Equilibrium & Sustainability

UN climate report points the way on adapting for the future

The twin towers of the "Bosco Verticale," or Vertical Forest, residential buildings at the Porta Nuova district, frame a view of Milan
Associated Press/Luca Bruno

Nowhere near enough money is being spent to help countries, cities and corporations adapt to climate change — even as record amounts are pledged for reducing emissions, according to a landmark U.N. report released on Monday.

“We found that more than 90 percent of climate finance is currently going to mitigation rather than adaptation,” said Kathryn Bowen, a professor at Australian National University and a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report

“There’s a very large gap in our adaptation efforts to date,” Bowen added.  

No matter how quickly humans stop burning fossil fuels, the world will continue to warm throughout the century, leading to a range of acute and chronic disasters — from the ever-worsening blows of storms, fires and heat waves to the choking rise of sea levels, the authors found. 

Our ability to adapt to these threats is partially tied to how quickly we stop burning fossil fuels, Bowen emphasized — the more we burn, and the faster the planet warms, the harder it will be able to adapt.  

By focusing on adaptation now — and by making sure its costs and benefits are equitably spread — governments and companies can drastically reduce the costs and damage resulting from climate change, the researchers found. 

Here are six takeaways from Monday’s IPCC report on the urgent need — and opportunity — of making climate adaptation a greater focus of everything from infrastructure planning to public health. 

1. Start now 

The IPCC made an important distinction between hard and soft limits to climate adaptation.

Hard limits are non-negotiable: the point at which, for example, low-lying cities and islands become unlivable as sea level rise destroys their freshwater supplies or covers them completely. 

But many threats fall into the category of soft limits, which “can be overcome if additional financial, institutional or technological support becomes available,” the researchers wrote. A heat wave has very different impacts on a city with a resilient grid, public access to cooling stations and lots of tree cover and green space than a concrete-and-asphalt jungle with none of those things. 

Over and over, the IPCC authors reiterate that the effectiveness of adaptations rise the sooner they start, because the longer governments and corporations wait, the more they will be squeezed by ever-increasing climate threats, and the greater the “adaptation gap” they will have to close. 

“The earlier the adaptation measures are implemented, the more the world will benefit because the potential to reduce risks through adaptation is higher until mid-century and for global warming levels below 1.5 C,” the researchers found.  

But the warmer it gets, the less effective adaptation measures become.

2. Avoid maladaptation 

“In a warming world, measures that are effective now in one place might not work in 20 years, or in other places, which is why monitoring and evaluation of the implemented actions are so important,” the researchers wrote.  

“Adaptation strategies might have to be revised constantly,” they added — making it extremely important to have government frameworks set up to do that revision in an organized, data-driven way. 

Few nations have any such framework, they found — increasing the risk of willy-nilly, expensive forms of “maladaptation”: public works projects and other measures that end up making climate risks worse, sometimes because their very expense “locks in” society to a course of action that is ultimately unsustainable.  

The classic example might be a sea wall built to defend a coastal city — an expensive, carbon-intensive solution whose construction risks “destroy[ing] coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs,” the researchers found.  

“In the long term, these defenses can even increase risks to people living behind them as more families move to an area that is supposedly safe to live in,” raising the risk of catastrophic damage or loss of life should the sea wall fail.  

3. Include everyone 

Traditionally, large public works and development decisions are made by policymakers and business interests with limited comment from the public, which in the era of climate change will raise the risk of maladaptation, the researchers warn.  

“Poverty and inequality both present significant adaptation limits,” the researchers wrote, noting that in periods of crisis, communities are only as resilient as their poorest and most vulnerable members, people not often consulted when it comes to adaptation.  

The lack of broad consultation also increases the risk that people concerned for their livelihoods will fight against climate-forward measures, however well-intended they may be, the researchers found — as France famously discovered during the 2018 Yellow Vest riots, which began over an ill-fated gas tax.

