The road to Sharm el-Sheikh was paved with hopes for long-overdue progress on adaptation. The billing of COP27 as ‘the implementation COP’ and its location on a continent that has already experienced widespread losses and damages due to climate change, fed expectations. Yet amid the maelstrom of unexpected movement to create a loss and damage fund, and the converse pressure for mitigation action from rich nations, calls for a transformation in adaptation at COP27 failed to translate into meaningful advances in ambition and action.
The ground-breaking recognition of the issue of loss and damage should increase attention on adaptation, rather than detract from it. While at one stage, mitigation might have been a climate cure-all, that time has long passed. In a world of increasing climate impacts, mitigation and adaptation together are key to limiting loss and damage, and concerted action is needed in 2023 and the years ahead if we are to build collective resilience to the climate crisis.
In Article 7, the Paris Agreement established the global goal on adaptation (GGA) – of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change. With little progress since 2015 on making the GGA operational, COP26 established the two-year Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh (GlaSS) work programme on the goal. Yet it is hard to see how the four workshops held under the work programme in 2022 have created momentum. It is therefore significant that at COP27, Parties decided to initiate the development of a framework to guide the achievement of the goal, with a view to adoption of that framework at COP28 .
The development of the framework will follow a “structured approach”, facilitated by the remaining four workshops of the GlaSS during 2023. The focus of the goal will remain on limiting adverse impacts, risks and vulnerabilities associated with climate change, as well as enhancing adaptation action and support. The framework will be shaped by dimensions inspired by the common stages of adaptation policy cycles. Parties also emphasised that the framework should take into consideration key themes, including: water; food and agriculture; cities, settlements and key infrastructure; health; poverty and livelihoods; terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems; and oceans and coastal ecosystems; as well as cross-cutting elements, such as: country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approaches, guided by the best available science and traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems.
Meeting the global goal on adaptation requires an urgent response to systemic risks that transcend political borders. The process to develop the framework in 2023 provides an important opportunity to ensure the global goal on adaptation accounts for the international and cascading dimensions of climate risk and consequent adaptation needs, while still respecting the need for locally led adaptation approaches. Current action to address transboundary and cascading climate risk is incommensurate with the scale of the challenge. The goal gives us the chance to address this major blind spot in our adaptation efforts, to spell out why adaptation is a global challenge that demands a global response, and to strengthen international cooperation on adaptation to manage the cascading nature of climate risk.
At COP26 in Glasgow, countries put their names to a pact which urged developed nations to double their contributions to adaptation finance by 2025. Taking the Adaptation Fund as an example, however, only US$232 million in new pledges and contributions materialised in 2022, considerably less than the US$356 million raised at COP26. While some developed nations – including the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Australia – made new adaptation finance commitments, and the European Commission announced a €1 billion program to support adaptation and resilience in Africa, UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report 2022 makes clear that an acceleration of provisions is needed. Failing to meet existing commitments not only holds back progress on adaptation, it also erodes the trust between Parties so essential to the success of the negotiations more broadly.
The ‘polycrisis’ context in which the COP took place may have provided a disincentive for developed nations to make good on such adaptation finance commitments. Many countries are tightening their grip on finances in expectation of ongoing economic disruption and increasing domestic financial needs in the months ahead. Yet international adaptation finance is urgently needed to prevent cascading and compounding climate impacts from deepening the polycrisis. As many countries emphasised in the context of the loss and damage fund negotiations, financing mitigation and adaptation is much more cost effective than paying for the loss and damage that otherwise results. This is to say nothing of the human cost of climate impacts, the escalation of which was emphasised by many world leaders in their opening statements at the conference.
The CASCADES project identifies how the impacts of climate change in countries beyond Europe – such as droughts, floods and wildfires – can lead to cascading effects that create risks for communities and countries in Europe. These impacts interact in complex ways with other drivers of the polycrisis to compound the risks to economies, societies and ecosystems. Flows of adaptation finance should be seen accordingly – as an investment in the stability and resilience of a rapidly changing world – and of benefit to all countries, regardless of their level of development or wealth.
Flows of adaptation finance should be seen as an investment in the stability and resilience of a rapidly changing world – and of benefit to all countries, regardless of their level of development or wealth.
In 2023, the Standing Committee on Finance will prepare a report on the doubling of adaptation finance for consideration at COP28. The COP27 decision text called for contributors to fulfil their pledges to the Adaptation Fund and ensure the sustainability of its resources. The text also invites developed countries to make further contributions to the Least Developed Countries Fund and the Special Climate Change Fund. The response to such calls will provide an important indicator of the degree to which countries are beginning to recognise the cascading and systemic nature of climate risk.
Over the course of the CASCADES project, we have seen a dramatic increase in the recognition of climate risk as cascading and systemic in the international arena, evidenced by increased use of terms such as ‘transboundary’ and ‘cascading’ in key policy documents such as the EU’s adaptation strategy, and IPCC reports. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used the language of cascading climate impacts in his call for worldwide coverage of extreme weather early warning systems within the next five years: “Vulnerable communities in climate hotspots are being blindsided by cascading climate disasters without any means of prior alert.” In the fourth workshop under the GLaSS, taking place just prior to COP27, Parties spanning the world – from the United States to South Africa, from Ecuador to Zambia – cited the need for stronger action to adapt to the cascading impacts of climate change.
“While COP27 didn’t bring about the transformation in ambition, action and support for adaptation that we and others were calling for, we did see growing recognition and acceptance from Parties – bridging across traditional divides – that climate risk is cross-border and cascading and as such calls for forward-looking, transformative adaptation.
As Her Excellency Aminath Shauna, the Minister of Environment, Climate Change and Technology of Maldives, stated:
“We live in a globalized world and climate change doesn’t care about national borders… adaptation to climate change is global in addition to being local”
The decision to initiate the development of a framework for the global goal on adaptation gives us an opportunity to ensure cross-border and cascading climate risks are more explicitly accounted for under the UNFCCC, and the Maldives among other Parties look forward to working towards this end in 2023.”
Thibyan Ibrahim, Assistant Director, Ministry of Environment, Climate Change and Technology, Maldives
“The transboundary and cascading nature of climate risk is of emerging importance to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, so it was a welcome development that such risks were a significant topic of discussion both in the fourth workshop of the GLaSS and in the formal negotiations on the Global Goal on Adaptation.
We will continue to raise the importance of enhancing cooperation in adaptation to manage transboundary climate risks in 2023 as the development of a framework for the global goal on adaptation is initiated and the first Global Stocktake concludes at COP28.”
Dr. Edgar Alberto Fernández Fernández, Advisor to AILAC
Rising to the global adaptation challenge requires new narratives of how risk and resilience extend across national borders; new initiatives that go beyond local-scale projects and domestic policies to centralise international cooperation within adaptation efforts; and new actors in finance, foreign affairs and trade ministries, working hand-in-hand with those leading national adaptation planning efforts. The CASCADES project team will work closely with policymakers across the EU over the next year, continuing to increase understanding of cascading climate risk and identifying actionable solutions which work not just for Europe, but for connected countries from which, and through which, climate impacts will continue to cascade. The transboundary nature of risk means that no country can achieve resilience to climate change by adapting on its own. Climate risk is a shared reality. 2023 must be the year that adaptation becomes a shared responsibility.