Global Efforts to Adapt to the Impacts of Climate Are Lagging as Much as Efforts to Slow Emissions

A new UN report highlights how an adaptation gap hurts the most vulnerable countries and urges increased financing and cost-effective, nature-based preparations.

People stand on a green roof in Saxony, Germany. Credit: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa-Zentralbild/picture alliance via Getty Images

People stand on a green roof in Saxony, Germany. Credit: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa-Zentralbild/picture alliance via Getty Images

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Along with promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming, under the Paris climate agreement world leaders also agreed to prepare for its unavoidable and mounting impacts: the displacement of people and the destruction of communities and croplands by sea level rise, intensifying storms, drought, wildfire and famines.

But adaptation efforts are lagging just as much as efforts to reduce climate-warming emissions, United Nations Environmental Program director Inger Andersen said Thursday, during the release of the 2020 UNEP Adaptation Gap report

While the coronavirus pandemic has distracted many countries from efforts to adapt to the changing climate, the report shows that investment in such efforts was already feeble. 

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Developed countries haven’t lived up their pledges to help poorer countries prepare for the effects of climate change that are already hitting them, and the money that is flowing isn’t always reaching the places where it’s needed most, the report explains.

Adaptation financing, at about $30 billion a year, is only around 5 percent of total climate finance, the report states—far short of what is needed. And what efforts have occurred often proved ineffective. An analysis of adaptation actions suggests that only 3 percent of them show evidence of real reduction in vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

Andersen said extreme climate in 2020 affected about 50 million people. Natural disasters, many linked to global warming, killed 8,200 people and caused $210 billion in total damage in 2020, according to the reinsurance company Munich RE.

The widespread death and destruction shows the increasing urgency to finance and implement climate adaptation measures—changes to economic systems and social practices such as how communities deal with those displaced by climate disasters, as well as strengthening buildings and infrastructure to reduce the damage from such events. 

There is little doubt that up-front spending to reduce climate impacts makes economic sense, just as it’s cheaper to retrofit houses with fire-resistant materials than it is to rebuild them after they are destroyed by wildfires. The Global Commission on Adaptation estimated in 2019 that a $1.8 trillion investment would bring a return of $7.1 trillion in avoided costs and other benefits. 

Worsening Impacts, Particularly for the Developing World

Andersen said the costly damages from climate change will only worsen in the years ahead, with those least able to afford them bearing the brunt of their burden.

“Based on the Paris Agreement commitments, the world is heading for at least a 3 degree centigrade (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) rise this century,” she said. “Even if we limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, and even if we hit 1.5, developing countries will suffer, this is clear.”

Global warming impacts are hitting the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet hardest and the only way to minimize the costs and damages is to “race to adapt,” she said. The report shows that “we are still losing this vital race.”  

Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, warned that the current emissions path leading toward a 3 degree Celsius global temperature increase by 2100 is why adaptation was a key pillar of the Paris Agreement that remains crucial today. 

The climate pact requires participating countries to establish national adaptation plans, to monitor climate impacts and to make environmentally sustainable investments, but few nations have met their goals to prepare for the increasing impacts of global warming.

So far, only 72 percent of the countries that signed on to the agreement have adopted a national adaptation plan while 10 percent are in the process of developing one. Of 154 developing countries, 125 are at some stage of adaptation planning. Only 55 are being supported by the Green Climate Fund, a key Paris agreement financing tool aimed at helping developing nations pay for climate change preparations they otherwise couldn’t afford.

“The issue of finance remains a big obstacle,” Espinosa said. “The adaptation finance gap is not closing. That’s like we’re going into battle blindfolded with one hand tied behind our back. This is not how we achieve success.”

Better with Biden?

Looking ahead, two things loom large over adaptation planning: recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and the international climate policy of the incoming U.S. administration. 

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to re-enter the Paris accord on day one of his presidency. His climate plan is still short on nuts and bolts, and is subject to political negotiations with the Republican legislative minority. 

Think tanks and surging youth activism from the likes of the Sunrise Movement and Fridays For Future could push the administration toward a bold climate action plan that would include renewed support for adaptation. The president-elect’s picks for his cabinet and staff suggest an administration focus on climate and environmental justice that matches the lofty promises he made during his campaign. 

But coping with the pandemic could deflect attention and funding away from climate adaptation, despite well-intentioned plans for a “green recovery,” said Reimund Schwarze, an environmental economist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany.

“I foresee that a national bias of climate policy will prevail in the first term of Biden’s administration, especially during the ‘green recovery period,’ which will go to at least 2022,” Schwarze said. At the same time, the United States re-entry into the Paris agreement could boost prospects for adaptation financing beyond that time, he added.

Under Obama, the U.S. pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, which is a big part of global adaptation financing. The Trump administration reneged on $2 billion of that, but Schwarze predicts that Biden will restore it. 

Still, he said Biden’s climate plan is a throwback to the Obama years, while the needs for climate action, and the world, have changed significantly since then.

“To think that that things could continue like in the good old days under Obama is naive,” Schwarze wrote in a recent blog for the Helmholtz Centre. “Right now, the USA is too weak politically and too isolated internationally to assume a leadership role in international climate policy, especially after the earth-shaking events at the Capitol.”

Natural Solutions are Just as Important as International Finance

Finance is critical to global preparations for climate change, but nature-based solutions are at the heart of this year’s UNEP report, in part because they are often the most cost-effective adaptations to global warming. 

Working with nature to adapt to a changing climate is already bringing “environmental, economic and social benefits to a wide range of stakeholders, including women and poor and marginalized groups,” the report concluded, but much more investment in this approach is needed.

That focus is also fundamental to the Paris agreement, which recognizes the connections between healthy ecosystems and climate adaptation, as well as emissions reductions. Many countries are relying on nature enhancement projects like wetlands improvements and forest conservation to meet at least part of their carbon reduction goals under the agreement. 

Good examples abound. Some coastal areas facing the triple threat of devastating floods from extreme rains, sea level rise and intensifying hurricanes are trying to make sure their offshore coral reefs are healthy to protect low-lying shorelines from the worst storm surges, said Rosanne Martyr, an adaptation expert with Climate Analytics

City planners in Vienna, Austria, have been working with surrounding communities to preserve forest and field corridors that bring cooling breezes to the downtown urban heat island, which has endured weeks of unhealthy temperatures  during recent summers.

In the United Kingdom, some towns are rethinking whether they can build flood walls or storm drain systems big enough to handle the projected increase in flooding they face. Instead of building more walls, they’re seeing if they can restore forests or wetlands, or shift agricultural areas in ways that retain water before it floods a community, said Alistair Ford, an engineer and sustainability researcher at the University of Newcastle.

“We used to think we could do it all with concrete, that we’ll just redesign our bridges and gullies and culverts,” he said. But that probably isn’t going to work in the future because “the extremes are going to be really extreme.” 

“The climate emergency is already here,” said UNFCCC chief Espinosa, urging all nations to take the new report to heart and boost adaptation efforts. “It’s not about keeping up,” she said. “It’s about facing reality.”