Developing nations push to define ‘unacceptably vague’ adaptation goal

South Africa is proposing a quantitative target for boosting resilience to climate impacts globally, but there are technical and political hurdles

A man reinforces coastal protection in the Seychelles (Photo: Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR/UNEP/Flickr)


As scientists warn of worsening climate impacts to come, there is renewed impetus to define what global ambition on adaptation should look like.

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscored that weather extremes will intensify and sea levels rise this century in all emissions scenarios.

Yet six years after the Paris Agreement established a global goal to help people cope with these threats, what that means in practice remains “unacceptably vague”, according to vulnerable countries. They want the next UN climate summit, Cop26, in November, to focus political attention on the issue.

South Africa is proposing a quantitative target: to increase the climate resilience of the global population 50% by 2030 and at least 90% by 2050.

“What we felt was that we needed to move beyond having technical discussions. The intention is to shift the discussion from process to a goal that we can debate,” South Africa’s environment minister Barbara Creecy told Climate Home News.

That is easier said than done. There is no universal metric to assess resilience to climate impacts, which vary widely from place to place.

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For Timo Leiter, an expert on climate change adaptation who co-authors the UN Environment Programme’s Adaptation Gap report, “it’s almost impossible to come up with a simple quantitative way of measuring adaptation that would be meaningful and help guide countries”.

“If it was possible it would have been done in 2015,” he told Climate Home.

There are both technical and political challenges, Leiter explained.

Technically, to put a numerical value on the impact of an adaptation measure, you need a counterfactual scenario, which is difficult to judge. Specially bred seeds and irrigation systems might help farmers to cope with drought, but how do you know what their harvest would have been in the absence of those interventions?

Often, adaptation interventions are hard to distinguish from general development. For example, job creation and women’s empowerment make communities more resilient to a whole range of challenges, including but not exclusive to climate change. Where to draw the line has been the subject of heated debate on the UN’s Green Climate Fund board.

Politically, the choice of indicators can make a country look more or less vulnerable. That matters when they are competing for a limited pool of climate aid.

In a 2009 article, Richard Klein, of the Stockholm Environment Institute, concluded that comparing climate impacts “requires a subjective judgement as to which outcomes are ‘better’ or ‘worse’” and is therefore a political question. The issue has spurred competition between nations seeking to obtain “special circumstances” status within UN climate process.

In 2018, nations agreed that the submission of adaptation communications to the UN was “not a basis for comparisons between parties”.

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“To assume that everyone would be able to quantitatively measure adaptation is not helpful,” Ephraim Mwepya Shitima, a climate adaptation expert from Zambia, told Climate Home. But that doesn’t mean that some quantitative elements can’t be used when assessing progress, he said.

Where data and metrics are available, such as targets for the diversification of crops or the installation of early warning systems, quantitative indicators could be used alongside qualitative ones.

In its improved 2030 climate plan, Zambia identified four indicators that the country will use to track progress, with ratings from “low” to “high”.

These are the level of resilience of ecosystems, the adaptive capacity of human systems, the level of knowledge for adaptation planning and the level of resources to respond to climate impacts.

Behind each of them, Shitima said a lot of work had been done to translate what this might mean for different sectors, from agriculture to forestry.

More than defining a specific goal, “what is key is that countries are able to assess progress in increasing resilience,” he said.

As negotiators are to discuss the issue in Glasgow, Shitima said countries need to adopt a flexible approach to measuring adaptation that includes a range of methodologies.

“It’s dangerous in my view if the focus is on adopting a single approach… because that will be untenable.”

While it might be “too ambitious” to expect a framework for measuring adaptation to be fully agreed at Cop26, moving the discussion from concepts to methodologies would be good, Shitima said.

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South Africa is calling for a focus on health and well-being, food and water security, infrastructure and ecosystem services, particularly in Africa, small island states and least developed countries – which speak to globally agreed 2030 sustainable development goals which countries are already working to implement.

“It’s not like these goals are not already part of the multilateral system. Let’s draw on what we already have,” minister Creecy said.

The 2021 edition of the Adaptation Gap Report, due to be published during the first week of the summit, will help to advance the agenda. But Creecy is in no doubt hurdles remain.

“As South Africa, we don’t feel that these are going to be easy issues to solve,” she said. But Cop26 offers “a window of opportunity” to advance the discussion that should be seized.

“And where we can play a role that we have traditionally played in creating a bridge between developed and developing countries, we will play that role,” she said.

Read more on: Adaptation | Climate politics | COP26