A Natural Capital Approach for Adaptation in Belize

By Rebecca Traldi

State and national governments are beginning to consider how to help vulnerable industries and communities adapt to climate change. However, a lack of good examples and large knowledge gaps pose challenges for integrating adaptation into policy. Existing research and policy on climate adaptation often accounts for either economic values or spatial risks (e.g. in regards to erosion or sea level rise), but rarely both. Valuing ecosystem services and analyzing the distribution of costs and benefits in different areas – both now and in the future – can help identify who and what bear the risk of climate change impacts, and the benefits of corresponding adaptation measures.

The Government of Belize, World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Capital Project, and the InterAmerican Development Bank are working together to answer these questions in southern Belize. By accounting for the benefits of coastal ecosystem services like tourism opportunities, coastal defense from storms and sea level rise, carbon storage and sequestration (blue carbon), and spiny lobster catch – in addition to the costs of climate change and adaptation measures – this partnership employs a natural capital approach to adaptation. The pilot study evaluates real adaptation strategies that are currently under consideration in Belize. You can find a summary of the research here.

There is still more work to do to provide good guidance for decision makers to choose adaptation options. First, there are major gaps in our understanding of how climate change will affect ecosystems, both spatially and over time. Second, it’s unclear how some variables, such as ocean acidification and tropical storm frequency and intensity, will affect the distribution and value of ecosystem services like tourism and recreation. Third, the time scales over which these changes are assessed (typically 50 to 100 years or more) are not policy-relevant. Policymakers in Belize are not making decisions for 2100; they are focused on 2030, the planning horizon for the Belize Development Framework. Which adaptation options are economically worthwhile by 2030 and still provide sufficient resilience in 2100?

These gaps make it difficult to recommend with confidence a particular climate change adaptation strategy. If we want to go beyond suggesting only “no regrets” approaches, then we need more studies that can bridge these gaps and provide information about who and what will be affected by climate change, and which adaptation strategies should be prioritized.