Adaptation: A Way to Accelerate Climate Solution
Adaptation: A Way to Accelerate Climate Solution
The UN Environment Assembly was virtually hosted last week by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. It was preceded two weeks earlier by the Climate Adaptation Summit, virtually hosted by the Dutch port city of Rotterdam.
Taking part in both, I couldn’t but wonder whether resorting to virtual meetings via cyberspace could lead to a fait accompli imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, where people accept restrictive measures as the new normal? In reality, these largely successful meetings, in which thousands participated from all over the world, were made possible by adapting to a grave situation. They allowed a breathing space while work on finding fundamental solutions that address the causes of the problem, not its symptoms, continued.
But what experience has taught us too is that returning to the mega-conferences that gather tens of thousands of people from all over the world in one place, has become history. The fact is that the Climate Adaptation Summits have been among the most successful international meetings in recent years, both in terms of attendance and participation, as at the level of discussions and outcomes.
Never before has such a diverse mix participated in international conferences, as was the case in these two events. Although statements at the UN Environment Assembly were mostly generic, the Youth Environment Assembly that preceded formal meetings was remarkable, attracting hundreds of participants from all over the world who brought fresh ideas and engaged in noteworthy discussions. It was interesting to observe the young environmentalists carrying out their virtual meetings in a smooth manner with no technical glitches, while the political segment with leaders was interrupted by multiple hiccups.
Twenty years ago, raising the topic of adaptation to climate change was viewed by core environmentalists as a plot to circumvent the measures needed to reduce greenhouse carbon emissions. In fact, a coalition of politicians and large corporations heralded a solution limited to adaptation to make it possible to live with the consequences, which they described simply as the result of a natural phenomenon. Their only goal was to extend carbon emissions indefinitely, fearing effects of reduction on corporate profit and national economy. Two decades later, it emerged that both sides had expressed half of the truth. The issue is not a struggle between climate adaptation and mitigation, as both are equally significant. Many impacts of climate change are no more a worry for the future but a reality of today. The Rotterdam summit echoed this trend by calling for a 50-50 split of climate change funding, between adaptation and mitigation.
The increase in average global temperature has already reached 1.2°C this year, meaning that we are rapidly approaching the 1.5°C limit, which is the upper threshold tolerable till 2100. Until that limit, scientists predict we can still adapt to the increased temperatures. Beyond the limit, Earth will become an uninhabitable planet. Experts have warned that the world may exceed the 1.5°C limit 50 years earlier, that is, in 2050, if no swift and drastic measures are taken to reduce carbon emissions. Impacts are already evident: weather extremes such as the geographical spread, intensity and frequency of storms, hurricanes and droughts, are phenomena that have become part of our lives. Seas are rising rapidly, threatening hundreds of millions of people in low-lying lands around the world, droughts are hitting fresh water supplies and food production and diseases are reaching new places, all due to changing weather conditions. These and other challenges are what we face now and they require immediate adaptation action. They will only increase and exacerbate with time, before carbon emissions can be drastically reduced. If reducing emissions can halt the decline, it is unlikely that the damage already inflicted can be repaired. There certainly are enduring impacts of climate change, now and in the future, that have to be accepted as a fait accompli to which we have to adapt.
The positive message from the two summits is that solutions exist, but that they need to be developed and implemented at large scale. While coastal barriers and dikes were the only solution to protect lowlands from sinking, the Netherlands began building floating houses which can adapt to rising sea levels. Defying the decline in food production due to drought and shortage of fresh water supplies can be made possible by cutting food waste, switching to more efficient irrigation methods and switching to crops that are tolerant to heat, drought and salinity. Tackling climate-related emerging diseases requires placing more emphasis on prevention and promoting a diet that averts obesity and provides immunity against infection, as well as developing new drugs and treatment methods to deal with the emerging disease threats. Needless to say, rapid emerging health threats require developing appropriate health contingency plans.
The Climate Adaptation Summit came out with clear recommendations and commitments to seriously address climate challenges, especially from the United States and Europe. European countries have confirmed allocating huge sums to fulfill the goals of the "Green Deal" they launched last year, while imposing strict environmental requirements for the disbursement of aid funds that were included in the pandemic recovery plans. John Kerry, the US Special Envoy for Climate Affairs, pledged that the United States will make up for its four-year absence from international climate action by consolidating support for scientific research and climate technology, financing, and international cooperation. He also stressed that his country will do all that is required for the success of the upcoming 26th climate summit, and support international action to stop the rise in temperature at 1.5 degrees. According to Kerry, what we are facing can be more accurately described as a climate disaster than mere climate change.
Will the world make up for lost time combating climate challenge? Will countries fulfill their pledges to provide $100 billion annually to the Climate Fund until 2030? In his speech to the Rotterdam summit, the UN Secretary-General made it clear that the results of continued inaction are disastrous: if countries do not start implementing their pledges in 2021, the bill will triple in 2030 to surpass $300 billion annually.
Dozens of heads of state, rich and poor, affirmed their support for measures to address the challenges of climate change. They were joined by international financial institutions that pledged to make climate a priority. Good intentions certainly exist; what is missing is timely and orderly implementation. When European countries give many billions to support airlines affected by the pandemic, they must make the support conditional on reducing emissions such as canceling short domestic flights, which can be replaced by commuting in less polluting trains. Such measures have not been applied on large scale so far. On the other side of the Atlantic, when the United States speaks of its intention to do everything necessary to reduce emissions and protect the global environment, it is expected that it gives a good example by restraining extravagant consumption patterns at the national level, which result in the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world.
2021 will be an opportunity to convert intentions into actions, even if it will have to be done through many more online conferences and meetings.
Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine.