Why climate adaptation needs more attention than it's getting

A man walking to find water in Ambovombe, Madagascar, 04 December 2020. The country is currently facing a severe food crisis. (Keystone/WFP)

The climate adaptation summit held this week sparked another round of commitments from world leaders. But unlike other climate conferences, such as the Cop26 or the Climate Ambition Summit, the pledges made were far less ambitious. What is adaptation and why is it not getting the attention it deserves?

In the rural arid lands of Northern Ghana, the Kandiga krugu community has been struggling with access to water. Women have to travel three kilometres to reach the nearest water source. A youth-led project has found a way around this and has helped build a well to give them access to water underground. This is one of the climate adaptation projects launched by the local youth-led Green Africa Youth Organisation (GAYO).

Joshua Amponsem, GAYO’s executive director and youth fellow of the Global Center on Adaptation who participated in this week’s summit, advocates for mainstream adaptation within the youth climate movement. He told Geneva Solutions:

“The impacts of climate change are affecting us now. And for many, who actually sit between death and life, adaptation is very important.”

The summit, which gathered prominent figures, including US climate envoy John Kerry, French president Emmanuel Macron and business magnate Bill Gates, aimed at boosting momentum for climate adaptation initiatives like the one from GAYO, but also for bigger projects related to infrastructure, risk assessment and insurance, and early warning systems.

Why it matters. While buzzwords like net-zero emissions or phasing out coal have dominated the headlines for the past year, climate adaptation has received far less attention. Unlike climate mitigation, which essentially entails reducing CO2 emissions to avoid the catastrophic consequences that heating the globe over 2 C by 2050 would have, climate adaptation consists of dealing with the effects that climate change is already causing.

According to a WMO report, over the past 50 years, there have been more than 11,000 disasters caused by weather, climate and water-related hazards, claiming over two million lives and resulting in some $3.6 trillion in losses.

And the situation is only expected to worsen. “Climate change is happening faster than most people had expected. It's expressing itself, not as gradual trends, for instance rising sea levels, but much more as extremes,” Maarten van Aalst, director of the Climate Centre, who advises the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (FRC) and its partners to reduce the impact of climate change on vulnerable people, told Geneva Solutions.

This week, thousands of people had to leave their homes in central Mozambique after cyclone Eloise made landfall on Saturday, causing heavy rainfall and floods, just three weeks after tropical storm Chalane and a year and a half after cyclone Idai swept through the country killing over 600 people and affecting another 2.2 million.

How local-led projects can help. While some of these devastating effects require big investment projects, others can be solved with less complex and closer to the ground initiatives, Aalster notes.  

GAYO’s well in Ghana, which is benefiting around 100 women, is an example of the latter. Northern Ghana is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with water having become extremely scarce. Effects can be direct, like soils losing nutrients, but can also be less apparent, like the women and girls from Kandiga having to travel long distances.

“That three-kilometre walk every day has a significant impact on the lifetime of a girl child, who is missing school hours,” Amponsem explains.

Apart from providing the well, GAYO has also trained local youth to understand when the water levels in the ground rise or fall so that they can manage their water resources.

“These young people then become knowledge brokers in helping the community to conserve water and build resilience,” he says.

World still lagging behind. While hundreds of initiatives like this one exist, countries, particularly developing ones, are still largely unprotected from the effects of climate change.

A recent report by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) found that of some 17,000 adaptation projects in developing countries, only three per cent were yielding results for the communities where they were implemented.

Like with many other climate measures, lack of sufficient funding is one of the biggest obstacles. In his address to the Climate Adaptation Summit, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres urged donor countries and development banks to allocate half of their climate financing to adaptation and resilience building.

As of now, adaptation roughly makes up 20 per cent of overall climate investments.

Read also: Half of climate finance should go towards adaptation, UN secretary general says

One of the explanations, van Aalst says, is that climate adaptation is perceived as a local issue:

“The rich countries that need to foot the bill have an interest, in their perception, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions because these get mixed around the globe and it doesn't matter where you reduce them.”

However, building a wall in some small island country to keep the sea from reaching homes will not benefit them directly.

The countries that need it the most are also the ones that have less access to financing, with least developed countries and small island developing states representing only 14 per cent and two per cent of global flows.

This is because the financial systems they’re required to navigate are complicated and come with many rules that countries, often with fragile institutions and conflict affected, have difficulty complying with, he notes.

Van Aalst argues that the financial systems needs to be more flexible but also that there are other channels that could be prioritised. For instance, humanitarian organisations, who have traditionally focused on shorter-term response, could play a bigger role in long-term planning with governments. As part of their efforts to play such a role, the IFRC announced on Monday its plan to double its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF).

What now? This week’s summit managed to put the spotlight on adaptation for a moment. “It has signalled the highest level of political attention for this topic. But it's only a step in the right direction rather than the answer to all of our problems. The real stocktake is going to be in Glasgow at the end of the year when the UNFCCC meets,” van Aalst says.

Amponsem was also left somewhat unsatisfied with the meeting. “It was not even up to a quarter of world leaders we have right now,” he says, adding that “commitments were not concrete.” Other than the Netherlands, no other developed country agreed to spending half of their climate finance in adaptation as Guterres called for.

He believes that the youth movement can certainly help increase the pressure on political leaders and push for greater action. “We can look at how young people have been instrumental to the mitigation agenda, without even knowing. Flight shame and veganism didn't come from policymakers. They came from young people,” he explains.

The first step, he says, is educating them on what adaptation really means and the lifelong consequences that climate change can have for them. Whether it is losing a year of school because of a cyclone or not having enough to eat, young people will carry these consequences for a long time.