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New U.N. Report Highlights Need to Step Up Climate Change Adaptation

illustration of mangrove trees, water, and fish
Mangroves can protect coastlines from flooding and storm surge, while providing natural habitat and economic benefits for local communities. Image: UNDP

A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme finds that while almost three-quarters of countries have plans in place to adapt to climate change, financing and implementation are falling far short of what is needed. Cynthia Rosenzweig and Manishka De Mel at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research and NASA GISS are among the lead authors of the Adaptation Gap Report, which published January 14.

While strong action to reduce greenhouse gases is essential, adaptation is needed more than ever. 2020 was not only the year of the pandemic; it was tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record. The warming climate brought devastating impacts across the world: floods, droughts, storms, wildfires and locust plagues.

Even more worrying is that the world is heading for at least a 3°C temperature rise this century, based on current pledges under the Paris Agreement. This will only intensify these impacts. The Paris Agreement requires all its signatories to plan and implement adaptation measures that can reduce vulnerability to climate-related disasters.

The new U.N. report finds that adaptation action is lagging far behind schedule. While nations have advanced in planning and implementation, huge gaps remain, particularly in finance for developing countries.

Just 5% of climate finance is allocated for adaptation ($30 billion of $579 billion per year). Annual adaptation costs in developing countries alone are estimated at $70 billion currently. This figure is expected to reach $140-300 billion in 2030 and $280-500 billion in 2050. Both public and private finance for adaptation must be urgently stepped up, along with faster implementation.

The report has a special focus on nature-based solutions — actions such as restoring mangroves for coastal protection. These solutions are often low-cost options that bring environmental, economic and social benefits to a wide range of stakeholders, including women and poor and marginalized groups. Using nature to adapt to climate change can improve human well-being and conserve biodiversity benefits. Scaling up nature-based solutions will be particularly critical to help meet the goals of the Paris agreement.

recently planted mangroves along a coastline
Mangrove restoration in Placencia, Belize. Photo: Nadia Bood, WWF

National and international policy and actions are increasingly recognizing that nature-based solutions play a vital role in climate change adaptation. Over 50% of countries (and more than 90% of Least Developed Countries) have added elements of nature-based solutions to the adaptation components of their efforts under the Paris Agreement. But most countries only describe broad goals and less than a third describe measurable targets.

The substantial impacts of high-end climate change on biodiversity can limit the effectiveness of nature-based solutions and increase societal vulnerability, thus reducing adaptation choices. Climate mitigation — that is, efforts to reduce or prevent greenhouse gas emissions — has to work in tandem with adaptation.

“The world needs to ramp up adaptation, since climate change is upon us,” says Cynthia Rosenzweig, senior research scientist at NASA GISS and Columbia University. “With only 1°C of global surface temperature rise we are experiencing record temperatures and increasing extreme events all across the world. Nature-based solutions are an essential component of a portfolio of adaptation approaches that can be used to enhance resilience and help communities and countries respond to climate change and protect the environment at the same time.”

Of the fraction of climate finance that is diverted to adaptation, only a small proportion is targeted towards nature-based solutions for adaptation. Cumulative investment for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects under four major funds stood at $94 billion. However, only $12 billion of this funding was spent on nature-based solutions. Funding for nature-based adaptation could be strengthened by deploying innovative mechanisms that combine public and private sources of funding. The report suggests that support for green initiatives with some element of nature-based solutions has risen over the last two decades, although not enough.

“There is an urgent need to close the finance gap for nature-based solutions, to protect communities, the environment and the economy,” says Manishka De Mel, senior staff associate at Columbia’s Center for Climate Systems Research. “Market-based approaches and the private sector can and must play a pivotal role in mobilizing investments in nature-based solutions, as we simply cannot rely on grants and development funding alone. Payments for ecosystem services, climate bonds, insurance products, and ‘pay for success’ financing are innovative approaches that all have the potential to grow nature-based solutions.”

There has been a marked increase in implementation of nature-based adaptation over the past two decades, but it is unclear whether this trend will continue. New initiatives have risen from a handful in 2000 to over 70 per year today (not counting urban nature-based solutions). Despite encouraging trends, the scale of adaptation progress at the national level is insufficient and tracking progress remains a challenge.

The potential of nature-based adaptation can best be fully realized by limiting the risks of dangerous levels of warming and by scaling up ambition and action on protecting, conserving and restoring nature. During the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change has fallen down the political agenda at all levels of governance. COVID-19 stimulus packages present an opportunity to raise ambition and could lead to climate-resilient and low-emission recovery.

Access the full report here.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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