The world doesn’t spend nearly enough preparing for climate disasters, U.N. report says
Already, millions are suffering amid prolonged droughts, catastrophic wildfires, chronic flooding and worsening storms brought about by rising temperatures. The threats will only intensify if emissions continue along their current trajectory, heating up the Earth by an estimated 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
“Climate change is happening, impacts are increasing now and today, and we’re going to be committed to these growing impacts for the foreseeable future, as long as we can actually imagine,” said Henry Neufeldt, chief editor of the United Nations Environment Program’s Adaptation Gap report. “Adaptation is necessary … even if we stopped emissions today.”
But emissions have not stopped. Research released Wednesday night by the Global Carbon Project shows that greenhouse gas pollution has almost completely rebounded after slumping during the coronavirus pandemic, powered by surging use of natural gas and coal.
The Adaptation Gap report, which was unveiled at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow Thursday, reflects a crystallizing reality: The world is increasingly unlikely to meet the ambitious goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. And that means humanity will not avoid the catastrophic consequences of further warming.
“People need to prepare for a lot more,” said Corinne Le Quere, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia who was not part of the adaptation gap research. “You need to mitigate for 1.5 degrees and prepare for 3 degrees, essentially.”
By the middle of the century, according to the report, the adaptation needs of the developing world could reach $500 billion a year. Currently, global annual spending on adaptation is about $46 billion, the U.N. says.
There are some signs of progress. Roughly 4 out of 5 countries have adopted a national adaptation policy or strategy. More and more governments are reaching out to communities and coordinating with the private sector to prepare for rising risks.
But it’s still not enough, experts say. Just 14 percent of public spending on climate is directed toward adaptation, according to the report. In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, most countries have not dedicated any of their economic stimulus spending to projects that would help them cope with environmental change.
Yet the pandemic left many vulnerable countries buried in large external debts, with few resources to prepare for the environmental crises that are already starting to take hold. Meanwhile, wealthy nations have not yet fulfilled a decade-old pledge to provide low-income countries with $100 billion per year for climate initiatives. A delivery plan presented by Canadian and German environmental ministers said that the funding target would probably not be reached until 2023, three years behind schedule.
Frustration about the shortfall in climate finance and despair over the escalating toll of climate disasters has pushed the issue of adaptation into the spotlight at COP26.
Representatives of vulnerable countries, along with civil society groups and the U.N. secretary general himself, have called for the world’s wealthy to not only fulfill their financial pledges, but make sure half of those funds go toward helping people adjust to a warmer and more dangerous world.
“This has been a cry from developing countries for a long time now,” said Harjeet Singh, a New Delhi-based senior adviser for Climate Action Network International. “We cannot leave people unprepared for disasters. We cannot leave people on their own who are already facing a climate emergency.”
Singh has worked on adaptation initiatives in countries from India to Malawi. He has seen how elevating homes can protect people from flooding and understanding seed diversity can help farmers cope with drought. Early warning systems for approaching severe weather can let growers know when to harvest their crops and mean the difference between starvation and survival, he said.
“Lots of innovation and experimentation has been happening in the Global South,” he said. “It is just that they are not able to scale that up because of a lack of resources.”
The Adaptation Gap report suggests that areas in greatest need of investment are agriculture and infrastructure, followed by water and disaster risk management. Health programs are also drastically underfunded.
Neufeldt, who heads the Impact Assessment and Adaptation Analysis program at a partnership between the U.N. Environment Program and the Technical University of Denmark, said it can be difficult to solicit funds for adaptation projects because they don’t offer obvious ways to gain a return on investment.
There are also few initiatives to assess whether these efforts are working. Only a quarter of countries have adopted an evaluation system for their adaptation projects, though a further 36 percent have such a system in development.
But advanced economies could reduce the debt incurred by developing countries to give them more financial freedom, Neufeldt said, which could help those countries focus on climate adaptation.
Supporting adaptation in the developing world is in everyone’s best interest, advocates say. Neufeldt pointed out that failure to prepare for increasing climate risks could lead to “maladaptation,” or actions that worsen climate impacts by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Sonam Wangdi, who chairs a group known as the Least Developed Countries, said the 46 nations in that bloc represent more than 1 billion people but are responsible for less than 1 percent of global emissions.
Even his own nation of Bhutan is carbon negative, and its constitution requires that at least 60 percent of its land remained as conserved forest.
“We have done so much, but we are not protected from the impacts of climate change,” Wangdi said Wednesday at a news conference in Glasgow, noting that melting glaciers in the Himalayan nation can create dangerous high-altitude lakes that then burst and cause catastrophic flooding.
“There is not much we can do. So we have a climate crisis at hand,” he said.
That is why his country and others are so determined to make sure that the developed world actually funds adaptation initiatives, as it has promised to do.
“For us, our lives depend on decisions that are made here in Glasgow,” he said. “Our lives will depend on the commitments that are made here.”
By Sarah Kaplan, Kasha Patel and Brady Dennis