Nothing illustrates lagging progress on climate adaptation than lagging progress on emissions

Energy & Climate Change

As COP26 started the days passed theme-by-theme. Nature, finance, youth, adaptation, and more. As the conference passes the headlines of all are converging, knitting together neatly to form the intertwined theme running through: Action or inaction in one climate policy thread impacts on the others, writes Alastair Chisholm.

Failing to implement solutions creates ever alarming impacts. Implementing solutions to one challenge in a smart, multi-benefit way unlocks the ability to mitigate impacts and deliver benefits in a raft of different areas.

It’s obvious and far from rocket science but the fact is we humans too often zero in on one objective and fail to fully think through and try to bag what else could be achieved with a small amount of additional thought and effort. Hence, we get unintended consequences.

There’s been a lot of discussion in CIWEM parts - and many of the organisations we work closely with - about adaptation and the relative lack of emphasis put on it compared to emissions reduction, and keeping temperatures below 2˚C, or even (hopefully) 1.5˚C.

Almost the unspoken logic is 'blimey it’s going to be enough of an ask to get our emissions down to where they need to be, let’s not confuse matters by really worrying about adapting until we know we really need to'.

Last week, before Monday’s day on Adaptation, loss and damage, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published its Adaptation Gap Report 2021: The Gathering Storm.

The headlines were at once stark yet unsurprising: policies and plans are starting to point more directly towards the need to adapt. But delivery on the ground – and finance to achieve it – is lagging way behind and ‘build back greener’ opportunities around the Covid-19 pandemic are being missed.

The message that whatever we do from here-on-in regarding emissions, there’s a train of impacts worse than those we’ve experienced in recent years coming down the tracks appears to be landing. But as with targets on emissions reduction not yet being translated into necessary real-world progress, there is an adaptation gap that is, if anything, wider.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) warned again on Monday that in the UK this gap grew between the last two climate change risk assessments, rather than closing – because the climate risks are increasing, not static.

What emphasises the criticality of the need for action on the ground on adaptation is the report published on Tuesday by the Climate Action Tracker, which warns of the credibility gap between pledges and action on emissions.

They say that targets for 2030 made at or up to COP26 put the world on track for not 1.8˚C or below by the end of the century as the first week optimism hinted, but 2.4˚C – disastrous when set in the context of the IPCC report on the impacts of 1.5˚C.

And with the pace of policy implementation the prognosis is even worse, at 2.8˚C. Which brings us back to the need for rapid action on adaptation. The more “lip service” is paid to the need for on-the-ground action, the longer we push the envelope on action, the more pressing too is the need for rapid action on adaptation.

Criticism has come – again from the CCC – that some key recent policies driving emissions reduction, such as the Green Homes Grant, Future Homes Strategy and Industrial Strategy haven’t taken the opportunity to push on adaptation.

Thankfully, the Net Zero Strategy did make this reference relatively well – albeit at the policy and plan level rather than extensive firm delivery level. Much hinges on the next National Adaptation Programme to demonstrate that the UK is leading the way on putting adaptation policy into practice. But of course it is developing countries which will bear the biggest brunt – annual costs of up to US$300 billion by 2030 with a fraction of the finance necessary to cover it mobilised to date.

In the meantime, the adaptation gap yawns while the need looks like it will become even more pressing – unless leaders can pull something out of their respective hats in the final days of COP and bring the tone of optimism back.

A good time to reiterate the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Fiscal Risks Report commentary on climate change, which warns “unmitigated climate change would ultimately have catastrophic economic and fiscal consequences for the UK” whilst the “fiscal costs of getting to net zero… are not exceptional relative to the costs of other recent global shocks, such as the financial crisis and the pandemic".

Alastair Chisholm is CIWEM’s policy director

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