Can the Adaptation Committee find opportunity in adversity?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a pause in climate negotiations, but it need not be time wasted. Binyam Gebreyes and Emilie Beauchamp consider how the Adaptation Committee is seizing the moment to tackle existing challenges, and how it could go further.

Binyam Yakob Gebreyes's picture Emilie Beauchamp's picture
Binyam Gebreyes is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change group, and Emilie Beauchamp is senior researcher in IIED's Strategy and Learning group
21 October 2020
Screenshot of a video call with 25 participants

The Adaptation Committee hosted its first online meeting in March 2020, as a result of the limitations posed by the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo: UNFCCC/YouTube)

Of the many climate actors whose plans were disrupted this year, the Adaptation Committee (AC) is among the most vital.

Established in 2010, this key subsidiary body advances work between UNFCCC negotiation sessions. Its official mandate is to ‘promote the implementation of enhanced action on adaptation in a coherent manner under the Convention and the Paris Agreement.’

In other words, the Committee plays a crucial role in moving parties’ adaptation plans towards implementation: encouraging networking, sharing information and good practice at multiple levels, providing technical support and recommendations on incentives, and more.

Any interruption to this work is bad news. But in truth, the AC was facing challenges even before the pandemic struck.

Complexity, politics and confidence

Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the Committee has been given additional mandates, significantly changing its work. The AC’s current work plan (PDF) now includes, but is not limited to:

  • finding ways to assess global adaptation needs, specifically to assist developing countries,
  • mobilising support for adaptation in developing countries
  • identifying gaps and needs related to the National Adaptation Plans (NAP) process, and
  • consider approaches to reviewing the overall progress made in achieving a Global Goal on Adaptation.

These mandates have increased both the number and the complexity of the issues that the AC must deliver on. They put the Committee’s work at the forefront of global negotiations, while at the same time turning up the political heat around its decisions.

Another challenge can arise from the make-up of the Committee. Several members also act as negotiators for their constituencies in the UNFCCC, which can see discussions drift beyond technical parameters into political waters.   

This perceived politicisation can damage the trust that members must maintain to collaboratively achieve their goals. When confidence is lost, reaching results becomes harder and slower.   

Disaster strikes and decision-making stops

In early 2020, coronavirus threw climate negotiations – and the whole world – off course. In March, the UNFCCC postponed or cancelled all physical meetings.

This understandable decision further hampered the AC. Current consensus is that no substantive decision can be made without members meeting in-person: these are complex discussions, and ensuring inclusive decision-making is difficult online. It is hard to include all representatives across multiple time zones and those without consistent or adequate access to technology can be sidelined.

The upshot: all official decisions are on hold.

From enforced pause…

The pause in decision-making could easily become a slippery slope, further slowing work and minimising opportunities for open discussions. Alternatively, the AC could seize this moment to address some of the Committee’s pre-pandemic challenges and reap long-term benefits.

With no indication of when physical meetings will resume (and with them, official decision-making), this time could be spent creating more inclusive and resilient engagement platforms that will increase access to the Committee’s work and build better discussion dynamics.

… to positive space

In fact, the Committee has already made a start, hosting its 17th meeting online in March. In these early days of the pandemic, there were both limitations and learnings. For example, the tiring nature of long virtual meetings made a day-long session impossible, more than halving the original agenda.

But other aspects worked well. Although decisions were on hold, and tech glitches occurred, members were able to hold constructive discussions.

The Committee also reacted quickly to the preference for shorter online meetings, employing a widely used software to create an online ‘collaboration space’ that allowed members to work together on documents in real time.

Steps in the right direction

Trialling a virtual meeting and building a collaborative space are both important steps toward better engaging Committee members outside official decision-making meetings.

But what if the AC used the coming months to go further? Developing more inclusive and accessible platforms could considerably increase member confidence and establish the team spirit needed to deliver on the Committee’s mandates.

It will also allow for better moderation of the Committee’s numerous discussions and workstreams. For example, it can allow to practically differentiate political from technical issues to ensure the adaptation committee discusses items within its mandate.

Preparing agendas well ahead of virtual meetings and seeking offline comments can increase members’ confidence in calling out political issues, which the AC can identify and pose to parties for deliberation during the climate talks.

Earlier, more inclusive collaboration

The collaboration space could also be opened up to allow input from external observer parties and organisations. This would allow the AC to engage non-members parties and external observers with its evolving work well in advance, rather than within the tight frame of a physical meeting.

Such early engagement would ensure that all contributors understand and support the evolution of the Committee’s work, helping its recommendations to pass when they are brought to Parties at key in-person meetings.

Ready for the ‘super year’?

By January, the AC must be able to work smoothly and at the full capacity of its members to deliver on its mandate in a climate-critical 12 months, especially when physical meetings and decisions resume.

If it continues to use this enforced pause wisely, we believe the Adaptation Committee will be better prepared than ever to push the adaptation agenda forward in 2021.