As climate disasters intensify and the prospects for avoiding even more catastrophic warming grow dim, U.N. experts say the world must spend five to 10 times more helping vulnerable people adapt to inevitable environmental upheaval.
Already, millions are suffering amid prolonged droughts, catastrophic wildfires, chronic flooding and worsening storms brought about by rising temperatures. The threats only increase as long as emissions keep on their current course, warming the Earth an estimated 2.7° Celsius (4.9° Fahrenheit) before the end of this 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,” he said, “even if we stopped emissions today.”
But emissions have not stopped. Research released Wednesday by the Global Carbon Project shows that greenhouse gas pollution has almost completely rebounded after slumping during the coronavirus pandemic, powered by the surging use of natural gas and coal.
The Adaptation Gap Report, which was unveiled Thursday at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, 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. This means that humanity cannot avoid further global 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 United Nations says.
There are some signs of progress. Nearly four out of five countries have an adaptation strategy or policy. To prepare for increasing risks, more government are reaching out and working with the private sector.
But it is 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 have 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 to 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 allow people to be unprepared for natural disasters. We cannot leave people on their own who are already facing a climate emergency.”
Singh has worked on adaptation initiatives in countries including India and Malawi. He’s seen the benefits of elevating houses to protect against flooding, and how knowing how different varieties can be used by farmers to cope with drought. He said that early warning systems can help growers to know when severe weather is approaching and could make the difference in survival or starvation.
“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. The funding for health programs is also severely lacking.
Neufeldt, who heads the Impact Assessment and Adaptation Analysis program at a partnership between the U.N. According to the Technical University of Denmark and Environment Program, it is difficult to raise funds to adapt projects as they don’t offer clear ways of generating a return.
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.
U.N. Inger Andersen, the Environment Program’s executive director, stated that the world needs to find ways to decrease the amount of debt being incurred by the developing nations. This could be done through providing grants to them or guaranteed access to low interest loans. This problem has been made worse by the economic impact of the pandemic.
“It has been very difficult for them to just meet their normal fiscal burden,” she said, “in addition to the health burden, in addition to social cost of supporting people who are no longer working, in addition to loss of revenue.”
“They are squeezed on all sides,” she said. “That leaves very little fiscal space for additional expenditure on adaptation.”
Supporting adaptation in the developing world is in everyone’s best interest, advocates say. Neufeldt warned that insufficient preparation for climate change could result in “maladaptation,” which is an act that increases greenhouse gas emissions and causes climate damage.
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.
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. He said that we are facing a climate crisis.
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.”