Adaptation vs development a false dichotomy — Pt 1

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

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The world will need an estimated $140 billion per year — or more — to help adapt to the damaging impacts of climate change, according to recent research, but, as World Resources Institute (WRI) puts it, funders have become caught up in drawing lines between adaptation and development programmes.

In the following long-form commentary — entitled Deploying Adaptation Finance for Maximum Impact: Moving Beyond the Adaptation vs Development False Dichotomy, and written by Climate Resilience Practice Director Christina Chan, and Senior Associate Niranjali Manel Amerasinghe — WRI argues that it is a false distinction which the world needs to move past in order to get the most out of scarce adaptation dollars.

Climate change is already devastating communities around the world, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable first and hardest. In 2017 alone, powerful hurricanes pounded the Caribbean, extreme flooding left a third of Bangladesh under water, killing more than 1,000 people, and torrential rains triggered deadly landslides in Sierra Leone. This summer, heatwaves combined with droughts have sparked deadly wildfires from Greece to California. To give the world a fighting chance of averting escalating climate impacts, we need to drastically step up ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, adapting to climate change must be recognised as a global imperative — and accorded a higher priority at all levels of decision-making.

This global imperative has already been accepted in principle. At Paris in 2015, 197 countries agreed on a global adaptation goal of “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change” for people everywhere.

But taking concrete steps to adapt to climate change requires money — lots of it. And right now, the adaptation needs of developing countries far outstrip supply. In 2016, public finance for adaptation totalled $22 billion, just a fraction of the US$140-300 billion per year that UN Environment estimates will be needed by 2030.

Given this shortfall, some dedicated climate funders are spending much time and energy trying to distinguish adaptation dollars from development dollars. Their goal is to make sure that these scarce resources are targeted to build resilience to climate change – and are not “business as usual” development projects repackaged as adaptation. But even asking the question – “Is this an adaptation project or a development project?” – sets up a false dichotomy that must be cast aside if the world is to deploy adaptation finance with maximum impact.

Ultimately, adaptation is about doing development differently in response to climate change.

That requires moving beyond the false divide between adaptation and development. In its place, we need to promote a more productive discussion of how dedicated adaptation funders and developing countries can work together to get the most bang for their bucks. Funders and countries must do three important things. First, get better at establishing strong climate change rationales for proposed projects and programmes. Second, prioritise the strengthening of national adaptive capacity. And third, do better at engaging national and sub-national stakeholders in the decision-making process. Dedicated climate funds can use their mandate to lead the way in integrating climate considerations into development.

Adaptation or Development? A False Dichotomy

Adaptation, as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is the “adjustment of natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities”. Over recent years, many countries and communities have sought to understand how risks associated with climate change will impact their economies, natural resources and people. They have also sought to translate that understanding into more climate-resilient development and sector plans and actions. Increasingly, national and local governments are integrating adaptation into traditional development sector domains, like agriculture, health, water and infrastructure.

At the same time, some major bilateral and multilateral funders of developing country climate action, including the Green Climate Fund (GCF) Board, continue to ask how adaptation differs from development. Some GCF Board members have sought to parse out what aspects of proposed interventions are development and what aspects are adaptation, and to calculate the extra costs of “adding” adaptation features to a given project or programme. Since the GCF can allocate tens of millions of dollars to a given project, it is perhaps unsurprising that countries contributing to the GCF face pressure to prove that these budget lines fund something different from traditional development.

In practice, however, drawing a line between adaptation and development can be unrealistic and counter-productive. Today there is greater understanding, especially in the most vulnerable countries and communities, that climate change is a threat to basic sustainable development objectives. Clean air and water, health, infrastructure and the ability to secure decent livelihoods are all under assault from the myriad impacts of rising global temperatures.

Distinguishing activities and projects as either adaptation or development misses a vital opportunity to systematically manage climate-related risks and vulnerabilities across government while pursuing development objectives. Taking this approach often keeps responsibility for adaptation exclusively in the hands of environment ministries, rather than all relevant sectoral ministries as well as planning and finance departments. It perpetuates the idea that adaptation is a separate consideration rather than a core part of development planning. And it runs the risk that investments in sectors like agriculture, health and infrastructure are maladaptive and further endanger vulnerable populations, because decision-making doesn't account for climate risks.

Protecting Sustainable Development

Drawing a line between adaptation and development makes another false assumption. It assumes that all governments and funders need to consider is the additional bio-physical risks that climate change poses on a given project and adjust for that risk – and then that project will be sustainable. The reality is very different. Hundreds of millions of people are still struggling to survive on US$1 or US$2 a day, living in communities or cities without access to such basic services as water, roads and electricity. Those living in poverty – especially vulnerable groups including women, children and indigenous peoples — are already politically, socially and economically marginalised. Addressing a specific climate risk without addressing existing vulnerabilities caused by poverty or marginalisation will do little to improve resilience of societies in the long run.

