24 August 2022
Better Planning of Adaptation Action for Better Outcomes
Photo: Peggie Mishra / Unsplash
story highlights

Planned adaptation includes incentivizing on-farm options through policies and actions, but also goes far beyond an only on-farm focus to a diverse spectrum of actions.

Anticipatory resilience building makes people and systems better prepared for climate shocks by reduced exposure or vulnerability.

Analyses of nationally determined contributions indicate that these have gaps, that readiness to act may be low, and that finance is often not matched with need.

By Zitouni Ould-Dada, Deputy Director, FAO Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment, and Bruce Campbell, Chief Innovation Strategist, Clim-Eat

The Assessment Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that come out every seven to eight years provide an excellent opportunity to gauge our global progress on dealing with climate change. The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) from Working Group 2 on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability was released earlier this year and runs at 3,000+ pages. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has provided a 32-page summary of the information related to food system, drawn from many of its chapters.

The seriousness of climate change is once again in focus, with impacts registering on all types of agricultural production – crop production, livestock production, fisheries, and aquaculture.  Observed impacts occur throughout the supply chain, from agricultural yields to supply chain disruptions, and climate impacts interact with other drivers to generate conflicts, migration, and poverty.

Citing new findings, the Assessment Report states that: 10% of the currently suitable area for major crops and livestock is projected to be climatically unsuitable by mid-century under high-emission scenarios; and increased, potentially concurrent climate extremes will periodically increase simultaneous losses in major food-producing regions, leading to price rises and food insecurity. The higher temperatures and humidity will create challenges for storage and water and energy use, reducing producer incomes and raising consumer prices. For example, in Michigan, US, climate change is expected to shorten the period of reliable cold local storage of potato by 11-17 days by mid-century.

Climate change disproportionately hits vulnerable groups and will be particularly problematic in Africa and South Asia.

But the agricultural sector has a lot to offer in terms of adapting to climate change, as well as contributing to emissions reduction, building resilience, and providing other co-benefits. There are a multitude of on-farm options available to farmers, with many of these already being used. These include: changes in livestock and farm management; switching varieties or species (for example to less water-intensive crops); diversifying farming systems and livelihoods; altered timing of key farm activities such as planting, stocking, and harvesting; and making fish harvesting gear modifications to access new target species.

However, autonomous adaptation involving on-farm options alone will be insufficient to counter climate change and insufficient to achieve SDG 2 (zero hunger). Autonomous adaptation is when farmers, fishers, and pastoralists make largely self-directed changes to cope with weather extremes and changes, and with reduced water availability. Instead, we need to greatly increase planned adaptation actions.

Why planned adaptation is important

Planned adaptation includes incentivizing the above on-farm options through policies and actions at other levels, but also goes far beyond an only on-farm focus to a diverse spectrum of actions. This is demonstrated in Table 5.17 in the Assessment Report, which lists the adaptation responses to extreme events of floods and droughts. Extreme events are increasing, causing substantial damage to agriculture. For example, in West Africa, warming has increased heat and rainfall extremes, and reduced yields by 10-20% for millet, and by 5-15% for sorghum. As the report notes, “[e]xtreme weather events not only cause substantial direct economic damage (high confidence), but also reduce economic growth in the short-term (year of, and year after event) (high confidence) as well as in the long-term (up to 15 years after the event) (medium confidence), with more severe impacts in developing than in industrialized economies (high confidence).” Thus, planned adaptation is critically important. As Table 5.17 shows, this can involve (i) anticipatory resilience building, (ii) increasing absorptive capacity, and/or (iii) developing adaptive capacity.  

Anticipatory resilience building makes people and systems better prepared for climate shocks by reduced exposure or vulnerability. Examples include: (a) forecast-based financing, which provides unconditional cash in advance of extreme events; (b) early warning systems or climate services and education for disaster preparation; and (c) social protection programmes with regular provisions which allow for asset building, e.g., savings, building informal networks, and purchase of livestock.

Absorptive capacity building allows people or systems to cope with climate-related shocks while and immediately after they occur. Examples of actions include: (a) humanitarian food aid and malnutrition treatment; (b) home-grown nutrition-sensitive school feeding programmes; (c) social protection programmes with short-term targeted responses, e.g., short-term cash transfers, food assistance for asset building such as wells; and (d) weather index insurance programmes.  

Building adaptive capacity allows people and systems to adjust to long-term climate risks and disasters to reduce vulnerability to future shocks. Examples of actions include: (a) developing regional grain banks run by farmer associations; (b) savings, credit, and local food procurement support for smallholder farmers; and (c) agroecosystem diversification and other agroecological practices to strengthen ecosystem services in the long term.

