How to measure a global goal for adaptation?

Climate negotiators are discussing how to set a global goal for climate change adaptation. It's important for the negotiators learn from experiences and evidence gained at country level – so they can develop a goal that reflects differing national realities.

27 March 2015
The Pacific island nation of Kiribati consists of 33 atols and reef islands. Here, adaptation includes coastal protection measures such as mangrove re-planting, as well as strengthening laws to reduce soil erosion and population settlement planning (Photo: AusAID)

The Pacific island nation of Kiribati consists of 33 atols and reef islands. Here, adaptation includes coastal protection measures such as mangrove re-planting, as well as strengthening laws to reduce soil erosion and population settlement planning (Photo: AusAID, CC BY 2.0)

Discussions have been heating up at the United Nations climate negotiations on how to set a global goal for adaptation. The idea is that the goal will set an ambitious target and allow 'parties' (i.e. countries signed up to the agreement) to measure progress and check adaptation to climate change is on track.

However, as investment in adaptation has increased, so has the development of evaluative frameworks at the national, programme and project level. These frameworks seek to determine whether adaptation or policies have been effective, as well as research on methods for this.

As national governments have developed climate change plans and strategies, they have also been addressing how to assess the effectiveness of their adaptation efforts, developing results frameworks and indicators to measure progress. Countries such as Kenya, Mozambique and Cambodia have developed national systems to monitor their adaptation efforts, and many countries have included national goals and targets as part of their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) or national climate change strategies.

There have also been other initiatives to assess or monitor adaptation effectiveness such as the Tracking Adaptation and Measuring Development (TAMD) framework developed by IIED and partners, the Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience (PPCR) that has used scorecards to assess institutional capacity, and other bilateral or NGO initiatives.

All of these experiences can bring a valuable perspective to discussions on the global adaptation goal.

Goals have already been set for climate mitigation (i.e. reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions) and these allow parties to measure and track GHG emissions reductions on a national and global basis. Parties regularly reference the goal of limiting warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, with groups of vulnerable nations pushing this to a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

There have been several proposals for how to define and measure a goal for adaptation, but it has not been as simple as for mitigation. This is because adaptation to climate change is often a local process and can encompass many different things from making a bridge more resilient to flooding, to supporting a local community to plan when to plant crops, to developing national data on climate change to support policymaking.

Three main proposals for the adaptation goal

There are three main proposals for the adaptation goal: a quantitative goal; an aspirational goal and a qualitative goal.

  1. The quantitative adaptation goal is essentially about quantifying and meeting the costs of adaptation and has been proposed by the African group of negotiators
  2. The aspirational adaptation goal is about achieving a climate resilient world by decreasing vulnerability and enhancing adaptive capacity and has been proposed by the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC) negotiating group, and
  3. The qualitative adaptation goal focuses on managing climate risks through policies and institutions, and on monitoring effectiveness. This was put forward by the European Union (EU) and the Environmental Integrity Group (made up of Liechtenstein, Mexico, Monaco, the Republic of Korea and Switzerland).

In all three of these proposals, one of the main gaps identified by parties is the need for more ways of measuring and assessing adaptation.

Lessons from national experience

However, there is an increasing body of national experience in monitoring and evaluating climate change adaptation and it is important that the negotiators learn from this emerging evidence in order to develop a goal that builds on this experience and reflects national realities.

Countries such as Kenya, Cambodia, Mozambique and Ethiopia, for example, have developed frameworks to track their own progress towards their national strategies. There are several key lessons from this national experience.

Firstly, national experience shows it is important to consider both institutional capacities for climate risk management such as the capacity to use climate information, to plan for conditions of uncertainty and to allocate finance to climate change (as included in the qualitative goal) as well as changes in vulnerability.

The PPCR has experience of using scorecards to assess institutional capacities at the national level and aggregating this to report global results, and this approach is also being taken up by some national governments. This may be something that would work globally too, with simple indicators to show how the enabling environment for adaptation is developing. For example, the number of countries using climate information to plan for the medium to long term.

Secondly, measuring changes in vulnerability and/or resilience depends on each national context, but this can be done at the national level, as countries such as Cambodia are showing.

A global goal with one metric for vulnerability may not capture the national contexts for resilience. But governments can define what it means for their country to achieve resilience at the national level, and then develop a theory of change to define their metrics for resilience and/or wellbeing. Progress against these national indicators could be assessed on a comparable scale globally and/or aggregated for a global goal.

Finally, it is important to consider how the international agreement which negotiators are working towards avoids putting the burden of monitoring and evaluation, and achieving the global goal, on the most vulnerable countries.

Support will be needed to integrate any agreed adaptation goal, and could be used to strengthen progress towards the goals that have already been included in NAPs and national low carbon resilient strategies. This is a crucial part of climate finance readiness and supporting effective adaptation.

Susannah Fisher ( is a senior researcher and Brianna Craft ( a researcher in IIED's Climate Change Group.