Five Facts on Sustainable Adaptation

  • 2021•12•06     Glasgow, UK

    Photo: Climate Visuals Countdown/Maurizio Di Pietro

    The question of how to best adapt to climate change has become increasingly urgent. In January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for 50 percent of the total share of climate finance to be spent on building resilience and adapting to the effects of a warming world. During COP26 USD 232 million were committed to the Adaptation Fund. But how can these efforts and resources be used to create sustainable adaptation strategies?

    UNU-EHS and MCII hosted a session at COP26 to answer this question. With panelists from agencies such as UNDRR, UNCDF, and CCRIF SPC they sought to outline what sustainable adaptation must look like, and how data, innovation, and risk finance can be used to address the needs of those on the frontlines of climate change.

    Here are 5 facts that came out of the session:

    1. Sustainable adaptation needs to be comprehensive

    Risks are not mutually exclusive. Several hazards, i.e. a cyclone and a pandemic, can occur at the same time or one after the other. When this happens the effects of one disaster can make it even more difficult for communities to respond to the next one. As Rosalind Cook, external relations officer at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) said, “We need to shift from a hazard by hazard to a multi-hazard approach. We need a comprehensive holistic approach looking at the long term based on data, and for that, we need to improve our metrics for risks.”

    2. Sustainable adaptation leaves no one behind

    Adaptation solutions need to be inclusive. This means they have to respond to the specific needs of all impacted stakeholders, taking into account that groups will have varying needs. To achieve this, it is important to reflect on why and how different groups are vulnerable and empower them to make active decisions regarding their resilience.

    “Inclusive solutions should be crosscutting, involving women, youth, migrants, small-businesses and people with disabilities,” said Krishnan Narasimhan, a programme manager at the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). “Empowering the beneficiaries with measures is a key step to build resilience. Building the financial capacity and competency of end-users, for example, is key to the sustainable use of financial products.”

    3. Sustainable adaptation requires efficient financial tools

    Even with the best mitigation and adaptation strategies, there will be damage caused by climate change, for example, due to the increasing intensity and frequency of hydro-meteorological hazards such as tropical cyclones and excess rainfall. When these impacts occur, people and governments need to be able to rebuild quickly and secure lives and livelihoods, all of which are often challenges particularly in vulnerable countries and small island developing states.

    “Quick liquidity within two weeks of a disaster is critical,” explained Elizabeth Emanuel, head of Technical Assistance and Corporate Communications Teams, CCRIF SPC, “Without adequate financial protection strategies, such as parametric insurance, catastrophic events jeopardize a government’s ability and efforts to end poverty and boost shared prosperity, while threatening to reverse hard-won development gains.”

    4. Sustainable adaptation should care about existing natural resources

    The adaptation strategies that we choose must not put unnecessary additional strain on our already limited natural resources. While in some cases adaptation may mean to invest in infrastructure, in other cases it will be preferable to choose less resource-intensive measures, for example nature-based solutions.

    “Sustainable adaptation measures should focus on ensuring that there is not a net depletion of natural resources,” added Elizabeth Debarati Guha-Sapir, a public health and disasters researcher from Louvain University. “We have to weigh the steps we take for development and their costs to the environment, and come to some kind of trade-off which balances out.”

    5. Sustainable adaptation must not be a burden on the Global South

    It is estimated that the Global North is responsible for 92 percent of global emissions, yet it has been the Global South that is disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change. If adaptation is to be sustainable, it will require immediate action from those who are most responsible.

    “The burden of the measures for sustainable adaptation has to rest on the shoulders of the industrialized world,” said Debarati Guha-Sapir. “If you are responsible for the largest emissions of CO2 you have to carry their weight. We need measures that the people in the front lines of climate change can see the benefits from within their lifetime.”


    The session concluded with a baseline statement on what sustainable adaptation is according to the speakers:

    “For society to adapt sustainably, we need to make data, financial instruments, and innovation accessible to and reflective of the needs of those most vulnerable. The public and private sector, together with academia and civil society organizations, should design and implement risk analytics, transfer, and finance solutions in coordination with local stakeholders so that timely and appropriate solutions are reached. Beneficiaries of these solutions have to be empowered to actively contribute to resilience building.”

    At UNU-EHS the Economics of Climate Adaptation (ECA) team is working on making climate analytics and cost-benefit assessments of adaptation measures available to the most vulnerable. At the COP session, they also launched the ECA Network, a collaborative platform in which stakeholders can engage to further develop ECA and improve this open source tool that informs decision-making in adaptation. Find out more about the work of the ECA team here.