Diverse actions for multiple benefits

As can be seen from the examples above, diverse actions are needed across the entire food chain, not just on-farm. It is thus crucial to create the necessary enabling environment if adaptation is going to reach the scale that is needed. This involves dealing with structural vulnerabilities related to poverty and gender, as well as creating enabling policies and institutions, making markets work for smallholders, and driving more investment in adaptation.

While IPCC Working Group II focuses on adaptation, considerable attention is given to also looking at co-benefits. The Assessment Report notes that ecosystem-based approaches such as diversification, land restoration, agroecology, and agroforestry have the potential to strengthen resilience to climate change with multiple co-benefits, but trade-offs and benefits vary with socio-ecological context. Ecosystem-based approaches support long-term productivity and ecosystem services such as pest control, soil health, pollination, and buffering of temperature extremes. Certain agricultural options can facilitate carbon storage and reduce emissions.

Maladaptation features prominently in the Assessment Report. Its many examples are drawn from activities common to agricultural development, e.g., irrigation development (which may overuse groundwater and favor specific social groups), shifting to high-input monoculture systems (which may provide near-term cash but reduce longer-term resilience), intensification of pasture use (which may cause overgrazing), digital technologies (which may increase inequality), and safety nets (which may promote consumption of processed, purchased food and erode Indigenous knowledge). Another common form of maladaptation is adaptation options that raise emissions and thus have a long-term negative impact. These examples point to the importance of ensuring that the right socio-ecological context and the appropriate enabling conditions are in place to enable adaptation actions with co-benefits. Failure to do so leads to trade-offs.

The Assessment Report makes it clear that the global community is not on track to effectively deal with climate change impacts. The Summary for Policymakers states that “despite progress, adaptation gaps exist between current levels of adaptation and levels needed to respond to impacts and reduce climate risks (high confidence). Most observed adaptation is fragmented, small in scale, incremental, sector-specific, designed to respond to current impacts or near-term risks, and focused more on planning rather than implementation (high confidence).”

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) are at the heart of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Asia chapter of the IPCC Assessment Report notes the potential of NDCs as near-term policy instruments and signposts for progress. Given NDCs are key to ambition and action, it is surprising that so little attention to them is given in the IPCC Assessment Report. So, for a more detailed understanding of planned adaptation actions as demonstrated in NDCs we must look to other publications.

Crumpler and Bernoux (2020) analyzed the NDCs of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and found high adaptation policy coverage gaps with respect to climate-related losses in ecosystem service provision, particularly biological control, soil erosion control, moderation of extreme events, and the maintenance of genetic diversity and abundance. In social systems, high policy coverage gaps were found around climate-related migration and displacement. Other research recently found that lower-income countries, especially those in Africa, had high intent in terms of proposed adaptation actions and high need because of their marked vulnerability to climate change, but their readiness to implement was low. While countries that are recipients of donor funds put forward more adaptation-related activities in their NDCs than mitigation-related activities, donors have so far committed more finance to climate mitigation.

The way forward

From the IPCC report, stepped up planned adaptation action is needed. The actions needed are diverse, ranging from on-farm options to creating an enabling environment for action. Analyses of NDCs indicate that these have gaps, that readiness to act may be low, and that finance is often not matched with need. It is essential to scale up support to countries to enable them to raise their ambition, commitments, and actions.

The above need is crucially recognized and being addressed by the Scaling up Climate Ambition on Land Use and Agriculture through nationally determined contributions and National Adaptation Plans (SCALA) programme. Co-led by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and FAO, this five-year programme, funded from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) through their International Climate Initiative (IKI), provides a direct link between the IPCC report findings and on-the-ground country implementation, as it supports 12 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to translate their NDCs and NAPs into actionable and transformative climate solutions in land use and agriculture through multi-stakeholder engagement.

At the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 26), the Sharm el-Sheikh two-year work programme on the global goal on adaptation (GGA) was established and launched, which has been instrumental in solidifying political support to both make and measure progress towards this global goal. Parties also welcomed new financial pledges made to the Adaptation Fund (totaling over USD 350 million) and to the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) (totaling over USD 600 million), which secures a boost to financing adaptation. However, this is still short of the COP 26 aspiration to have developed nations at least double their collective provision of adaptation finance from 2019 levels by 2025, to achieve this balance between adaptation and mitigation.  

As we look towards COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh this year, and COP 28 in Dubai Expo City in 2023, let us seize the momentum to ensure the adaptation finance shortfall and GGA can be met in time. We must also bear in mind the importance of the Global Stocktake of progress on the Paris Agreement, which will take place in 2023.

In order to ensure that food systems remain at the heart of this momentum, FAO’s new Strategy on Climate Change 2022-2031 will be instrumental in guiding FAO in providing strengthened support to countries in their ambitions to address climate change in food systems, as well as in their efforts to implement the Paris Agreement.

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