places

These categories should not be understood as a finite list. They need to be refined if they are to drive local action to address NELD, and new categories may emerge through further research. Importantly, NELD items are interrelated. Losses and damages, both material and non-material, both economic and non-economic, reverberate throughout societies. If categories remain isolated the interconnectedness of human experiences is lost to any kind of analysis or understanding.

Notably, the political definition of loss and damage includes adverse effects of climate change that can be reduced through adaptation[2]. This means that NELD includes both potential losses and damages, which can be minimized, and residual losses and damages, which cannot be reduced. Measures to address NELD can accordingly be distinguished as to whether they aim at avoiding NELD or at responding to NELD.

NELD occurs as direct or indirect consequences of climate change, including through negative side-effects of adaptation, and their nature and scale will depend on social context and exposure to climate change. Given that economic theory does provide for such items, they could be more accurately described as non-marketed loss and damage. However, ‘non-economic’ has political relevance, as these items are referred to as such under the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM).

NELD items are characterized by the fact that their loss makes a substantial and permanent difference to the wellbeing of those affected. Various frameworks can be applied to understand and categorize NELD, including the capability approach (Sen 1985; Nussbaum 2011) or a human rights-based framework. Limitations of capabilities or violations to human rights could accordingly be used as criteria to define NELD.

[1] Un-adaptability here is understood to be reached at adaptation limits, as defined by the IPCC 2014 (Klein et al.): Adaptation limits: The point at which an actor’s objectives or system’s needs cannot be secured from intolerable risks through adaptive actions, currently (soft limits) or in principle (hard limits). Further discussion is needed about adaptation constraints, which hinder the implementation of available adaptation options, and their role in the definition of loss and damage and NELD in particular.

[2] In Decision 2/CP.19 Parties acknowledges „that loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change includes, and in some cases involves more than, that which can be reduced by adaptation“.


Nussbaum, M.C (2011). Creating Capabilities, Harvard University Press

Sen, A. (1985). Well-Being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984. The Journal of Philosophy, 82(4), 169–221.