Climate adaptation takes a seat at the table, finally!

On 25 and 26 January, the government of the Netherlands organised the first-ever Climate Adaptation Summit (CAS2021), with support from the Global Centre on Adaptation (GCA). Presidents, prime ministers and leaders of the world’s most renowned institutions and organisations, including Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates and IMF director Kristalina Georgieva virtually voiced their adaptation ambition and showcased pioneering adaptation projects.

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      Climate adaptation has finally climbed the global policy agenda of industrialised countries after years of being an area of tension, dividing developed and developing countries. But this comes late. Lessons from decades of adaptation work show that there are still many challenges ahead, even more so in a world grappling with the repercussions of a global pandemic.

      Look who turned up


      The summit did create momentum for climate adaptation. First of all, there was the welcome presence of the USA, represented by presidential climate envoy John Kerry, who, referring to the US withdrawal from international climate cooperation under Trump’s presidency, added: “We come with humility for the absence of the last four years and we will do everything in our power to make up for it.” He pledged that the US would “significantly increase the flow of finance to adaptation and resilience initiatives”.

      German chancellor Angela Merkel committed to spend an additional €120 million bilaterally on adaptation and pledged €100 million to the Adaptation Fund specifically to support least-developed countries, on top of €50 million she had promised to the fund in December.

      Throughout the summit, participants underlined that investing in adaptation yields a high return on investment. Citing analysis by the GCA, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said investing $1.8 trillion in climate adaptation in the next decade could deliver $7.1 trillion in net benefits. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do”, he said.

      Mind the gap


      These financial commitments are laudable, but the adaptation financing gap is still huge. The recently launched UN Adaptation Gap Report is clear: “annual adaptation costs in developing countries alone are currently estimated to be in the range of US$70 billion, with the expectation of reaching US$140–300 billion in 2030”. Currently, about one-fifth of climate finance goes to adaptation – and analysis by Care International shows that this figure may have been overreported.

      During our podcast conversation with Cinzia Losenno, adaptation expert at the European Investment Bank, we learned that the Bank is set to become a climate bank, dedicating at least 50% of its investments and financial transactions to climate action with a much stronger focus on adaptation. Kitty van der Heijden, the Director-General for International Cooperation of the Netherlands, told us that the country spends 46% of all climate spending on adaptation. During the summit, Dutch prime minister Rutte even raised this number to 50%.

      But there is another side of the coin. For instance, the Green Climate Fund, operational since 2010, aiming to raise $100 billion a year by 2020, is the world’s largest multilateral climate fund, providing considerable adaptation finance. But this type of climate financing is sometimes taken out of countries’ official development assistance budgets.

      Take the Netherlands: having promised an annual sum of €600 million, the Dutch contribution is paid entirely with money meant for development cooperation, contrary to international agreements. As a result, this amount cannot be used for other poverty alleviation goals, such as tackling youth unemployment or domestic violence.

      Additionally, the Green Climate Fund has struggled to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, as research by ECDPM has shown.

      Learning to adapt


      The summit created space to present successful adaptation projects on the ground. For example, as also discussed during our podcast talk with Ibrahima Fofana from Wetlands International, it is possible to bring together communities in fragile contexts with different interests, such as rice producers and herders, to jointly build resilience, based on the inclusion of local knowledge.

      Although these types of best practices exist, they remain scattered across the African continent. In our conversation with Caroline Mwongera, a food systems expert at CGIAR, we learned that adoption rates of digital solutions by farmers are low. This is because there is still low literacy among farmers, limited access to mobile phones and weak extension services.

      During the summit, several speakers pointed out the importance of drought-resistant crops and solar-powered irrigation as important adaptation measures. While these are definitely much-needed solutions in drought-prone Africa, providing them at a large scale will be a huge challenge.

      The successful adaptation story of Bangladesh, discussed in one of our podcast interviews with Prof. Saleemul Huq, tells us that the ingredients to successful adaptation are good governance and a whole-of-society approach to involve all citizens to understand climate change and take action.

      But while this might be working in Bangladesh, the road is uphill on the African continent: an AfroBarometer survey on climate awareness among African citizens shows that four in ten Africans are unfamiliar with the concept of climate change and only 51% of people believe that they can alter climate impacts or adapt to them. All these examples highlight another key challenge when it comes to adaptation and that is the lack of adoption and upscaling of best practices.

      “It’s good to talk about it, but it’s even better to do it”


      This was the concluding remark of Belgian prime minister Alexander Decroo. Ultimately, the summit delivered an Adaptation Action Agenda to accelerate action on climate adaptation by promoting experience on climate resilience by 2030, as stated in the Sustainable Development Goals.

      Everyone agreed that the pandemic is expected to aggravate the adaptation gap, creating an even stronger tension between economic recovery and sustainable, climate-resilient investments. A recent GCA report on adaptation finance in the context of COVID-19 estimated that funding for climate adaptation fell by up to 10% in 2020, reversing the decade-long trend of increasing adaptation finance to developing countries. But, “adaptation should be at the heart of our recovery”, said Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of the GCA.

      It takes two to tango


      In the end, adaptation goals, like the ones proclaimed at CAS2021, are important, but adaptation and mitigation go hand in hand.

      Adaptation promises are redundant, if developed countries cannot meet their carbon emission reduction targets. The more CO2 emissions we produce, the more expensive and inefficient adaptation will be. COP26, to be held at the end of this year, is an opportunity to deliver on both tracks of climate action, and hopes are high.


      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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