IPCC: Getting climate adaptation right

What's in the landmark report for South Asia

IPCC: Getting climate adaptation right

Welcome to today's special edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.

Today the IPCC releases the second part of its landmark Sixth Assessment Report, and I captured the main take-home messages for you. But if you want to hear from the authors themselves and ask your own questions, join me on Twitter Spaces for a chat. Click the link below from your phone:

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Adapting to a host of increasingly complex climate threats is a challenge that many nations are not prepared for, but one that they need to get right, the UN scientific body on climate change warns. The wrong kind of adaptation, the scientists found, may prove as bad — or in some cases even worse — than doing nothing at all.

In the second part of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 270 authors from 67 countries reviewed the most recent scientific literature to create a snapshot of the risks facing the planet, and the best strategies to stem them.

The planet is already on track for a virtually unavoidable 1.5C of warming by the end of the century, which in Asia translates to threats ranging from glacier melt (and its ramifications for the hydrology of the entire Himalayan region) to an increase in the spread of vector- and water-borne diseases. More frequent and severe summer heatwaves will affect food production, also putting a strain on energy systems as more people crank up fans and air conditioners.

In India, rising water demand combined with climate change-driven scarcity could leave 40 percent of the population struggling for water by mid-century, up from 33 percent now. India is also among the nations most at risk from sea level rise, with around 35 million people likely to face annual coastal flooding by 2050, a number that could grow to 50 million if emissions keep growing, or significantly decrease if emissions are reduced.

While the report emphasises that some of the worst impacts can be avoided by keeping carbon emissions at bay, certain changes are bound to happen regardless of what we do now. This is where adaptation comes in: the right adaptive measures can protect people and nature from the worst damages, the report says, but they have to be planned proactively rather than waiting for the crisis to mount.

Systemic threats

The impacts of climate change will grow exponentially more complex as warming affects different parts of a natural or social system at the same time, the report explains, making them much harder to manage.

“What we also find is that adaptation progress is not always leading to positive outcomes,” said Chandni Singh, lead author of the report’s Asia Chapter and a senior researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, at a press conference. Adaptation initiatives, she explained, often prioritise immediate and near-term climate risks, but in practice multiple impacts tend to come simultaneously, and risks occurring in one place often ripple out to others. “A classic example is how flooding or cyclones in coastal cities disrupt food supply chains or critical infrastructure,” she said, “leading to cascading impacts globally and in connected inland areas.”

These impacts will also vary depending on the social and economic status of those affected. Even within a single city, impacts can vastly differ depending on these factors as well as environmental ones. Megacities such as Mumbai or Dhaka, whose populations are expected to rise to over 27 and 31 million people respectively by 2035, both face increased sea level rise and floods — but the impacts will hit a slum resident much harder than someone living in a more affluent part of town.

Good and bad adaptation

Adapting to unavoidable changes is possible, but the window for action is rapidly closing with every temperature record broken, and solutions can only be effective if they target multiple sectors and vulnerabilities within a system, the researchers say.

The IPCC describes this process as ‘climate resilient development’. The researchers identified a series of options and assessed their feasibility by looking at their social, economic, technological and environmental dimensions, among others. This broad portfolio of solutions can be adapted to the specific needs of each region, and includes setting up resilient power systems, coastal defences, improving water management, livelihood diversification, efficient livestock systems and much more.

Singh said that ‘hybrid’ solutions that bring together infrastructural, ecosystem-based and institutional strategies have proven to be most effective. One successful example, she said, is Bangalore’s Action Plan for Green-Blue Infrastructure, which focuses on green spaces and water systems together in an effort to increase the city’s resilience. But while positive experiments are mushrooming in South Asia and around the world, so do botched policies that end up doing more harm than good.

“A clear example of maladaptation are the solar-powered irrigation pumps which have been promoted by one of the well-known international agencies working on water issues in Gujarat, western India,” Anjal Prakash, research director at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad and an IPCC Lead Author, told Lights On. “This initiative has climate mitigation benefits as it helps in shifting from diesel-powered pumps to solar,” he explained. “But because electricity is free now, farmers are drawing more water contributing to increased groundwater extraction.” The measure also increased the vulnerability of poorer farmers who cannot afford to install a solar irrigation system and “can’t win the race to the bottom in accessing groundwater”, Prakash added.

The business case for adaptation

Climate change, as well as poor adaptation, have measurable economic impacts.

In India, rising temperatures will reduce the ability to work outdoors, which will affect farmers the most. If warming reaches 3C by the end of the century, agricultural labour capacity in India would fall by 17 percent. According to another study quoted by the IPCC, by 2100 incomes in the country could be 92 percent lower than they would have been in a world without climate change.

But while there is a clear business case for installing solar panels and most other forms of climate mitigation, adaptation remains a costly yet unaddressed externality, without a direct return on investment. The UNEP Adaptation Gap Report 2021 found that the costs of climate adaptation for developing countries by 2030 may be as high as $300 billion per year. However, the IPCC authors acknowledged that the financial question doesn’t feature in the assessment report as prominently as it should, simply because there is not enough literature examining adaptation finance.

But as adapting to climate change becomes more urgent, and failure to do so becomes more expensive, things may change. “The business case for adaptation starts with the premise that the viability of businesses depends on how countries are able to manage climate-related risks,” Prakash said. Progressive companies are already including climate risks in their plans, he explained, especially when their businesses depend on climatic conditions, such as in agriculture or transport. The private sector has a role to play too: “Businesses can help the government chart adaptation plans,” he added. “In India, businesses contribute 2 percent of their income in corporate social responsibility efforts, which could be directed towards adaptation actions that help people.”

Until recently, financing adaptation was deemed to be possible only through public money. But given the gravity of the situation, governments, public and private entities need to come together, said Abinash Mohanty, programme lead with the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and a reviewer for the IPCC report, speaking with Lights On.

“Many South Asian countries, including India, are leapfrogging in their developmental trajectories,” he said. “While the aspirational growth trajectories are impressive, they are often hindered or deferred due to increased vulnerability to climate risks.” Poor adaptation, he added, is not necessarily a government failure, “rather a need to re-prioritise between the urgent and most-urgent; and now most urgent is stepping up climate adaptations”.

That's all for today! If you enjoyed today's newsletter, join me on Twitter right after the IPCC press conference, in about an hour from now:

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