Climate adaptation is expensive. Inaction will cost more, report finds

Men train in installing a community-based flood early warning system in Nepal. Photo by: ICIMOD Kathmandu / CC BY-NC

NEW YORK — Adapting to the reality of climate change makes clear economic sense, but few national governments have been quick to capitalize on the financial benefits of necessary changes.

The continued marginalization of people on the frontlines of climate change will further delay cost-effective adaptation plans, according to Manish Bapna, World Resources Institute’s executive vice president and managing director.

Governments can expect to reap high rates of return on effective adaptation, with benefit-cost ratios ranging from 2:1 to 10:1, or even higher, according to new findings released by the Global Commission on Adaptation, led by former U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates, and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva.

“If the economics are so attractive, why is it not happening? There is a lack of awareness with the severity of the risk. There is a difficulty to understand precisely how to respond to that risk,” Bapna told Devex in a phone interview.

Investing $1.8 trillion globally in targeted adaptation areas from 2020 to 2030 could yield $7.1 trillion in net benefits. The cost of inaction would be equally high, as failure to sufficiently adapt could push more than 100 million people in developing countries below the poverty line in the next decade, according to the report, “Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience,” released Sept. 10.

Increasingly, scientists are able to isolate and attribute a specific weather event to climate change, according to Bapna. The stories he hears from frontline communities about changing weather patterns are “striking,” he told Devex.

But the lack of political attention paid to some of these communities is reflected in delayed policy and investment decisions on adaptation.

“Perhaps most importantly there is very much a sense of existing power structures that oftentimes mute the voices of those that are most affected, which tend to be the poor and the vulnerable, and further undercuts the ability to take action,” Bapna said.

Without adaptation, the number of people who lack sufficient water will rise from an estimated 3.6 billion today to more than 5 billion by 2050, according to the commission, which includes 34 experts from 20 countries. Global agriculture yields could also decrease by 30% by 2050.

The report calls for a “revolution” in how to make — and implement — policy and investment decisions. More investment is needed, specifically, in early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture, global mangrove protection, and work to make water resources more resilient, according to the report.

“There has been very good work done on adaptation to date, but many of the reports have focused on the finance and impacts … and few have given an agenda on the solution side. What do we do?” Bapna said.

Political action to finance adaptation is happening, but slowly, in most cases, according to Bapna. Bangladesh, for example, has developed early warning systems, built cyclone shelters, and strengthened existing buildings since 1970, when a major cyclone resulted in more than 300,000 deaths. This year, Cyclone Fani resulted in five reported deaths.

Despite overall slow progress in adaptation, there have been a few bright spots. Bapna noted the support behind the Montréal declaration in 2017, when 140 mayors of the world’s largest cities committed to implementing the Paris climate change agreement. That was aided by the direct impact climate change is having on cities, home to nearly 60% of the global population.

Governments are set to showcase progress made, and existing gaps, during the upcoming high-level climate action summit at the United Nations on Sept. 23. More than 100 representatives of indigenous peoples will also meet next week at a climate summit in New York to offer climate action plans for moving forward into the next decade.

“Frontline communities often do not have a lot of political power,” Bapna said. “Particularly in a time where civic space is shrinking, the responsiveness and accountability of governments is weak today and that further undercuts the ability of governments to respond.”

The commission’s findings stand to elevate the importance of adaptation, said Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. She spoke during a recent media briefing on the report. The main message, she said, is either “we delay and pay, or we plan and prosper.”

“For years, we have seen adaptation as being the Cinderella of climate change, way behind mitigation,” Figueres said. “If we delay mitigation any further we will never be able to adapt sufficiently to keep humanity safe. And if we delay adaptation we will pay such a high price that we would never be able to look at ourselves in the mirror.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.