Climate Adaptation Crisis Deepens as Rich Nations Break Finance Promises
A climate early warning system in Zambia.

Wealthy nations are falling tens of billions of dollars short of their pledge to help climate-vulnerable regions adapt to a warming planet, widening an already vast gap in funding and leaving millions at risk, according to a new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, released on Thursday, found that international financial flows for climate adaptation in developing countries fell to just $21 billion in 2021, down 15% from a peak of $25.2 billion between 2017 and 2020.

This is a fraction of the estimated cost of helping low-income countries adapt to the worst effects of climate change, which UNEP estimates to be 10 to 18 times greater than current levels.

The annual gap in adaptation financing alone is now estimated at $194 billion to $366 billion, an increase of 50% from the UNEP’s estimate from last year.

The $21 billion provided by advanced economies in 2021 is equal to just $3 for each of the 6.82 billion people living in the 152 countries classified as developing by the International Monetary Fund. 

Adaptation costs in climate-vulnerable countries will soar as the planet warms, UNEP warned, exacerbating the adaptation gap unless countries step up to provide funding.

“The world is sleeping on adaptation even when the wake-up call that nature has been sending us is becoming ever more shrill,” Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, said at a press conference on Thursday. “This year we saw temperature records again being broken. We saw more floods, more heat waves, more droughts, and more wildfires [inflict] misery upon very vulnerable communities.”

The UNEP report comes as the world heads into the final quarter of what is set to be the hottest year on record. The average global temperature on a third of days in 2023 has already exceeded 1.5C over pre-industrial levels. 

“The international community should be throwing billions of dollars at helping developing nations to adapt to these impacts – but it isn’t,” said Andersen.

The UNEP report also sets the stage for COP29, the critical UN climate summit to be held in Dubai later this month. World leaders at the two-week summit will attempt to reverse the current trajectory of global fossil fuel emissions, which is on track to warm the planet by 2.4C to 2.8C by 2100 under a business-as-usual scenario.

A study published in Nature on Monday found that the planet will be locked into a future over 1.5C in just under three years, in early 2029.

“Storms, fires, floods, drought and extreme temperatures are becoming more frequent and more ferocious, and they’re on course to get far worse,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement accompanying the UNEP report. 

“Yet as needs rise, action is stalling,” said Guterres. “The world must take action to close the adaptation gap and deliver climate justice.” 

Why is the adaptation gap widening? 

The adaptation gap – the difference between the amount of money needed to allow developing countries to adapt to climate change and the financing that governments have made available – is widening as the risks posed by climate change in developing countries escalate. 

Three main reasons explain the widening gap.

First, climate change is happening faster and with more severe impacts than previously thought. This means countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis need to do more to adapt, which requires more money. Fifty-five of the world’s most vulnerable economies have already lost over $500 billion to the climate crisis in the past two decades, according to a recent study.

“On the basis of the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) sixth assessment report, we anticipate higher impacts from climate change, even in the short term,” said Paul Watkiss, lead author of the finance section of the UNEP report. “Higher [climate] impacts means we have to do more adaptation.”

Second, international funding for adaptation is not keeping pace with the increasingly urgent needs of developing countries. International public adaptation finance fell by 15% in 2021, despite the proven economic benefits of investing in adaptation.

Every $1 billion invested in infrastructure to protect people from coastal flooding could save $14 billion in economic damages, UNEP found. And for every $16 billion invested in agriculture each year, 78 million people could be spared climate crisis-related starvation or chronic hunger.

The authors of the UNEP report attribute the drop in adaptation funding in 2021 to the financial pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. However, they also noted that the $3 billion lost is a drop in the ocean compared to the $194 billion to $366 billion that developing countries need.

“Our estimates of the costs of adaptation of increasing, and at the same time, the financing is at least plateauing, or even decreasing,” said Watkiss. “And so the gap widens.” 

Third, developing countries are reporting more accurate data on their adaptation needs, helping UNEP to better forecast problems it may not have had sufficient data to include in previous reports. 

As more data comes in, UNEP is able to quantify more needs, suggesting that the current UN estimate of the adaptation gap likely remains too low.

Unkept promises underline the scale of the adaptation funding gap

Action zone at the COP26 venue in Glasgow, Scotland where this rotating globe hanging from the ceiling reminds delegates of what they are trying to save.

Unfulfilled climate funding pledges from advanced economies expose the vast gap between rhetoric and reality in adaptation funding.

In 2009, advanced economies pledged $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. This pledge was reaffirmed in the Paris Agreement in 2015, but eight years later, it has yet to be fully met.

“The numbers are not that big: if you compare the $100 billion to the money that the United States spends on its military, and that was spent on COVID or to save its banks, this is peanuts,” Pieter Pauw, a co-author of the UNEP report told Reuters. “It is time for developed countries to step up and provide more.” 

At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, rich countries made another pledge: to double adaptation funding to $40 billion annually by 2025. But with the shortfall in adaptation funding already at $366 billion, this pledge is no longer sufficient.  

“Even if the promise that we made together in Glasgow in 2021 to double adaptation finance support to 40 billion per year by 2025 were to be met – and that doesn’t look likely – the finance gap would fall by only five to 10%,” said Andersen.

