What Price Adaptation? What Does Good Adaptation Look Like?

By Carina Bachofen and Edward Cameron

Assessments of the global cost of adaptation have varied drastically, ranging from $4-109 billion per year. The World Bank recently released the summary reports of the Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change study, which estimates it will cost between $70-$100 billion each year from now until 2050.

Why do cost estimates vary so widely? First, different methodologies have typically been used to develop these estimates. For example, in some cases, not all of the same sectors have been included in all of the assessments (i.e. ecosystem services, health, tourism) in other cases some sectors have only been partially covered. In addition, many assessments suffer significant shortcomings as they fail to account for sector-wide estimates of adaptation; do not consider climate-proofing current stocks; omit an operational definition of adaptation; underestimate future emission scenarios and resulting climate projections; fail to explicitly treat uncertainty; lack a projected development baseline (which establishes a level of economic development in the absence of climate change); and fail to consider any existing ‘adaptation deficit’.

The EACC study attempts to address these limitations by using the most systematic approach to date to tackle more sectors than prior studies. In addition to developing a global cost estimate, the EACC study also develops national level costs of adaptation for several case countries.

While uncertainty looms over estimates of the cost of adaptation, more is now known about what constitutes good adaptation practice – interventions that transition vulnerable populations to resilience while safeguarding their development pathways. Simply recognizing what constitutes good adaptation and how to avoid maladaptive practices can significantly reduce overall costs and go a long way towards ensuring long-term resilience.

A companion piece to the Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change study was recently published to complement the largely top-down economic analysis conducted to determine the cost of adaptation. The Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change: Social Synthesis Report contains compelling evidence about how local populations’ vulnerability to climate change is socially differentiated; which factors play a role in strengthening the adaptive capacity of poor people; and how governments can support adaptation policies that have co-benefits with sustainable development. The Social Synthesis Report builds on one of the main conclusions of the EACC study – development is the best form of adaptation, though adaptation will require developing differently. So what does good adaptation look like?

Synthesizing a rich body of research drawn from household interviews, focus group discussions and participatory scenario development workshops conducted at local, regional and national levels, the Social Synthesis Report contains the following Checklist for Good Adaptation Practice based on lessons learned in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Vietnam:

Combine investments in hard and soft adaptation options to meet the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable – In Ethiopia, integrating national plans to add weather stations across the country with local demand for improved agricultural extension services would facilitate information flows and promote information exchange between local, regional and national level authorities. At the same time, farmers would receive enhanced information on seasonal forecasts.  Such investment would enable interested parties to make the most of their comparative advantage and strengthen their adaptive capacity.

Consider and build on past strategies to cope with climate variability when planning future adaptation interventions – In Bolivia, the pre-Inca culture of Tiwanuku cultivated its crops at different altitudes, enabling simultaneous cultivation of different varieties of potatoes while buffering against risk of droughts, frosts and hail. Indigenous groups today are reverting to similar traditional practices to build resilience to increasing climate variability.

Pursue adaptation interventions that realize co-benefits with sustainable development – In Bangladesh, workshop participants observed the need to invest in specific social policies, which had seemingly little to do with climate change directly, yet held major potential for reducing vulnerability to climate change. These suggestions included restricting early marriage and polygamy; empowering women and promoting female education; and ensuring access to social security.

Promote transparency, accountability, the capacity to monitor and evaluate results; and the integration and coherence of policies across sectors and scales – In Vietnam, lack of horizontal integration between regional agencies and sectoral ministries often results in competing, overlapping plans for agriculture, water, energy, and the like. Approaching adaptation in an integrated manner will increase efficiency and effectiveness of adaptation policies.

Design social policy interventions (including social protection, education and training) that take better account of climate risk – In Mozambique, the majority of participants in focus group discussions, workshops and household interviews agreed on the urgent need for improved social safety nets in order to avoid wasting their productive assets on short-term survival (maladaptation).  Several interviews revealed that the existing level of social support amounted to approximately USD 4 per month.

Anchor decision-making processes in inclusive and participatory processes – In Ghana, inequitable inheritance rules and land tenure relations often limit women’s access to productive resources and in some instances, to social justice. This is significant as land generally is the basis for the most productive livelihood activities. Consequently, women’s vulnerability to climate change is heightened when they are bestowed marginal land with low production capacity.

In forthcoming blogs, we will explore aspects of this Checklist in depth, using stories from the ground that illustrate the importance of understanding the human and social dimensions of climate change for designing and implementing climate-resilient development policies.