Practically speaking, what ultimately matters is that communities develop so that their people enjoy higher standards of living and access to opportunity. Development planning and action must therefore take into account climate change as a threat to economic and human development as well as ecological systems, and safeguard against it.

For all these reasons, the world needs to do development differently in response to climate change.

Focusing on Climate Rationale

What does changing our approach to development look like in practice? The answer will vary from place to place, depending on the sector or sectors, geography, and population in question.

What is important across the board is equipping national and local governments and communities with the information and capacity to make more informed choices to maximise effective adaptation. This means that both project proponents and funders — especially dedicated climate funds —should focus on how any given activity would address climate-related risks, impacts and vulnerabilities. In other words, they must integrate a climate rationale into all relevant development planning from infrastructure to agriculture, health, energy, real estate and beyond.

Making this happen globally requires a better understanding of near- and longer-term climate risks and vulnerabilities as well as the national capacity to translate that understanding into action. In a study WRI conducted for the GCF, we laid out three critical steps to establish the climate rationale for specific investments:

1) Identify anticipated climate risks, their impact and the vulnerabilities of affected populations;

2) Clearly articulate proposed activities and how they address expected climate risks, impacts and vulnerabilities; and

3) Explain how activities connect with climate and development policies at national and subnational levels.

Changing how the world approaches development in this way will enable more sustainable development and more effective climate adaptation. For example, cities will make decisions on whether to develop coastal areas based on sea level rise projections. Farmers who receive better climate information will be able to make more informed choices about which crops they plant. In some cases, integrating climate rationale may mean not proceeding with a development project that seems like a good idea in the short term but is unadvisable in the long term. For example, investing in irrigation to increase agricultural production in an area that is expected to become hotter and drier could prove maladaptive in the longer term, when water supply dwindles.

Establishing Climate Rationale

How should governments go about following the roadmap above for establishing climate rationale? It requires an understanding of projected changes in climate, exposure, risks, impacts and underlying vulnerability. Coming up with appropriate solutions also means having processes in place to identify priority actions. To do this equitably and effectively, it is important to engage affected peoples and communities, resolve potential competing interests between stakeholders, and consider the pros and cons of proposed actions over different time horizons.

Proposed interventions based on climate rationale should also be made in the context of existing national or subnational policy frameworks to ensure coherence and maximise impact. Such complementary frameworks will likely include a country's national adaptation plan and national or sector development plans. Countries must also scrutinise whether and how proposed adaptation actions might support or conflict with longer-term development objectives, including efforts to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, understanding how climate change will impact critical resources such as water and land, which underpin the ability of multiple sectors to achieve their long-term objectives, will help maximise the impact of adaptation finance.

The Role of Funders

This approach is paramount for meeting the objectives of multilateral climate funds, like the GCF, the Adaptation Fund, Least Developed Countries Fund, Special Climate Change Fund and the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience, as well as for bilateral climate funds and national adaptation funds. Actively encouraging and financially supporting countries to integrate climate rationale into proposals will enable scarce adaptation dollars to be spent more effectively. Similarly, traditional development finance institutions, including multilateral, regional and national development banks, international aid agencies, and bilateral development agencies, must support this kind of process to make their investments more resilient to climate change. Some of these organisations already have relevant criteria in place, but there is more work to do. In particular, all such institutions should use climate rationale to guide the conception of climate-sensitive programmes and projects from the outset.

Climate Rationale and Data Needs

Countries need good information both to help establish climate rationale and to underpin proposed adaptation actions. Fortunately, the science of climate change risks continues to improve, as does understanding of why certain communities are more vulnerable to climate risks and impacts. Government agencies in many countries including Mali, Jamaica and Nepal have worked with civil society organisations to translate data about climate risks, impacts and vulnerabilities into actionable information. Funding for such climate information services has flowed in part from special climate funds as well as from bilateral agencies.

Capacity is also needed to determine when it is enough just to know the general direction of change, or “directionality” (eg, there will be more rainfall or sea level rise), and when it is not enough. For instance, a project or programme aimed at strengthening the capacities of women to withstand shocks by helping them generate income or to access social protection benefits may only require knowing that it is flooding more. But for a project that seeks to build a renewable energy facility on a coastline, simply knowing that sea levels are rising is not enough to determine whether to build that facility one metre above current sea levels or three – or to not build it at all. It is important for both funding institutions and those putting adaptation projects forward to understand when general directionality is enough and when more robust data is needed.

At the same time, focusing on climate rationale will force countries and funders to confront national and local gaps in data, capacities and planning. As countries seek to do development differently, dedicated climate funds should prioritise building developing countries' capacity to plug these gaps — and to protect their populations through improved climate resilience.

See the second half of the commentary in Environment Watch next week Wednesday.

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