Thorny issues: achieving a fair and equitable Global Goal on Adaptation

The international Climate Adaptation Summit on 25 and 26 January aims to spur worldwide efforts to adapt to climate change. The Paris Agreement established the need for a Global Goal on Adaptation, but a new IIED briefing paper argues that to effectively operationalise the global goal, policymakers need to address some fundamental conceptual and technical challenges.

Emilie Beauchamp's picture Cecilia da Silva Bernardo and Maria del Pilar Bueno's picture
Emilie Beauchamp is a senior researcher at IIED; Cecilia da Silva Bernardo is director for cooperation of Angola's Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Environment; Maria del Pilar Bueno is a researcher at CONICET
25 January 2021
Three farmers plan their crops on a steep hillside

Farmers on a hillside in Rwanda consider severe erosion caused by deforestation, over cultivation and intense rainfall linked to climate change. How the Global Goal on Adaptation is measured is as important as what is measured (Photo: Rwanda Green Fund, via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

This week, politicians and policymakers will convene online for the Climate Adaptation Summit, a high-level international event organised by the Dutch government designed to accelerate action on adaptation. The summit is one of the first events of this 2021 'super year' for climate, nature and people, and aims to raise the profile of adaptation in the run-up to November’s United Nations COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

This event will also see the launch of the UNFCCC’s Race to Resilience campaign, emphasising the urgency of achieving a step-change in global aspirations for climate resilience – and finally matching mitigation’s Race to Zero campaign.

The recognition that mitigation and adaptation are equally important for addressing the climate crisis is enshrined in the Paris Agreement, but adaptation continues to be a significant challenge, including for developing countries.

Technical experts, policymakers and negotiators must use the 2021 'super year' to deliver frameworks and practical action for delivering adaptation and address increasing gaps in financing, capacities and actions. In a new briefing paper, we suggest that policymakers should start by addressing several fundamental issues that will underpin operationalising the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) that will help incentivise fairer and more equitable adaptation actions.

Slow progress linked to thorny technical issues 

Despite ongoing work by the Adaptation Committee, the lead body working on adaptation under the UNFCCC, most countries still have limited information with which to kickstart national discussions and preparations for implementing the GGA.

In fact, there is currently no clear roadmap for operationalising the GGA – although the first exercise for assessing adaptation under the global stocktake will start later this year.

In defining 'what counts' in measuring adaptation progress, the GGA’s framework provides an opportunity to incentivise adaptation actions and learning that best address the national and local priorities of developing countries – where adaptation is most needed.

In turn, failing to do so risks perpetuating ongoing unequal dynamics. With significant decisions still required on how to operationalise the GGA, the big differences in levels of preparedness between countries may potentially undermine and exclude countries with fewer capacities and resources from the discussions.

Why has progress on the GGA been slow? The answer lies in several thorny conceptual and methodological issues that need to be addressed.

The how to assess is as – or more – important than the what

The collective assessment of adaptation progress raises methodological dilemmas. For example, while mitigation efforts can be measured by quantifying greenhouse gas emissions, there is no single metric or indicator, or specific set of indicators, that can appropriately represent the breadth and variety of adaptation efforts across the world.

There is currently no clear definition on what must be measured, and at what scale progress will be assessed. While there are processes through which countries can plan, communicate and report their adaptation targets, progress and contributions – such as Nationally Determined Contributions, National Adaptation Plans, and Adaptation Communications – how to measure adaptation is left to the discretion of countries.

Yet, for Parties to assess progress towards a collective goal, they have to agree on shared methodologies to report and assess what countries have already achieved and future actions.

This is important: what will be measured has significant implications for how it will be measured.

Making sure that the metrics and indicators are robust will help to get a good picture of our collective progress – but complex methodological frameworks are difficult to implement for most developing countries where resources are limited.

This in turn, can lead to differences in data quality, and a negative bias in the data: in other words, it can look like developing countries are not progressing on adaptation – but the problem lies in data collection not in implementing appropriate interventions.

The methodologies underpinning the GGA must not only be flexible, contextual and comparable, but must also be just and fair towards different countries’ data production constraints. Moreover, they must promote adaptive learning and agility rather than burdensome bureaucracy.

This year’s discussions will be instrumental in defining what the GGA should be, shaping how adaptation is framed and implemented for years to come. But recent trends in the climate political debate have focused on arguing about metrics and indicators as a way to achieve effective adaptation and measurable progress.

It would be better to look at designing appropriate national and sub-national systems that can be used to assess contextual data, learn lessons and adapt to fast-changing climate circumstances.

The recent focus on indicators is in danger of overshadowing the end goal of supporting the needs and capacities of developing countries where adaptation efforts are most required.

The way ahead for better, bigger adaptation actions

Technical experts, policymakers and negotiators involved in building the framework for the GGA need to set up systems and assessment methodologies that are suitable for all nations’ capacities and intervention types, and that allocate appropriate international support for applying them.

For the world to truly work collectively on progressing adaptation, there is also a responsibility to make the necessary funds available and equitably allocate them where it matters most.

Donors and governments must break away from traditional top-down funding models to emphasise actions at the scales at which adaptation dynamics play out and promote locally led adaptation. Only this way will work towards the GGA truly engender progress while avoiding new climate injustices and inequities in the treatment of information.

As Parties work towards defining the GGA and how to assess progress towards it, there is a chance to develop a fairer system. The 2021 'super year' presents opportunities to resolve these crucial thorny issues and set out clear principles and directions that will harness the complex nature of adaptation, rather than seeking reductionism.

About the author

Emilie Beauchamp (emilie.beauchamp) is senior researcher (evaluation, climate and environment) in IIED's Strategy and Learning Group.

Cecilia da Silva Bernardo is director for cooperation of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Environment of the Republic of Angola and co-chair of the Adaptation Committee

Maria del Pilar Bueno is member of the Adaptation Committee, researcher at CONICET (Argentina) and professor at Universidad Nacional de Rosario

Emilie Beauchamp's picture Cecilia da Silva Bernardo and Maria del Pilar Bueno's picture