We must adapt to live with the impacts of climate change

04 November 2021

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As world leaders meet in Glasgow to make vital decisions on the future of the planet, a new UN report calls for an urgent increase in the financing and action to adapt to the growing impacts of climate change.

The Adaptation Gap Report 2021: The Gathering Storm, from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), found that while policies and planning are growing for climate change adaptation, financing and implementation are still far behind where they need to be. The report also finds that we are missing the opportunity to use the fiscal recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic to prioritize green economic growth, that also helps nations adapt to climate impacts such as floods, droughts, storms, and wildfires.

The report shows that, so far, building back better is a slogan – not a reality

Professor Thom Wetzer, Director of the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme and Lead Researcher on the Oxford Martin Initiative on a Net Zero Recovery, and Arjuna Dibley, a researcher at the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme and Director at Pollination, led the team responsible for a chapter which reveals that while governments have announced US$16.7 trillion in COVID-19 stimulus and recovery packages, budgets for emergency disaster management have reduced, and less than one-third of countries have delivered funding for climate risk management.

“The report shows that, so far, building back better is a slogan – not a reality,” said Professor Thom Wetzer. “If we want to make this slogan real, we need action now. Wasting this opportunity will set us back significantly during this crucial decade: the heightened cost of servicing debt burdens that resulted from the COVID crisis, combined with decreased government revenues, may hamper future government spending on adaptation, particularly in already vulnerable countries.”

we are missing the opportunity to help nations adapt to climate impacts like floods, droughts, and wildfires

The chapter, ‘Emerging consequences of COVID-19 on adaptation planning and finance’, also warns of the compounding impacts that climate change, covid, and rising debt burdens pose to adaptation efforts.

“COVID-19 and climate change are compounding on each other to create immense human suffering, and the increasing debt burden is constraining the ability of the most vulnerable to protect themselves from that suffering,” said Professor Wetzer. “And yet, governments are investing trillions in responding to the pandemic without taking proper account of climate adaptation, leaving the risks that a warming planet poses to build. It does not have to be this way; governments around the world promised to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic, and funding climate adaptation should be a central part of that. And let’s be clear: this requires wealthier countries to step up their financial support to those most vulnerable. At COP26, political leaders have the opportunity to work together to do this on a global scale.”

The report also shows lessons that could be learned from government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We put forward several recommendations for governments and private actors in the report,” said Dr Dibley. “We call for substantive debt relief for heavily indebted and climate vulnerable countries. We also highlight the importance of governments developing integrated risk management approaches. While many countries already practice this approach to some extent, we recommend developing national risk boards. These could bring together cross-cutting risk management and adaptation objectives, a national risk assessment, a system of national financial protection planning and a much wider and integrated approach to fiscal risk management, driving a whole-of-government approach.”

Financing of adaptation remains weak

Current promises under the Paris Agreement point to global warming of 2.7°C by the end of the century. Even if the world limits warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, as outlined in the agreement, many climate risks remain. While strong mitigation is the best way to lower impacts and long-term costs, raising ambition in adaptation, in particular for financing and implementation, is critical to keep existing gaps from widening.

The report finds that the costs of adaptation are likely in the higher end of an estimated USD 140-300 billion per year by 2030 and USD 280-500 billion per year by 2050 for developing countries only. Climate finance flowing to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation planning and implementation reached USD 79.6 billion in 2019. Overall, estimated adaptation costs in developing countries are five to ten times greater than current public adaptation finance flows, and the gap is widening.

Some progress in planning and implementation

While early evidence suggests that National Adaptation Plan development processes have been
disrupted by COVID-19, progress is being made on national adaptation planning agendas.
Around 79% of countries have adopted at least one national-level adaptation planning
instrument, such as a plan, strategy, policy or law. This is an increase of 7% since 2020.
9% of countries that do not have such an instrument in place are in the process of developing one. At least 65% of countries have one or more sectoral plans in place, and at least 26% have one or more subnational planning instruments.

Meanwhile, implementation of adaptation actions continues to grow slowly. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reveal that the top ten donors funded more than 2,600 projects with a principal focus on adaptation between 2010 and 2019. Projects are also getting bigger, with more projects attracting funding over USD 10 million.

More action needed

Despite this progress, the report finds, further ambition is needed in financing and implementation. The world needs to scale up public adaptation finance, through direct investment and by overcoming barriers to private sector involvement. More and stronger implementation of adaptation actions is needed to avoid falling behind on managing climate risks, particularly in developing countries. The world also needs to consider higher-end climate scenarios projected by the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“As the world looks to step up efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions – efforts that are still not anywhere strong enough – it must also dramatically up its game to adapt to climate change,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Even if we were to turn off the tap on greenhouse gas emissions today, the impacts of climate change would be with us for many decades to come. We need a steep change in adaptation ambition for funding and implementation to significantly reduce damages and losses from climate change. And we need it now.”

Read the full report here.