Despite global commitments at COP21 in Paris to reduce emissions and to keep temperature rise to well below 2oC, pledges as of COP26 fall short of this goal meaning we are on course for global temperature rise of 2.7oC. Of equal concern is the fact that these commitments are supposed to be matched by national and local action but are so far lacking. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment warns, the ‘unprecedented’ and potentially ‘irreversible’ levels of warming could have devastating impacts.
As resulting floods, droughts, heatwaves, storms, and other extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, many more will be put at-risk, and habitats forever altered. If left unaddressed, these changes may pass the coping capacity of human and natural systems and lead to irreversible loss and damage. We must adapt. Now.
Debates persist amongst negotiating blocs over whether adaptation should receive the same level of attention as mitigation, and what role the more controversial loss and damage should play in these decisions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognises the importance of adaptation, as well as the need to focus on loss and damage too. For example, the Paris Agreement, the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA, Article 7) has sought to enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience, and reduce vulnerability to climate change, whilst the UNFCCC’s Adaptation Committee (AC) has led efforts to coordinate adaptation planning and measure adaptation progress as part of the first Global Stocktake in 2023.
But ongoing political disagreements over adaptation (what, how, where, and by whom) and how best to deal with loss and damage (financing, blame, support) mean Governments must act quickly to ensure the GGA is a success.
Adaptation, loss and damage, at COP26
The UK Presidency has established three adaptation goals for this year's conference: to mobilise finance to support adaptation efforts; to take action to protect communities and restore habitats; and all countries submit an Adaptation Communication.
Not only are these goals vague, uninspiring, and unobjectionably conservative but they lack the more ambitious rhetoric that accompanies mitigation. This is due to several reasons including the low political profile ascribed to adaptation; difficulties with assessing adaptation progress and tracking outcomes; and the inability to hold countries to account for the adaptation commitments they make. However, the proposed ‘adaptation communications’ offer a glimmer of hope.
If countries can summarise their planned adaptation efforts (including existing adaptation planning through National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), and National Adaptation Strategies) then it will be easier to compare the performance of different countries. It will also be possible to ascertain successful strategies and poor outcomes to enable the sharing of best practices; highlight any imbalances or biases over which climate risks are prioritised; and identify where more funding and support should be targeted. But this requires adaptation goals to be clearly defined, and importantly, metrics developed to monitor progress towards those targets.
Much more detail is needed to understand whether these communications will make a positive difference. How will these adaptation communications avoid reproducing existing reporting requirements, and be fit-for-purpose? How will they be funded? And how do we make sure reporting capacity does not widen existing inequalities? Indeed, only 21% of climate finance goes to adaptation worldwide and developing countries need $70 billion just to keep pace with current adaptation challenges.
These unaddressed issues raise similar questions for loss and damage. What role will loss and damage play at COP26 and beyond? Other than loans and reinsurance, what other support is needed? And should attribution be factored into recovering losses for the hardest hit countries when commitments are broken?
Measuring adaptation success
Adaptation tracking is essential for measuring whether existing adaptive actions from Governments have successfully reduced vulnerability, and for understanding how multilateral agreements like those established through the COPs are producing meaningful efforts around adaptation. Yet moving from discourse to action will require addressing current conceptual, methodological, empirical, and political challenges.
Adaptation tracking research is complicated by the fact that governance frameworks at the international level lack the clear goals, metrics, and external accountability of emissions mitigation target setting and reductions. The absence of objective, quantifiable metrics to compare actions can introduce a significant obstacle to understanding the adaptation landscape, and for researchers comparing policies and decision-making between countries on adaptation.
Existing indexes for tracking adaptation preparedness often produce surprising results over which countries are ranked highly. This is because what is being measured is the activity of adaptation planning at a national scale, not the local implementation of those plans. This disconnect between the local and national levels of adaptation must be addressed if the adaptation communications proposed by COP26 are to work.
A prime example is the UK. Under the 2008 Climate Change Act, a national Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) must be produced every five years, bringing together the latest evidence on the risks faced by the UK and prioritising which risks require urgent attention. That assessment then informs a National Adaptation Programme, which sets out what action will be taken. In 2021, the UK completed its third CCRA. Yet little has changed over the last decade in terms of adaptation planning, policy, and action. Heat-related risks from buildings, for example, have been flagged in every CCRA but those risks have not been acted upon. Instead, over 570,000 new, non-heat resilient UK homes have been built in the last five years, and more than 4,000 heat-related deaths were reported in that same period. Information about risks and responses needed is not the problem, but rather the lack of political will and leadership.
Our research on adaptation governance and decision-making shows that making progress in this deeply political area involves moving beyond just ticking boxes and evaluating outcomes to exploring how decision-makers operate, why they place value in certain adaptation policies, and the networks in which they engage to secure information and insights. Understanding the norms, discourse, and power structures that help construct this adaptation decision-making can elucidate why and how governments act. Policy choices taken by national governments, and the discourse and knowledge produced by institutions like UNFCCC and IPCC that inform these decisions, are all further complicated because they are based on a high level of uncertainty. When the risks amplify gradually and are multidimensional, as in many places where adaptive action is needed, policymakers may lack a clear mandate of when and how to respond.
COP26 has the potential to shape adaptation thinking and action in time for the GGA Global Stocktake. But to do this, it is necessary to disentangle the relationships between experts, funders, international actors, and decision-makers that inform which adaptation actions are prioritised and who is affected by them. Equally as pressure builds to mobilise climate finance, how much of this will go to adaptation, or to loss and damage?