The World Is Falling Far Short On Climate Adaptation Plans

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A new publication from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), The Adaptation Gap Report 2022, has a stark message. This is clearly laid out in the report’s subtitle: Too Little, Too Slow – Climate adaptation failure puts world at risk. In other words, preparation for floods, droughts, heatwaves, and the many other consequences of climate change is massively deficient.

One issue is the state of existing planning. Positively, most of the world (at least 84% of countries) now has some sort of adaptation plan in place.

However, there’s plenty of variation across these plans. Ones with hard targets, quantifiable metrics, and ties to national laws are more likely to actually make an impact.

For instance, Kenya’s nationally determined contribution (NDC), or climate action goals under the Paris Agreement, includes 10% of its land being covered by trees. This NDC is also part of Kenya’s National Climate Change Action Plan for 2018 to 2022. Being enshrined in legislation takes the NDCs from optional to legally enforceable.

No matter how strong a plan is, it’s worth little without the resources to implement it. Yet compared to the current amounts, low- and middle-income countries need 5–10 times as much international finance to adapt to climate change.

Even attempts to chivvy along the rich countries, which bear the bulk of historical responsibility for rising temperatures, aren’t ambitious enough. 2021’s COP 26 conference in Glasgow culminated in a plea for wealthy countries to at least double their adaptation funding by 2025, compared to 2019 levels. But doubling the amounts would still fall short.

The disparity between the money needed to meet an adaptation target and the money actually available for it is known as the “adaptation finance gap.” It’s only getting bigger as climate impacts intensify. Funding needs to step up just to keep pace.

Mami Mizutori, the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, points out that “the number and cost of disasters have nearly doubled in the last 20 years because of climate change. And 90% of disasters are caused by climate hazards. This is testament that these disasters will only become larger, more intense, and more frequent if we do not take action.”

In fact, the global adaptation finance gap may be even more severe than the UNEP estimate. High-income countries pledged to provide US$ 100 billion a year in climate funding to less affluent countries by 2020. According to their records, they fell short, supplying US$ 83.3 billion instead of US$ 100 billion.

Yet Oxfam estimates that even this US$ 83.3 billion figure is hugely inflated due to a complex array of misleading accounting practices, and the actual amount of finance provided is just one third of this. Further, according to Oxfam, most international adaptation finance takes the form of loans – potentially trapping vulnerable countries into long cycles of debt.

Across low- and middle-income countries, The Adaptation Gap Report estimates, approx. 0.6% of GDP is needed for adaptation finance. (Figures are higher for South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and relatively low for East Asia and the Pacific.)

Overall, this .6% figure is a bargain when considering the benefits of forestalling the worst climate-related effects, as well as the relative spending across sectors. For example, Pakistan spends at least 4% of its GDP on the military. Pakistan has also been devastated by flooding this year. Even apart from the toll on human life, the economic losses from the floods have amounted to US$ 30 billion, according to Inger Andersen, the executive director of UNEP.

Even well-off countries have scope to improve their adaptation practices. One case study is heat action plans in North America, which is facing longer and more intense heat seasons each year. According to The Adaptation Gap Report, these plans tend to be effective in limiting the health effects, including deaths, of extreme heat.

But measures vary in their effectiveness. Heat alerts are one example. Early warning systems have stronger impacts when they rely not just on changes to individual behavior, but also catalyze institutional changes, such as outreach to vulnerable groups and the special provision of care services. (And only half of countries even have an early warning system for climate hazards in general, according to Mizutori.)

Heat action plans also need to be locally specific to be maximally effective. So setting a single temperature threshold for an entire region to spring into action doesn’t work. The plans need to take into account the typical climatic conditions of each locale.

Andersen pulls no punches in summing up the urgency of improving the scale and quality of adaptation planning: “Adaptation may not seem like a priority right now, but it is…The reality is that climate change is going to be with us for decades into the future, and the poorest keep paying the price for our inaction.”

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