Mind the gaps: strengthening adaptation in the critical decade

By: Carla Gomes

As we enter 2023 in full speed, we realise that our ‘critical decade’ for substantial climate action is shrinking fast. Emissions needed to be reduced by 45% by 2030, towards net zero by 2050, to keep the global temperature rise under 1,5º. At the last annual conference of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the COP27, that ‘ideal target’ was abandoned in practice, but even 2º is now unlikely. As emissions keep rising, the fossil fuel industry is under increasing pressure to decarbonise or shut the door. Adaptation is now unavoidable, but there are critical adaptation gaps that we will have to address over the remaining years up to 2030. We discuss some of them in this post.

Financing. By far the most debated ‘gap’ of adaptation. In developing countries alone, there is a widening gap five to ten times greater than current international adaptation finance flows. According to the UN, adaptation costs in developing countries could reach $300 billion every year by 2030. Adaptation and resilience accounts for only a fifth of financial support to developing countries. On top of this, there are new financing needs. A new Loss and Damage Fund was set up at COP27 and is destined to help cover the damages already caused by climate change, which has for instance increased the intensity of tropical storms in Sub-Saharan Africa (fig. 1). Climate finance flows have never been determined by a rigorous assessment of the fair share each country should pay (the role of China, for instance, has been highly debated), and this is certainly a critical matter on the table as the operation mechanisms of the new fund are set up.

Figure 1. Climate change is increasing the intensity of tropical storms in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Floods in Mozambique. Licence Creative Commons. Source: DFID/UK.

Knowledge. Our knowledge of the impacts of climate change is still limited. We are just starting to scratch the surface of climate tipping points and feedback loops, such as the irreversible effects caused by permafrost thawing. We have focused for so long on the ‘financing gap’ of adaptation, as if it was mostly a matter of building enough infrastructure and being able to pay for it. But our knowledge on how to adapt to this unprecedented shift in earth systems is also painfully limited. Neither traditional ecological knowledge nor modern technology on their own hold the key, as reducing the impacts of future climate catastrophe requires a fully integrated effort.

The World Adaptation Science Programme (WASP) was launched in late 2018 with the objective of assessing and helping to fill these knowledge gaps. Furthermore, there has been an increasing call for diversifying the sources of information on the local impacts of climate change, and also on how they are perceived by local populations on the ground. Projects such as Local Indicators of Climate Change Impacts (LICCI) aim at collecting ethnoclimatological knowledge across the world and integrate it into scientific research.

Synergy. There is simply no room for detours. A ‘climate resilient development’ requires prioritising climate action that has an effective and measurable impact both in terms of mitigation and adaptation, and does not worsen injustices and vulnerabilities. The Adaptation Gap Report points out that adaptation actions are still very incremental in nature. The implementation of adaptation–mitigation co-benefits is currently mostly centred in the sectors of agriculture, forestry, ecosystems, water and energy. Nature-based solutions have been emphasised as a key strategy for climate resilient development in the most recent report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) on adaptation, but their integration into spatial and climate planning is still incipient.

Water is at the core of our systemic crisis. Water scarcity and pollution are disheartening examples of how we have failed to manage natural resources in an integrated way across their cycle. The UN Water Conference closed on 24 March with the adoption of the Water Action Agenda, containing close to 700 commitments to protect “humanity’s most precious global common good”, from local and national governments to non-profit organisations and businesses.

Figure 2. Synergies, differences and trade-offs between adaptation and mitigation. Source: UN Adaptation Gap Report 2022 (Adapted from OECD 2021). Reproduction permitted.

Transformation. There is undoubtedly a raising concern about climate change among the public – “the single most serious problem facing the world” according to European citizen surveys. Despite pandemics, wars and political repression, social activism for climate justice is gaining momentum, and is converging with movements for human rights across the globe. Climate activists across generations are calling for radical change in face of the climate emergency, starting with the end of fossil fuels. The UN emissions gap report of 2022 – “The closing window” – includes the financial system among those requiring profound transformation, along with electricity supply, industry, transportation, buildings and food systems.

Profound change is bound to happen over the next few decades. Societal transformation will require us to rethink well-being and embrace flexibility. We need to nurture those human capabilities that are most useful for supporting each other while facing environmental, political and economic turmoil in our home. It will also require a governance that not only is adaptive and integrates multiple sources of knowledge, but also manages to share responsibility across scales. Municipalities are crucial for assessing vulnerabilities on the ground, co-designing and implementing adequate actions with their communities, but an adaptive governance requires a stronger articulation between levels of government, and fully embracing adaptation as both a local and global effort.

Communication. From here arises another key concern: how to communicate for this deep societal transformation? There are increasing calls for reforming climate imagery as a way to galvanise climate action and support inspiring storylines. On the frontline of climate change communication, artists and scientists are experimenting with languages that can make us feel future climate change in a more palpable way. Not just to raise awareness, but also hope, while prompting action, such as immersive installations and videos, animations, Virtual and Extended Realities. Among a myriad of possibilities is the sonification of climate scenarios, whose numbers can be converted into music through the process of sonification, allowing for innovative ways of expressing climate data. This technique was used in a recent project on the Guadiana river, which involved ICS researchers.

The above list of ‘gaps’ is not exhaustive, but it points towards lines of research and action that will be critical over the next few years. They may be starting points for further exploration within the SHIFT research group and beyond.

Carla Gomes is a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS-ULisboa) and member of the research group SHIFT on Environment, Territory and Society. She currently works at the H2020 project B-WaterSmart, where she leads the Work Package Society, Governance and Policy. A former environment journalist, as a researcher she has worked across multiple fields, from renewable energy to environmental justice, but mostly on adaptation to climate change. carla.gomes@ics.ulisboa.pt


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