What is climate change adaptation and why is it a priority at COP27?

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  • While efforts are ongoing to mitigate global warming, climate change is already impacting people’s lives.
  • Climate change adaptation involves adjusting our behaviour and building improved infrastructure to better cope with changing weather patterns.
  • Raising more finance to help developing countries cope with climate impacts, such as more frequent extreme weather events, will be one of the main goals of the upcoming COP27 summit in Egypt.

Climate change is already here.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report 2022 says “Climate change is affecting nature, people’s lives and infrastructure everywhere. Its dangerous and pervasive impacts are increasingly evident in every region of our world. These impacts are hindering efforts to meet basic human needs and they threaten sustainable development across the globe.”

The IPCC uses five possible scenarios to estimate how badly global warming will affect the planet going forward, ranging from the world limiting warming to 1.5C to a worst-case scenario where the average global temperature is 4.4C higher by 2100.

Crucially, the IPCC says that whichever scenario unfolds, global warming will continue for at least several decades, along with rising sea levels.

Which is why, as well as focusing on cutting greenhouse gases, countries must also work on their climate adaptation strategies, urges the IPCC.

What is climate change adaptation?

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions can slow the pace of global warming – this is known as mitigation. The IPCC says greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 and then rapidly decline if further warming is to be limited.

Many countries have committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to around 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, and efforts are already underway to de-carbonize sectors of the global economy like heavy industry.

However, it is clear that the world must also take urgent action to adapt to the current and near-future impacts of climate change, which it is too late to avoid.

The IPCC says adaptation to climate change means “adjusting our behaviour (eg, where we choose to live; the way we plan our cities and settlements) and adapting our infrastructure (eg, greening of urban areas for water storage)”.

Examples of adaptation could be building roads and bridges that can withstand higher temperatures and more powerful storms, reinforcing coastal defence systems and switching to drought-resistant crops.

What have global leaders already agreed on climate change adaptation?

In the past decade, several countries have already developed National Adaptation plans under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Parties to the Paris Agreement committed to adapt and build resilience. For example, wealthier countries are obligated to provide $100 billion a year in international climate finance, with at least half going to adaptation.

And at COP26, countries adopted the Glasgow Climate Pact which called for a doubling of financial commitments to help developing countries become more resilient and adapt to the impacts of climate change. But, today, only around a fifth of climate finance provided by wealthier countries goes towards adaptation and resilience – around $16.8 billion a year. However, it’s thought adaptation costs in developing countries could hit $300 billion a year by the end of the 2020s.

One of the four priorities for the COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, is climate adaptation. The UN says “the Global Goal on Adaptation was one of the significant outcomes of COP26. We must ensure that COP27 makes the crucially needed progress and urge all parties to demonstrate the necessary political will if we are to capture and assess our progress towards enhancing resilience and assist the most vulnerable communities.”

Climate change adaptation isn’t happening fast enough

Although global awareness of climate risks has increased, and that adaptation is required to reduce them, much more needs to be done, the IPCC says.

This was recently confirmed in a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which found that current adaptation efforts are not keeping pace with the growing risks. The Adaptation Gap Report 2022: Too Little, Too Slow – Climate adaptation failure puts world at risk, says that as climate impacts intensify, nations need to dramatically increase funding and actions to help vulnerable nations and communities adapt.

“Adaptation needs in the developing world are set to skyrocket to as much as $340 billion a year by 2030. Yet adaptation support today stands at less than one-tenth of that amount. The most vulnerable people and communities are paying the price. This is unacceptable,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “It’s time for a global climate adaptation overhaul that puts aside excuses and picks up the toolbox to fix the problems,” he added.

The cost of climate change inaction is high

In 2021, extreme weather events cost the global economy an estimated $329 billion. Between 2000-2015, the number of people worldwide at risk from flooding increased by up to 24%.

While many businesses are supporting mitigation action through net-zero targets and other actions, climate change adaptation efforts to date have almost exclusively come from the public/government sector. Less than 2% of adaptation finance currently comes from private sources.

Yet there are significant benefits to businesses from climate change adaptation efforts. The Global Commission on Adaptation suggests that investment of $1.8 trillion in early warning systems from 2020-2030 could generate more than $7 trillion in total net benefits. These could include climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture crop production, mangrove protection and resilient water resources.

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How can we tackle climate change adaptation?

Experts say forward planning is key to making new building projects in line with climate adaptation. Michael Szonyi, who leads the Flood Resilience Programme at Zurich Insurance Group, says investment of just 1% of the overall project cost can prepare an office or production facility for potential future weather events.

“It’s important to do it right at the project design stage, because the buildings we are designing today will still be standing in 2050,” he says. “If you have to start retrofitting, it is a missed opportunity.”

Szonyi also says climate adaptation means looking further ahead and basing decisions on likely future weather patterns rather than using past records for calculations. This would involve developing better climate-risk models. “We really need to be able to anticipate what is going to happen, and the statistics of the past are no longer valid. We want to understand what the hazard conditions are going to be in 2050, and that is where climate models come into play.”

The World Economic Forum is co-leader of the BiodiverCities by 2030 initiative which encourages decision-makers to build more resilient cities in better harmony with nature. It says cities can gain significant benefits from investing in nature-based solutions, such as prioritizing reforestation to lessen the impact of heatwaves or flooding. The Forum says 44% of global GDP in cities ($31 trillion) is estimated to be at risk of disruption from nature loss, and 1.4 billion urban residents are threatened by natural hazards.

How can new innovations help?

There’s also a role for technology and innovation in climate adaptation. Early warning systems (EWS) are reducing in cost and becoming more effective. As the United Nations explains, an EWS “saves lives and jobs, land and infrastructure and supports long-term sustainability”.

For example, a UN project in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Kenya helped replace less advanced meteorological methods with modern technology. The systems alert communities of potential floods and other risks. These warnings are then shared with rural communities through SMS and email.

Digital Twin technology can also help. One Concern, a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer, has built such a twin of the world around us. They explain that it reveals “hidden risks across the built and natural environments posed by natural disasters, extreme weather and climate change”.

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