Timeline of the emergence of loss and damage in the climate negotiations, culminating in the historic agreement at COP27 last year. The agreement to establish a loss and damage fund is now under threat.

The historic loss and damage fund agreed upon at COP27 in Egypt last year is also in jeopardy due to financing disputes between rich and developing countries, Politico reported this week

The question of who should pay for the damages caused by climate change, which is disproportionately impacting developing countries, has returned to the forefront of international climate negotiations.

The United States and Europe, two of the world’s largest historical emitters of greenhouse gases, are facing renewed calls to be held liable for their disproportionate contributions to the problem.

The United States, which resisted calls for a loss and damage fund for decades, is reportedly ready to exit negotiations on the fund if language holding them liable for their disproportionate contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions is not dropped. 

The agreement on the establishment of a loss and damage fund at last year’s COP27 summit in Egypt provided hope that this contentious issue could finally be resolved. However, the recent impasse over the fund has raised concerns that it could be derailed, threatening a critical step towards climate justice.

“We’re at a breaking point,” Avinash Persaud, the lead negotiator for Barbados and aide to Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, told Politico.

A breakdown in negotiations “will break COP,” Persaud added. “I feel that not enough people are sufficiently worried about that”.

Adaptation has limits

In Guinea, rural women form cooperatives where members learn how to plant a vitamin-rich tree called Moringa and how to clean, dry and sell its leaves. Used as medicine or a dietary supplement by societies around the world, Moringa also supports biodiversity and prevents soil erosion.

Adaptation measures such as early warning systems, sea walls, and mangrove restoration are essential for helping communities cope with the impacts of climate change.

Early warning systems help people evacuate ahead of extreme weather events, sea walls protect coastal communities from sea level rise and storm surges, and the restoration of natural ecosystems such as mangroves alleviates flooding and, in the case of Lagos, Nigeria, stops the city from going under water

But as the planet warms, warming seas and a rapidly changing climate are pushing these measures to their limits.

“The evidence is clear that climate impacts are rising and are increasingly translating into limits to adaptation,” said Henry Neufeldt, Chief Scientific Editor of the UNEP report. “Some of these may already have been reached.

Hurricane Otis, which struck Acapulco, Mexico, in September 2023, is a prime example of these limits. The storm rapidly intensified from a tropical storm to a category 5 hurricane overnight, leaving residents off guard and meteorologists struggling to explain what happened.

Powerful hurricanes can normally be observed by meteorologists for weeks prior to landfall. But as the planet warms, sea levels are rising and storms are becoming more unpredictable, limiting the ability of early warning systems to reliably protect coastal communities from extreme weather.

In just 12 hours, Hurricane Otis’ strength more than doubled, reaching record wind speeds of 257 kilometres per hour at landfall. The residents of Acapulco had no time to evacuate, leaving 100 people dead or missing and wreaking vast destruction on the resort town.

“Every day, every week, every month and every year from now on within our lifetimes, things are going to get worse and not a single country in the world is prepared,” said Andersen. “We are inadequately investing and planning on climate adaptation, and that leaves the world exposed.” 

Adaptation: Essential for billions facing climate impacts, despite limits

Climate adaptation measures have limits, but they are essential for the lives and safety of billions of people around the world who are already facing the effects of climate change.

Every decimal increase in the planet’s temperature affects millions. Nowhere is the need for adaptation more acute than in Africa, where at least 15,700 people have been killed and 34 million affected by extreme weather disasters in 2023 so far, according to an investigation by Carbon Brief.

Meanwhile, more than 29 million people continue to face unrelenting drought conditions in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Mauritania, and Niger, and more than 3,000 people were killed in flash floods in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda in May.

Debt-laden countries, suffocating under debt repayments that exceed healthcare spending, face a spiral of rebuilding, sacrificing basic needs, and losing lives if climate adaptation funding is not secured.

“Developing countries, poor countries that are really having difficulties having a balanced budget, will have to divest from education, from infrastructure, health, to simply feed some of their people and respond to major disasters and major catastrophes,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). “This is the reality of the world today.” 

Projected annual deaths attributable to climate change in 2030 and 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Without financial support to help regions adapt to climate change, front-line communities will face conflict and mass migration, Thiaw warned.

“What is left to a young Somali, Haitian, or Sahelian when there is nothing left? When there is no ecosystem to provide food, capital, or natural capital, what is left for them to do but flee?” Thiaw asked.

“People do not fight each other simply because they hate each other,” Thiaw said, on how climate change fuels conflict. “They fight because they are competing for survival.”

Even if global greenhouse gas emissions are halted tomorrow, the planet will continue to warm for decades. The International Energy Agency projected earlier this month that fossil fuel demand will peak by 2030 but remain constant through 2050, nowhere near enough to stop the planet from warming.

“That adaptation finance in the world is actually shrinking at a time when we are calling for a doubling of adaptation is actually quite remarkable,” Thiaw said. “Climate change is hitting more and more, and international climate finance is declining – so where are we going? What impact will it have on the poorest and most vulnerable communities?”

Image Credits: UNDEP, Joe Saade/ UN Women.

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