“Climate action needs to be socially inclusive. If people affected by climate initiatives feel exclusive, there is risk that they will resist and undermine these initiatives,” said co-lead author Tor Benjaminsen of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

4. Enlist the power of nature 

The prosperity and even survival of human systems — such as cities, communities and corporations — rests on the natural ones that provide them with clean water, clean air, food and energy.   

“Climatic risks to people can be lowered by strengthening nature,” the researchers wrote, encouraging governments to “invest in protecting nature and rebuilding ecosystems to benefit both people and biodiversity.” 

The benefit of these measures is that they are “inexpensive in many parts of the world because they do not rely on complex machinery or on the development of extensive infrastructure,” the researchers found. 

The risks of inland flooding, for example, can be reduced by “restoring wetlands and other natural habitats in floodplains, by restoring natural courses of rivers, and by using trees to create shade,” and cities can be cooled by parks, ponds and the installation of “green walls” or roofs — living heat-shields made of plants — on otherwise heat-absorbing buildings. 

That doesn’t mean that more nature, or particularly more trees, is a cure-all, particularly for climate change itself.  

Tree-planting programs are often counterproductive, the authors found, particularly when used in attempts to expand forests into areas where they had not been previously, such as prairies, deserts and shrublands. And the IPCC writers stressed that no amount of tree-planting will be sufficient to cancel out our still-accelerating emissions. 

Instead, natural adaptation and reduction in fossil fuel burning go hand-in-hand, because natural adaptation is most effective the less fossil fuels society burns.  

“Limiting change to 1.5 degrees, sea level rise would be slow enough — a few millimeters per year — to allow time for ecosystems such as coral, mangroves or salt marshes to migrate upwards or land,” said co-lead author Goneri Le Cozannet from BRGM, France’s public geology research center.

5. Work with the coming urbanization boom 

The era of climate change is happening in tandem with the greatest wave of urbanization in human history: hundreds of millions of people worldwide moving to cities for the first time — many of them to climate-vulnerable cities such as Mumbai in India or Lagos, Nigeria. 

In India alone, the population is currently about 25 percent — but is expected to surge to 40 percent by 2035, said author Anjal Prakash of the Bharti Institute of Public Policy. 

That means India will soon have 600 million people — nearly double the total U.S. population — living in cities, Prakash said. “The cities have to be ready to face the new challenges and protect their people from the climate hazards.” 

This is an opportunity as much as a challenge, the authors write, because it means the cities of the future have yet to be built — creating an enormous canvas to build them in new and sustainable ways.  

“It’s clear that cities can be drivers of climate solutions. Our report shows more and more cities are developing adaptation plans. But many of these plans have yet to be implemented,” said author Timon McPhearson of the World Economic Forum. 

6. Think big 

When it comes to climate, urban planning remains “dominated by minor modifications,” generally restricted to dealing with the risk from extreme weather events. 

“While this may suffice in the short term, the long term-risks may require more extensive, transformative changes in our behavior and infrastructure,” the study’s authors wrote. “It is clear now that minor, marginal, reactive or incremental changes won’t be sufficient.” 

What kind of changes? The authors cite the importance of transforming energy and industrial systems from the current high-carbon ones to zero-carbon, moving financial structures away from their current reflexive subsidies and incentives for burning fossil fuels and large scale restoration of ecosystems. 

But many communities will also need to transform on smaller scales. The report cites Nepalese farmers who — as changing rain patterns and a degrading environment have made their previous agricultural economy less profitable — “are now opening stores, hotels, and tea shops.”   

In a more urban context, the city of Milan has spent the last two decades planting trees — such that it now has 10,000 hectares, or 38 square miles, of new urban forests. 

These are just the tip of the iceberg, the authors emphasized: To avoid the most disruptive and destructive changes will require deliberate adaptation that is more benign and productive, but perhaps just as fundamental.

“Shifts in most aspects of society are required to overcome limits to adaptation, build resilience, reduce climate risk to tolerable levels, guarantee inclusive, equitable and just development and achieve societal goals without leaving anyone behind,” they wrote. 

Tags climate adaptation Climate change Climate change adaptation climate change report Lagos Milan Mumbai Paris UN climate change report
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