Extreme weather driven by climate breakdown is hitting the world “with a new ferocity”, the UN has warned, but countries have so far failed to prepare for the widespread damage that is now inevitable even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.
Developing countries are particularly at risk, but they are unable to muster the cash needed to defend people and resources from flooding, droughts and sea level rises. They are likely to need between $140bn and $300bn a year by the end of this decade to cope with the impacts, but in 2019 received only $80bn in climate finance, which included cash to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The UN Environment Programme (Unep) warned on Thursday, at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow, that without much greater focus on adapting to the impact of the climate crisis, millions more lives and livelihoods could be at risk.
In its sixth Adaptation Gap report, Unep called on donor countries to focus more international aid on climate adaptation, to find ways to involve private sector finance, and called for all countries to use more of the trillions they are pouring into economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic to help protect against the impacts of climate breakdown. Such efforts could create jobs and prosperity as well as protecting people, experts said.
Inger Andersen, the executive director of Unep, said that although efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit global temperature rises must continue, countries meeting at Cop26 must also put more effort into preparing for the impacts of the climate crisis which are now inevitable even if the world fulfils the Paris agreement and limits temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
She said: “[This year] was the year in which climate impacts hit developed and developing countries with a new ferocity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meanwhile, warned we have at best a 50% chance of limiting global warming to a 1.5C temperature rise this century. So, even as we look to step up efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions – efforts that are still not anywhere strong enough – we must dramatically up our game to adapt.”
Smaller developing countries face the hardest task, as much of their infrastructure already tends to be in poor shape, and people have few spare resources to cope with the impact of sudden extreme weather such as floods or storms, or to withstand longer duration impacts such as droughts. In the past two years, Covid-19 has further depleted their already scant resources, leaving them even more vulnerable.
Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology at the University of Reading, said: “This latest report from the UN shows that the world is not doing enough to prepare for extreme climate events such as floods, droughts and wildfires, that cause severe disruption to people’s lives. Even if Cop26 finished with a plan to phase out fossil fuels and cut emissions to zero, we would still have to live with the impact of the warming we have already caused, which we know has made many types of extreme weather events much more likely. Adapting to climate risk means taking a proactive response, by investing in better buildings, infrastructure and early-warning systems.”
Funding projects that make developing countries more resilient to these impacts is hard, however. While building a windfarm or installing solar panels yield a quick and tangible return and are attractive to investors, projects such as managing agricultural land for drought, installing early-warning systems in case of flood, building shelters and other means of preparing people for extreme weather do not produce a clear profit.
Although the funds for adaptation rose by 50% from 2017-18 to 2019-20, Andersen said this was still “far too low”. The report also cited OECD data showing the top 10 donors funded more than 2,600 projects with a principal focus on adaptation between 2010 and 2019. About eight in 10 countries have now adopted at least one national-level adaptation planning instrument, according to Unep, an increase of 7% since 2020.
Yet some methods of helping people adapt can have multiple benefits, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, restoring mangrove swamps or coral reefs in coastal areas to act as a buffer against sea level rises and storm surges can sequester carbon dioxide and foster healthy populations of fish and other wildlife, as well as providing tourist revenue.
Early efforts to prepare for the impacts of extreme weather also reduce the need for rescue spending when disaster does strike.
Adaptation has often been overlooked at international climate talks, in favour of the urgent task of cutting emissions. But the UN has been trying to highlight adaptation at the Cop26 talks, with its secretary general, António Guterres, repeatedly calling for half of the $100bn a year in climate finance to be delivered by the rich world to poor countries to be devoted to adaptation.
Scientists backed up Unep’s call. Brian O’Callaghan, lead researcher at the Oxford University economic recovery project, who has shown that a green recovery from Covid-19 could generate jobs and economic benefits, said: “Covid-19 recovery spending has so far not prioritised green investment – and more than any other sub-category, adaptation and resilience needs have been ignored. By failing to invest in climate adaptation, it seems like we’ve gone skydiving and decided we don’t need a parachute.”
Job opportunities range from building flood defences and changing city infrastructure to planting trees around water courses and on hillsides to prevent landslips, restoring wetlands and peatlands, as well as town planning, building communications networks, preparing healthcare systems, educating children to prepare for disaster, and research and development into new technology.
But Lisa Schipper, an environmental social science research fellow at Oxford University, warned that some adaptation efforts in the past had been misdirected, and that lessons must be learned from those failures. “We need to rethink the design of projects so they involve local actors in order to incorporate a deep understanding of what drives vulnerability to climate change,” she said.