Costs of adapting to climate change significantly under-estimated

UN climate negotiations should aim for substantially more funding

LONDON – 27 August 2009. Scientists led by a former co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will warn today that the UN negotiations aimed at tackling climate change are based on substantial underestimates of what it will cost to adapt to its impacts.

The real costs of adaptation are likely to be 2-3 times greater than estimates made by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), say Professor Martin Parry and colleagues in a new report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London.

The report adds that costs will be even more when the full range of climate impacts on human activities is considered.

Parry and colleagues warn that this underestimate of the cost of adaptation threatens to weaken the outcome of UNFCCC negotiations, which are due to culminate in Copenhagen in December with a global deal aimed at tackling climate change.

“The amount of money on the table at Copenhagen is one of the key factors that will determine whether we achieve a climate change agreement,” says Professor Parry, visiting research fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London. “But previous estimates of adaptation costs have substantially misjudged the scale of funds needed.”

The UNFCCC has estimated annual global costs of adapting to climate change to be US$40-170 billion, or the cost of about three Olympic Games per year.

But the report’s authors warn that these estimates were produced too quickly and did not include key sectors such as energy, manufacturing, retailing, mining, tourism and ecosystems. Other sectors that the UNFCCC did include were only partially covered.

“Just looking in depth at the sectors the UNFCCC did study, we estimate adaptation costs to be 2-3 higher, and when you include the sectors the UNFCCC left out the true cost is probably much greater,” warns Parry, who co-chaired the IPCC working group on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation between 2002 and 2008.

The new report’s key findings include: 

  • Water: The UNFCCC estimate of US$11 billion excluded costs of adapting to floods and assumes no costs for transferring water within nations from areas of surplus to areas of deficit. The underestimate could be substantial, according to the new report.

  • Health: The UNFCCC estimate of US$5 billion excluded developed nations, and assessed only malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition. This could cover only 30-50% of the global total disease burden, according to the new report.

  • Infrastructure: The UNFCCC estimate of US$8-130 billion assumed that low levels of investment in infrastructure will continue to characterise development in Africa and other relatively poor parts of the world. But the new report points out that such investment must increase in order to reduce poverty and thus avoid continuing high levels of vulnerability to climate change. It says the costs of adapting this upgraded infrastructure to climate change could be eight times more costly than the higher estimates predicted by the UNFCCC.

  • Coastal zones: The UNFCCC estimate of US$11 billion excluded increased storm intensity and used low IPCC predictions of sea level rise. Considering research on sea level rise published since the 2007 IPCC report, and including storms, the new report suggests costs could be about three times greater than predicted.

  • Ecosystems: The UNFCCC excluded from its estimates the costs of protecting ecosystems and the services they can provide for human society. The new report concludes that that this is an important source of under-estimation, which could cost over US$350 billion, including both protected and non-protected areas.

The report calls for detailed case studies of what adaptation costs will be, and points out that the few that already exist suggest that costs will be considerable.

It adds that the UNFCCC estimates do not include the cost of bearing ‘residual damage’ that will arise from situations where adaptation is not technically feasible or simply too expensive.

“Finance is the key that will unlock the negotiations in Copenhagen but if governments are working with the wrong numbers, we could end up with a false deal that fails to cover the costs of adaptation to climate change,“ says Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, which co-published the report.

Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, which co-published the report, says: "The costs of adapting to live with a changing climate are very uncertain. However, this new report suggests that previous attempts to figure out the costs have drastically under-estimated how expensive this could be. With such large sums potentially involved, the pressure to act now to reduce the extent of climate change is greater than ever.”

The new report was reviewed by seven of the world’s foremost adaptation scientists, including the lead authors of the original UNFCCC study. Following this, close to 100 adaptation policy and research experts were invited to comment on the pre-publication draft.

The report’s authors are: Professor Martin Parry (Imperial College London), Professors Nigel Arnell (University of Reading), Richard Tiffin (University of Reading) and Tim Wheeler (University of Reading), Dr Pam Berry (University of Oxford), Drs David Dodman and David Satterthwaite (International Institute for Environment and Development), Dr Sam Fankhauser (London School of Economics), Dr Chris Hope (University of Cambridge), Dr Sari Kovats (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Professor Robert Nicholls (University of Southampton).

Contact

Contacts for interview

Lead author – Overall costs of adaptation
Martin Parry (martin@mlparry.com) Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London
+44 (0)7884 317 108

Costs of adaptation in the water sector:
Professor Nigel Arnell (n.w.arnell@reading.ac.uk), University of Reading
+44 (0)118 378 7392 or +44 (0)118 378 7380 or +44 (0)118 378 4651

Costs of adaptation in agriculture, forestry and fisheries:
Professor Tim Wheeler (t.r.wheeler@reading.ac.uk), University of Reading
+44 (0)118 378 8495 or +44 (0)118 378 7380 or +44 (0)118 378 4651

Costs of adaptation for natural ecosystems:
Dr. Pam Berry (pam.berry@eci.ox.ac.uk), University of Oxford
+44 (0)1865 275882 (direct); +44 (0)1865 275848 (office)

The range of global estimates of adaptation costs
Dr Sam Fankhauser (s.fankhauser@lse.ac.uk), London School of Economics
+44 (0)791 204 4017 or +44 (0)20 7106 1220.

Costs and benefits of adaptation:
Dr Chris Hope (chris.hope@jbs.cam.ac.uk), University of Cambridge
+44 (0)1223 338194

The costs of adapting infrastructure to climate change
Dr David Satterthwaite (david.satterthwaite@iied.org) and Dr David Dodman (david.dodman@iied.org), International Institute for Environment and Development
+44 (0)207 388 2117

Adaptation costs for human health
Dr Sari Kovats (sari.kovats@lshtm.ac.uk), London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
+44 (0)7766571097

For further information please contact:
Mike Shanahan
Press officer
International Institute for Environment and Development
3 Endsleigh Street
London WC1H 0DD
Tel: 44 (0) 207 388 2117
Fax: 44 (0) 207 388 2826
Email: mike.shanahan@iied.org

Notes to editors

1. The report is entitled Assessing the costs of adaptation to climate change: a review of the UNFCCC and other recent estimates. Copies can be downloaded from the IIED website from 27 August 2009, after 12.30pm UK time. www.iied.org

2. About the International Institute for Environment and Development
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see: www.iied.org).

3. About the Grantham Institute for Climate Change
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change is committed to driving climate change related research and translating it into real world impact. Established in February 2007 with a £12.8 million donation over ten years from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, the Institute’s researchers are developing both the fundamental scientific understanding of climate change, and the mitigation and adaptation responses to it. The Institute intends that this work should be directly relevant to policy and decision makers. The Grantham Institute is unique among climate change research centres because it is situated at the heart of Imperial College London, one of the world’s leading science, technology and medicine universities. The policy and outreach work that the Institute carries out is based on, and backed up by, the leading edge research of the College’s academic staff.

Website: http://www.imperial.ac.uk/climatechange

4. About Imperial College London
Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 13,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.

Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.

Website: www.imperial.ac.uk 

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