As the world bakes, developing world scrambles to adapt

Chief Europe Correspondent

The world is not cutting emissions fast enough to slow climate change, leaving everyone—but especially developing nations—scrambling to adapt to a hotter planet and its extreme-weather consequences.

Low-income countries are the most vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate, yet they have far less funding and far fewer tools to adapt to extreme weather compared to higher income nations.

Efforts on climate adaptation—the process of adjusting to the effects of current and future warming—are gaining momentum as increasing catastrophic floods and wildfires underscore the urgency of climate-proofing entire economies. But adaptation still does not receive nearly as much attention as mitigation efforts, experts say.

Climate adaptation faces three unique challenges: progress is hard to measure, public and private investments alike are limited and ensuring projects are locally led can be tricky.

“Adaptation is not like mitigation where we need to reduce emissions and we have a target,” said Rachel Simon, international climate finance policy expert at Climate Action Network Europe, a coalition of climate-oriented nonprofits. “Adaptation is difficult to quantify. It’s about building resilience.”

Climate-fueled extreme weather got top billing at this year’s annual United Nations conference, which concluded earlier this month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. World leaders agreed to create the first-ever loss and damage fund wherein richer countries pay developing countries to respond to extreme weather events they’re unable to adapt to.

While the announcement shows the increasing awareness of the effects of climate change, such a fund does not replace the financing developing countries need to continuously adapt to future warming impacts, leaders from developing countries and experts say.

Negotiators at the UN conference, known as COP27, inched forward on other adaptation efforts, including establishing the contours of an adaptation goal that was announced under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Last year at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, developed countries agreed to double adaptation finance from 2019 levels to reach $40 billion by 2025. The pledge is part of high-income countries’ wider (and yet unmet) promise to channel $100 billion in climate finance per year to developing countries to help them tackle the effects of climate change.

In 2020, developed countries mobilized only $83.3 billion out of the promised $100 billion and only $28.6 billion went towards adaptation.

Climate adaptation in developing nations alone will cost between $160 billion and $340 billion each year by 2030, the UN estimated in a report published this month.

“The adaptation finance that is available today is nowhere near the adaptation finance needs—and that gap is growing,” Mikko Ollikainen, the head of the Adaptation Fund, told Cipher in an interview on the sidelines of COP27.

The Adaptation Fund is a UN-backed investment fund that since 2010 has committed $998 million for climate change adaptation and resilience through 139 projects in developing countries. It received additional pledges worth $230 million in Egypt, including from the United States, which plans to double its contribution from $50 to $100 million.

The Fund only awards a maximum of $10 million per project in the form of grants. Yet it stands out for pioneering the “direct access” method, giving countries full ownership of adaptation projects from planning through implementation, with an external monitoring system.

“We are supporting the most vulnerable communities in developing countries, typically in situations where it’s not possible to easily mobilize private sector investment or even loan-based funding,” Ollikainen said.

In addition to Ollikainen’s group, adaptation funding flows through the U.N. Green Climate Fund, multilateral development banks, bilateral channels, or other funds. These all contribute to the overall climate finance goal of $100 billion.

The public sector provided nearly all adaptation funding in 2019 and 2020 (98%), while “data on adaptation finance from the private sector is still largely missing,” according to the Climate Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research group in California.

Profits are less obvious when it comes to adaptation projects, making them less appealing for private investors.

“It’s much easier to get the private sector to invest in [a] wind or solar energy farm than it is into flood-proofing a bridge,” Simon said.

What’s more, adaptation projects are not one-size-fits-all solutions.

“In mitigation, you can pretty much replicate functioning solutions across the globe,” Ollikainen said. In adaptation, climate impacts, socioeconomic and cultures are all different: “It doesn’t work if it’s not really fit for that local setting.”

Large institutional investors and other capital providers still need to start factoring in future climate risks, but companies with operations in developing countries are beginning to understand the financial importance of investing in climate adaptation, Nisha Krishnan, climate resilience director with the World Research Institute, Africa, told Cipher in Sharm el-Sheikh.

“If they don’t invest in the resilience of their smallholder farmer where they source their cacao or water, they’re not going to have a business,” she said.