Act Now to Control the Mounting Adaptation Deficit:
Negotiate an Integrated Package for Adaptation

Ian Burton        

All the adaptation in the world will not be enough to prevent the irreversible losses that are now beginning to be caused by climate change. But, sound and effectively deployed adaptation can reduce losses to some extent for any given amount of climate change, and thus buy a little time to allow for mitigation measures to be implemented and to take effect. Alas! We are still far away from realistically achievable adaptation to current climate. This is not to deny that great successes have been and are being recorded in adaptation. But, on balance, the net effect is that nations and communities are not coming to grips with the need to adapt to either current climate extremes or climate change, and continue to follow styles and paths of development that are dramatically increasing the losses. Property damage (insured and uninsured) from extreme climate-related events such as floods, tropical cyclones, droughts, and coastal storms is following a curve that looks exponential. And, this is happening much before the full impact of climate change is felt. This represents the current adaptation deficit.

It is helpful to think of two types of adaptation. Type I Adaptation is that which has traditionally been used to reduce the impacts of current climate variability that does not include climate change. The amount of Type I Adaptation required now (the deficit) is quite considerable. Type II Adaptation is the additional adaptation that is and will increasingly be required to cope with climate change. Type I Adaptation has focused on variability and extremes and has been based on the assumption of a climate that will sooner or later return to "normal".

In the case of Type II Adaptation, climate can no longer be considered as stationary and the process of adaptation must therefore become continuous and constantly open to revision as the climate changes and as knowledge and experience expand. Adaptation must itself be adaptable. In other words, Type II Adaptation is more than just an expansion or acceleration of Type I Adaptation. Certainly, more of the same is needed but there are also important differences. Type II adaptation has minimum rigidity (or maximum flexibility) to be able to deal with higher levels of uncertainty, and help to create human response systems that are more nimble or robust.

The nature of the uncertainty that characterizes climate change is not about the fact that the climate is changing, nor is it (as is often assumed) simply about the amount and timing of climate change in a known direction. It has more to do with the destabilization of the climate system. Take the Indian (South Asian) monsoon for example. It is sometimes suggested that the monsoon may fail or be weak more frequently. Alternatively, it has been asserted that monsoons may become more severe and intense. What seems more likely is that both will occur. The monsoon may "fail" more frequently and also become more intense in other years. Hence, the coping range will have to become greater in both directions. Climate change is not simply a matter of more floods in some places and more droughts elsewhere. Climate change will often mean both more floods and more droughts in the same place.

There is another important difference between the two types of adaptation. Type I Adaptation [traditional adaptation] is understood to be part of the established processes of sustainable development and development assistance. Type II Adaptation [new adaptation] belongs in a different operational category because it falls under the agreements and commitments of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the related financial mechanism (GEF). But while there are some differences, both operationally (non-stationary climate) and institutionally (the UNFCCC) between Type I and Type II Adaptation, the commonalities are much greater. The question is how to integrate the two types of adaptation and at the same time to take into account the differences between them. The pat answer is that adaptation to climate change (Type II) should be "mainstreamed" into development. Ways of doing this are being developed and should be implemented without delay and the preparation of NAPAs will be helpful, but significant and substantial obstacles remain and have largely stalled the UNFCCC negotiations on adaptation.

One possible approach is to recognize and articulate and apply a two track approach to adaptation corresponding to the differences in Type I and Type II Adaptation. Under the Convention, a rather narrower, negotiated Adaptation Programme is possibly addressed to Type II Adaptation. For this purpose, it is desirable to develop specific adaptation objectives. Clear definitions and formally stated goals are needed. It would be helpful to develop an operational method of specifying a set of adaptation baselines, and some common measurement of progress and movement towards targets. Such measurements might be based on the monetary value of climate change-related losses and their progressive reduction. This would require detailed agreement about methods of observation, data collection, and monitoring.

Such a vision points to some more formal legal instrument under the Convention. It might be objected that such an approach would be cumbersome and restrictive. While it is clear that there would be additional transactional costs, these could well be significantly less onerous than those proposed under the Kyoto Protocol and would bring the substantial benefit of creating and strengthening confidence in the value of the adaptation funds established under the Convention. It almost goes without saying that in the absence of such confidence, the funds are unlikely to attract substantial and sufficient voluntary contributions.

Beyond the Convention process, there is an urgent need to address the current adaptation deficit as part of the regular development and development assistance. The emergence of climate change as an additional risk factor has had the salutary benefit of bringing greater recognition to poverty-generating impacts of climate variability and extremes. A partnership among the climate change community and those involved without the "routine" everyday issues of vulnerability to climate variability and extremes is essential. It can only be strengthened by greater clarity about the nature of the adaptation deficit and the contributions than can realistically be made under the Convention. Given some vision and imagination and some scientific and technical preparation, there are many promising opportunities to move the joint agenda forward. These include the substantial opportunities in the insurance field, synergies with other multilateral environmental agreements, the security, health and equity agendas, and not forgetting the legitimate concerns about the potential adverse impacts of response measures.

Action is urgently needed now to control the mounting adaptation deficit. The more effectively this can be done the better the human family will be positioned to cope with the critical vulnerabilities that are being exposed by climate change. In the UNFCCC negotiations the priority must be to establish an effective and credible adaptation regime that can compliment and not detract from the slow and difficult processes of mitigation.

More rapid progress in the negotiations on adaptation is needed now, but innovations are likely to prove difficult to achieve without more focused policy- relevant research. For this, some new mechanism is needed that provides more considered and more substantial output than that which can be expected from UNFCCC workshops, but which at the same time is more rapid than IPCC assessments and not limited by the constraint of reporting only on existing knowledge. The UNFCCC could fill this gap by the use of task forces, and specifically commissioned studies designed to produce creative ideas for consideration on the policy process.

What is urgently needed at COP 10 is an agreement to start the process of negotiating a comprehensive adaptation package which provides for the adoption of a two pronged approach; a more formal approach under the Convention (chiefly for Type II adaptation) and a more experimental approach as part of the mainstream development. But, it is essential that these two approaches be deployed in harmony with each other and that cost sharing mechanisms and formulae are worked out which recognize the essential country-driven requirement and at the same time could be assessed in terms of value for money.

There is widespread recognition of the need to move the adaptation agenda forward more vigorously. But the negotiation of a balanced and integrated package that can be effective and accountable will take time, along with some careful policy analysis. Hence, COP 10 is the appropriate event, at an appropriate time, to launch this effort.   q

The author is an Independent Scholar and Consultant
and Scientist Emeritus with the Meteorological Service of Canada.


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