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What Does the “Pathway to Paris” Mean for Adaptation?

As delegates gather for the UN climate talks in Geneva this week, they will have a lot of issues competing for their attention. One topic that deserves to be top of mind is how best to treat adaptation in the global climate agreement to be finalized this December in Paris.

A growing number of studies show that communities around the world are already experiencing the effects of climate change in the form of extreme heat, unpredictable weather and sea level rise. The Paris Agreement presents a phenomenal opportunity to accelerate and scale up action on adapting to these impacts, improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people for decades to come. Doing so is in everybody’s interest. While adaptation is carried out at the national and sub-national levels, the benefits are widely shared globally. Moreover, effective adaptation will require societal transformation that can only be achieved with a global collective effort.

Setting an aspirational adaptation goal—and ratcheting efforts up over time to reach it—can catalyze the wide range of actions necessary for all communities, especially the poorest, to have the means to be more resilient. How could climate negotiators make this happen?

Create an adaptation goal and a “ratchet-up cycle.”The idea of a global goal and cycles of increasingly ambitious commitments is familiar from mitigation efforts, where the globally agreed goal of limiting average temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius provides a quantitative benchmark for assessing pledges.] A similar approach could be applied to adaptation, but with a qualitative and aspirational goal (e.g., “all communities build climate resilience”) providing a basis for periodic assessment of global and national progress.

Set an adaptation ‘north star’ that can inspire action worldwide.Adaptation is characterized by a dizzying array of international projects, initiatives, networks and platforms for collaboration. Setting an adaptation goal with periodic strengthening cycles would give the global community a venue for creating coherence and synergy amidst the growing profusion of action around the world. The iterative adaptation cycle would offer a structure to identify promising innovations, and enable collaboration around countries’ identified priorities and needs.

Strengthen the hand of proactive national adaptation advocates. A goal with an improvement cycle would empower those at the national level who are pushing for greater efforts on adaptation and resilience. For example, the chance to shine on the global stage—by winning recognition for designing and implementing an effective adaptation strategy—can be especially attractive for many smaller countries. It’s especially powerful for countries, such as Rwanda, which are putting their own domestic funding into adaptation activities and elevating adaptation on their domestic agendas.

Focus on the end, not only the means. Adaptation action in poor nations certainly requires support from developed countries, but a growing number of countries recognize that the story does not end there. While financial support remains crucial, so do other activities such as technology transfer, regional knowledge-sharing and capacity building. A global adaptation goal could help keep the focus on the world’s desired destination rather than on a single path to get there.

The Ripple Effects of Adaptation

When everyone adapts, everyone wins. Trade, security, economic opportunity and human well-being are enhanced when the global community can focus on effective development and positive partnership agendas rather than on emergency humanitarian responses to one disaster after another. As countries negotiate in Geneva and beyond, they must keep these benefits in mind, and create an agreement that helps communities build resilience over time.

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