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How do we measure the success of adaptation and does it matter?

At COP26 in Glasgow, governments agreed to a new work programme ahead of the next climate summit, to develop the finer details of the global goal on adaptation. The work programme - including a series of workshops - aims to put everything in place to agree the next steps in building ambition for adaptation action at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

I have been attending the workshops in this series, and was among the negotiators and technical experts meeting in Cairo for the third workshop to address some of the technical issues around how to measure success on adaptation and how the global goal on adaptation could be operationalised.

The global goal on adaptation is an aspirational global target for adapting to climate risks established in the Paris Agreement in 2015. The goal arose out of political pressures for adaptation to be on a more equal footing with the mitigation agenda, but there has been relatively slow progress on this over the years. The goal seeks to “enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change in the context of the temperature goal of the Agreement”.

The global goal will also be assessed through the global stocktake, a process set up to review progress on mitigation and adaptation. This contains a commitment to review progress towards the global adaptation goal and look at the “adequacy and effectiveness” of adaptation and adaptation support.

I attended the third workshop as part of the Glasgow – Sharm el-Sheikh work programme in my capacity as a King’s researcher and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, monitoring and evaluating progress on adaptation. Here are my findings from the workshop.

What the workshop covered

Discussions at the Cairo workshop focused on:

  • which global datasets are available to assess adaptation
  • the approaches national governments are taking
  • the potential ways to include locally-led adaptation efforts
  • how to link with frameworks from disaster risk reduction and development more broadly, such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

Why adaptation is so difficult to measure

Measuring progress on adaptation is inherently challenging. The changing severity and frequency of climate-related hazards mean the baseline against which any improvement is made is changing, and the success of any programme or policy needs to be seen against that backdrop.

Adaptation is also hard to define and activities that help countries adapt to climate change are on a spectrum from those that are primarily about socio-economic development to those that address additional climate risk, such as building up the height of seawalls to deal with the extra height of storm surges.

There is also limited data available to make meaningful assessment and any extra requirements to report on progress can bring additional burdens to national governments with limited time and resources.

Given this context, there has been ongoing debate about how best to track progress on adapting to climate impacts at the global scale. National governments are developing monitoring and evaluation frameworks for their own national plans – but relatively few of these are fully operational right now.

Progress so far

Research conducted at the LSE shows that over 60% of the countries that have developed a National Adaptation Plan do not systematically assess it. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on climate impacts and vulnerability also shows that data on adaptation effectiveness is largely missing.

Not only is data on adaptation effectiveness limited, what data there is suggests there is a large gap between the scale of climate impacts anticipated and the state of adaptation action so far. For example a paper in Nature using a large global assessment of adaptation activity showed that progress on adaptation has been slow, largely incremental, and there is limited evidence of actual reduction of risk.

Why measuring matters

Emerging research on adaptation processes and research in other policy areas shows that measurement is not always a neutral activity. How adaptation is measured may impact how it is understood, how resources are deployed, what incentives are created around national and local action. The research programme I am developing at King’s seeks to contribute to understanding this relationship, exploring how the way adaptation is measured across finance, policies and programmes influences action.

Measurement can also be done for different purposes as well as evaluation. Within local and national institutions, measurement can support learning and responses to changing risks and hazards. At the global level it can explore how global investments are helping countries minimise the risks of climate change, and highlight where progress is being made and where gaps remain.

As governments are in the final stages of preparing for COP27, the conversations on what constitutes effective adaptation and how to measure it are ongoing. Research shows us that there are technical and political challenges to these processes and that what we measure matters.

Beyond advancing measurement efforts using specific metrics and frameworks, decisions on the global goal need to also support increasing and accelerating global ambition around adaptation and building the effectiveness of adaptation efforts.

Read other insights from our climate series

This piece is part of a series of insights and reflections on climate, sustainability and adaptation.

Read the other pieces in the climate series

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Susannah  Fisher

Susannah Fisher

Senior Research Fellow

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