Marrakech talks must focus on global adaptation challenge

Climate talks are not just about carbon cuts, writes Maldives minister Thoriq Ibrahim

Male, Maldives: small island states are increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and drought (Pic: Flickr/Nattu)


This week delegations will gather in Marrakech, Morocco to prepare for the United Nations climate negotiations scheduled to begin there next month.

Those talks will also serve as the first meeting of parties to the Paris Agreement, after the required number of countries representing 55% of total global emissions formally joined the agreement on 4 October.

Much of the attention on the agreement has focused on how it will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.

But another aspect that is just as important to its adoption, and one that will be critical to the health and prosperity of countless communities moving forward is adaptation – the actions that must be taken to adjust to climate impacts like droughts, floods, erosion, and sea level rise.

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The international community has agreed that developed countries will mobilise at least US$100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to help developing countries deploy clean energy sources and climate-proof infrastructure from worsening impacts.

However, this level of financial support has so far failed to materialise and besides, funding for adaptation has historically lagged behind that for mitigation.

Though the Paris Agreement calls for a “balance” between climate finance provided for adaptation and mitigation it does not enumerate a specific amount.

What further complicates this calculus is that determining precise numbers for these costs is difficult if not impossible because they are so intertwined with other development needs. Several studies, however, project a range in the tens of billions of dollars per year. A significant figure, particularly given the difficulty involved with raising private funds for adaptation projects that aren’t designed to provide a return on investment.

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In the Maldives, for example, we have been increasingly experiencing droughts tied to climate change. Fortunately, we were among the first countries to receive support from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) for an adaptation project designed to enhance water security in some of our most remote atolls.

Work has begun and we expect it to deliver clean water and sanitation to at least 20,000 people within the five-year timeframe laid out under the proposal.

But, like other small island developing states, the Maldives population is widely dispersed over many islands and thousands of square kilometers of ocean. More support will be needed to adapt to water shortages and other climate impacts.

One challenge that affects much of our archipelago is sea level rise and erosion. Since the early 1970s, coastal land loss has been observed across the country and it is getting worse.

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A 2010 survey of inhabited islands estimated that the cost to protect shorelines using fixed concrete structures would exceed US$8.7 billion. By contrast, sand bags that provide a similar level of defence would be about US$1.6 billion. There are different rationales for using these options with pros and cons for each, but suffice it to say that the price tag in either case is prohibitive for an economy as small as ours.

Like the Maldives, every country, and every community within every country has very specific adaptation needs. While shifting rain patterns in the Indian Ocean, for example, have led to droughts in one corner of our archipelago, they have also brought unprecedented rains to the other – making a much different kind of adaptive response necessary.

Other islands around the world have unique adaptation needs, and places like Africa, where some countries have entered what could be called a permanent drought, must find ways to adapt entire agricultural sectors.

Adaptation, in other words, is a local issue of global concern and we will only be able to manage it well if we match solutions on the ground with adequate support from the international community. Something to think about as we prepare to implement the Paris Agreement in a few weeks.

Thoriq Ibrahim is the environment minister for Maldives and chairs the Alliance of Small Island States

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