Global Goal for Adaptation must be locally driven

15 December 2021

Written by
Patrick Pringle

Adaptation to climate change got more attention than ever during COP26. How countries and communities adapt to the inevitable climate change impacts is very context-specific which needs to be reflected in the Paris Agreement’s Global Goal on Adaptation.

Adaptation to climate change is getting increasing global attention as more and more intense climate impacts are being felt in every corner of the world.

An often overlooked aspect of the Paris Agreement, the Global Goal on Adaptation, was established to increase the status of – and financial flows to – countries’ adaptation activities.

The reasoning goes that if we can shine a spotlight on the progress, needs and shortfalls in building countries’ adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability we can start to address them properly.

A practical, nationally driven tool

At the UN climate summit COP26, all governments considered it a priority to move the adaptation goal forward and to come up with a concrete plan for its operationalisation.

But as usual, with 197 countries involved, finding common ground was not easy. While nearly all in Glasgow stressed the importance of the GGA, different country groups had very different ideas on how it should be operationalised, and how the process should be governed.

For developing countries, and small island developing states in particular, it is crucial that the GGA becomes a practical, nationally driven tool with bottom-up approach. It must generate solid information for use at national and sub-national level while not creating unnecessary or intolerable reporting burdens on already capacity-constrained nations. It would be a bitter irony if the process of tracking adaptation progress, reduced the ability of SIDS and LDCs to implement the same practical adaptation actions they are being asked to measure.

Adaptation primarily happens at a local scale. As a result, adaptation capacity, resilience and vulnerability can look very different depending on the local context. A danger in attempting to provide a global overview of it is that these perspectives can be lost. This can lead to a distorted, simplified view of adaptation progress and potentially channel adaptation finance only to issues which are easily quantified or immediately apparent.

Regardless of the many differences in views, progress was made in Glasgow and in the second week of COP, the Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh work programme on the global goal on adaptation emerged. Significant steps forward were made in Glasgow in defining the institutional arrangements, scope, objectives, modalities and activities of the work programme, which will start immediately with the aim of concluding at COP28.

Rebalancing the role of mitigation and adaptation

In Glasgow, progress on adaptation was set within a broader theme of re-balancing the focus on adaptation and mitigation to allow countries to better respond to climate change impacts. Alongside the GGA, there was a commitment to double the collective share of adaptation finance within the $100 billion annual target for 2021-2025.

This readjustment is both urgent and welcome; the events of 2021, for example the ongoing famine in Madagascar, have continued to reinforce that extreme climate change events are worsening even at current warming levels, and we know we have significant warming still to come.

COP26 managed to keep the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C alive – though it will not be an easy path. What we do in this decade will decide whether or not the 1.5°C goal can be met.

The faster and deeper emissions cuts, the less need there will be for adaptation. The latest science is clear that stringent mitigation brings important immediate climate benefits, not only ones in the far future.

Next steps

The progress on the GGA is meant to be assessed under the Paris Agreement’s Global Stocktake in 2023, it was therefore essential to see progress being made in Glasgow in framing the GGA and establishing a work programme to take this forward.

In addition to concrete activities for the work programme, such as themed workshops, it is promising to see an emergent set of perspectives or “principles”, which begin to set a framework within which the GGA can evolve. Most notably, there is a recognition of the context-specific nature of adaptation, the need for country-driven approaches and the importance of pragmatism and flexibility.

Yet there is still much work to do, and much to be decided. Discussions at COP26 and the resultant text appear to steer the GGA away from the rocks of top-down indices and globally imposed indicators. However, striking the balance between methodological consistency and robustness and a flexible, bottom-up approach will be difficult.

Finding consensus on the common elements that can lead to an overarching conceptual framework will be both practically and politically challenging.

The role of the GGA in directing future adaptation finance also remains fuzzy; for some governments this was implicit in its inception, for others less so. GGA methodologies could be seen as providing a more evidence-based approach to addressing adaptation needs, but may also create new winners and losers in the race to access finance.

It is also unclear the extent to which the Global Stocktake will be able to assess the GGA in 2023, and whether methodologies need to be developed with a sense of realism for what can be used in the next Global Stocktake, alongside what is desirable and possible in the medium term.

The Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh work programme is a welcome outcome of long nights of negotiations in Glasgow, but there is even more hard work still to come.