Next to progress on greenhouse gas reductions it is essential to understand how well prepared we are in dealing with the increasing impacts of climate change. Simplistic metrics such as the number of plans are not meaningful in understanding global progress on adaptation, argues Timo Leiter, a lead author on the latest edition of UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report. Here he outlines how the Report assesses the quality of planning and uses new data sources to estimate the extent of adaptation action globally.

It is essential to understand whether the world is on track to achieving the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement (clearly it is not, as UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report shows). While mitigation progress can be measured through the global metric of greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation to climate change is more complex, context-specific and closely intertwined with development outcomes. Just as sustainable development does not have a single metric, adaptation, too, cannot be meaningfully expressed in a universal global indicator.

Nevertheless, we need to understand what progress is made in preparing for the impacts of climate change and which gaps remain. Finding meaningful ways to do so is an important task ahead of the First Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement, to be completed by 2023. Details are still under discussion by the Adaptation Committee under the UNFCCC, and input from the scientific community is key.

An additional motivation for an assessment is to understand what works well and what does not. Recent research critically examined the effect of adaptation interventions on vulnerability in developing countries and whether they reduce or just redistribute vulnerability. Such insights are vital to improve the way adaptation is being programmed. Beyond the glossy language found in funding documents, we need to know whether adaptation investments are actually achieving their objectives and leading to risk reduction.

Simple proxies do not tell us if we are adapting

In the absence of easily accessible data about adaptation actions and faced with a continuum of possible adaptation outcomes (from transformative change to maladaptation), many global assessments have reverted to easily quantifiable proxies such as ‘number of countries with a plan’ (an indicator under Sustainable Development Goal [SDG] 13) or ‘number of beneficiaries’ (the primary adaptation indicator used by the Green Climate Fund). But these simplistic metrics do not tell us whether action is actually being taken or what effects it has had. For the same reason, data on adaptation finance is not a sufficient proxy for understanding whether we are in fact getting better adapted.

The fifth edition of UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report, released earlier this month, set out to assess global progress on adaptation in a more comprehensive way. Based on novel analyses it examines the quality of national adaptation planning and estimates the extent of adaptation action globally. The Grantham Research Institute has substantially contributed to the report, including through its Climate Change Laws of the World database.

The quality of adaptation planning varies greatly

Previous studies, including the United Nations’ progress reports on the SDGs, have used simple counting of the number of countries with a climate change plan as a primary proxy for climate action. While analysis from the Grantham Research Institute shows that more than 120 countries have at least one framework document in place that addresses climate change adaptation, it cannot be assumed that these documents all translate into material influence on policymaking.

Indeed, the Adaptation Gap Report 2020 provides important nuances to this figure. While 72% of countries have a national document addressing adaptation, only 40% of countries have updated these documents since 2008. This finding alone shows a starker reality than the indicator ‘number of countries with a plan’ might suggest – a metric that would be better described as ‘countries that at some point in time had a national document that at least touched upon adaptation’.

The Adaptation Gap Report 2020 also assesses the feasibility for implementing these plans. Only 35% of countries have put in place a body to oversee implementation and just 31% have set aside financial resources. Moreover, two-thirds do not monitor implementation, a finding that will be confirmed in a forthcoming study by the Grantham Research Institute. Overall, while the increasing engagement by countries in adaptation planning is a sign of progress, researchers need to probe the quality of planning to understand its material effects.

It is essential to assess actual implementation, not just planning and finance

The revised structure of the Adaptation Gap Report, which I helped to develop as part of an invited group of experts, features a new section on implementation. Due to the lack of global datasets on adaptation action, the scope of previous studies has often been limited to planning and finance. However, after a decade of national adaptation planning in over 50 countries, assessments can no longer claim that it is too early to cover implementation.

In fact, almost 400 projects with adaptation as a primary objective have been started, half of them since 2015. The most commonly addressed climate hazards are drought, rainfall variability and flooding. As with ‘number of countries’, the indicator ‘number of projects’ requires further details to be meaningful, not least because projects vary in size from US$1 to over $100 million. The implementation chapter therefore clusters projects by size and analyses whether they target the most vulnerable, consider gender aspects, support climate information and employ ecosystem-based adaptation.

Evidence of risk reduction remains scarce

Information on the adaptation outcomes of projects remains very limited. Most international climate funds use indicators at the level of outputs (i.e. what has been done rather than what effect it had), as found by a background paper for the Global Commission on Adaptation. In addition, even indicators applied across climate funds such as ‘number of beneficiaries’ are often not comparable, due to different calculation methods.

Most of the news coverage on the Adaptation Gap Report has highlighted the funding gap (an intuitive but incomplete measure of progress). But there is an important need to ensure that the available finance is spent in ways that actually achieve risk reduction. This point has been underscored by the very low percentage of articles on implemented adaptation that provide evidence of risk reduction, a finding of the Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative (GAMI). Too often, adaptation projects are targeting short-term results like capacity-building, even though recent reviews warn that capacity does not automatically translate into adaptation outcomes.

Advancements by the 2020 Adaptation Gap Report

By focusing on the quality of planning and on actual implementation, the 2020 edition of the Adaptation Gap Report marks an important analytical step forward in assessing adaptation progress and informing the search for possible approaches under the Global Stocktake. Meanwhile, the most important metric for adaptation may well be whether the temperature goals will be achieved, since adaptation in a world that has warmed beyond 2°C would not only be disproportionally costly, but also increasingly challenging and in some cases even impossible.

The 2020 Adaptation Gap report and a recording of the press conference and launch with the Executive Directors of UNEP, UNFCCC and WMO are available on UNEP’s website. The executive summary is available in all UN languages. The lead authors present the key findings in a webinar this Friday, 29 January 2021.

Timo Leiter is a PhD candidate at the Grantham Research Institute and a lead author of UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report (3rd and 5th editions). He is also a contributing author to the upcoming 6th Assessment Report of the IPCC.

The views in this commentary are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Grantham Research Institute.

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