Time to adapt

OUR PLANET 9.6 - Climate and Action

Time to adapt


calls for urgent policy changes to give a higher priority to adaptation to climate change in developing countries


Developing countries urgently need to draw up programmes describing how they are going to adapt to climate change. But at present the emphasis of their country studies reports and national communications is on making inventories of their emissions of greenhouse gases and on working out how to reduce them.

This is understandable in view of the ultimate objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: 'to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.'

Yet developing countries make only a small contribution to humanity's total worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, and most of them are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Also, the effects are likely to be most severe in these countries, and they lack the financial resources to cope with them.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in its Second Assessment Report that 'the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on the climate'. And it is no secret that the emission reductions agreed at Kyoto are by no means enough to counteract climate change in the coming decades. So there urgently needs to be more emphasis on the impact of climate change, and on studies on adapting to it in developing countries. This is underscored in a clause in the Kyoto Protocol on the Clean Development Mechanism which states: 'The Conference of the Parties shall ensure that a share of the proceeds is used to cover administrative expenses as well as to assist developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change to meet the costs of adaptation.'

This implies that developing countries know (or will in the near future) what the adverse effects of climate change will be and have identified adaptation measures to cope with them. Quite a number of developing countries have conducted climate change impact and adaptation studies (mainly through bilateral country study programmes), but the results show that more in-depth research is required before sound, well worked-out and cost-effective adaptation measures can be proposed in developing countries.

Insufficient resources

Adaptation has mainly been studied in conjunction with the impacts of climate change. Experience from several countries shows that the major effort goes into the impact studies and that projects run out of time and resources by the time they are ready to assess adaptation options: in most cases there is not enough time and funding even to study the effects of climate change on all sectors of the economy. It is also difficult to link the uncertain impacts of uncertain climate - and socio-economic scenarios - to concrete adaptation measures. These kinds of studies are new to most scientists in developing countries and so they need the guidance of reliable literature to inform them of possibilities as well as any available international published material and technical assistance. Impact and adaptation studies also require a multidisciplinary approach and strong coordination to ensure consistency in scenarios, assumptions and data used and to enable scientists with different disciplinary backgrounds to communicate adequately.

An overview of the results of impact and adaptation studies conducted by scientists from developing countries can be found in the forthcoming Proceedings of the International Conference on National Assessments Results of Climate Change: Impact and Responses, San José, Costa Rica, March 1998.

woman carrying bottles

Urgent start

The urgency and importance of adaptation to climate change in developing countries makes it better to start studying it without waiting until the problems have been solved, even partially. Adaptation studies do not need to be directly linked to in-depth impact assessments.

These adaptation studies can be conducted in at least two ways.

First, they can study how vulnerable and important sectors in a country are coping with present climate variability, and how its adverse effects, now or in the past, could have been avoided or decreased. Assuming that in future, extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves, coastal storm surges etc.) will increase in a changing climate, much can be learned from today's problems and past experiences.

Second, they can carry out specific in-country research into the four generic categories of anticipatory adaptation presented in the report of the Science and Technology Panel of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Planning for Adaptation to Climate Change:

- Increasing the robustness of infrastructural design and long-term investments (e.g. by extending the range of temperature, precipitation or sea-level rise that a system can withstand without failure).

- Increasing the flexibility of vulnerable managed systems (e.g. by allowing mid-term adjustments or reducing economic lifetimes).

- Enhancing the adaptability of vulnerable natural systems (e.g. by reducing other stresses or removing barriers to migration, including creating eco-corridors).

- Reversing trends that increase vulnerability (e.g. by introducing measures that set development back in vulnerable areas such as flood plains, coastal zones etc.).

UNEP took the initiative in developing a Handbook on Methods for Climate Change Impact Assessment and Adaptation Strategies to help developing countries set up and conduct studies as part of its participation in the development of Guidelines and Handbooks for Climate Change Country Studies. A first draft was published in 1996, presenting an array of methods for impact and adaptation assessment for several sectors (such as water, coasts and agriculture). It elaborates the Technical Guidelines for Assessing Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC,) and made use of the United States Guidance Document on Vulnerability and Adaptation.

The Handbook has been tested over the last few years in several studies in developing countries. UNEP has carried out a follow-up project, with funding from the Governments of Denmark and The Netherlands, to improve it on the basis of experience in developing countries, new scientific literature and expert reviews before publication in October 1998. It will organize a full governmental and scientific review of the new version, which will then be presented to the IPCC and the Conference of the Parties to the Convention.

It is in the interest of developing countries - especially those with relatively low emissions and those that are particularly vulnerable - to put more emphasis on adaptation studies. This requires a shift in the funding criteria and mechanisms of climate change country studies financed by the GEF, which should also invest more in planning for adaptation.

As the San José Conference in March 1998 concluded: 'There has to be a concerted effort to develop and enhance the capacity of developing countries to conduct assessment of climate change impacts and adaptation'.

Dr. Jan F. Feenstra is Acting Head of the Chemistry, Toxicology and Ecology Department of the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM) in Amsterdam; Manager of The Netherlands Climate Change Studies Assistance Programme; and coordinator and co-editor of the UNEP/IVM Handbook on Methods for Climate Change Impact Assessment and Adaptation Strategies.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Fred Pearce: Coral grief (Small Islands) 1999
France Albert Rene: Let action speak louder than words (Small Islands) 1999
Neroni Slade: The size of the problem (Small Islands) 1999
Tamari╣i Tutangata: Vanishing islands (Small Islands) 1999
Christiana Figueres and Anne Hambleton: Carbon for sale! (Climate Change) 1997
R. Shakespeare Maya: The lion in the dark (Climate Change) 1997
Jai Narain Prasad Nishad: Turning to the sun (Climate Change) 1997
A. Atiq Rahman: The South is acting (Climate Change) 1997
Neroni Slade: Scaffolding or scaffold? (Climate Change) 1997
Shridath Ramphal: Now the rich must adjust (The Way Ahead) 1997

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