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From Copenhagen to Cancun: Adaptation

An update on climate adaptation efforts in the international climate negotiations.

In the UNFCCC climate negotiations, “adaptation” refers to the changes communities and countries will need to make in order to prepare for and respond to the effects of a changing climate. These responses vary greatly, from increased flood protection, to new agricultural practices, to improved environmental monitoring, and entirely new water governance structures. Poor countries will need to adapt most of all, since limitations in their economic, technical, and human resources make them more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change.

Finding ways to help countries adapt (and financing these efforts) is an essential role of the UNFCCC, but countries failed to reach a final agreement in Copenhagen. Action on adaptation will continue throughout the year -- both within (i.e. the Kyoto Protocol Adaptation Fund) and outside (e.g. the World Bank) of the UN climate negotiations. However, until an approach to adaptation is agreed upon under the UNFCCC, activities will lack a “north star” to guide and coordinate efforts.

The Negotiating Text on Adaptation: Dealing with Semantics

In Copenhagen, negotiators were very close to agreeing a text on adaptation. The negotiating text that was nearly finalized could have sped the flow of finance and other resources to support adaptation in vulnerable developing countries, and could have fostered a coordinated approach for using those resources. Unfortunately, the negotiations stalled on a range of fronts, and adaptation was among the components that stopped short of a completed text.

Until an approach to adaptation is agreed upon under the UNFCCC, activities will lack a “north star” to guide and coordinate efforts.

Like many of the issues under debate in Copenhagen, the adaptation debate dealt heavily in semantics. Generally, Annex I (developed) countries prefer to see the UNFCCC create an adaptation “framework” that supports and fosters collaboration, but which leaves the details of activities at the discretion of Parties. Meanwhile, non-Annex I (developing) countries insisted that negotiators create an adaptation “program,” not a “framework,” in order to clearly define what adaptation activities will be supported and where the funding will come from.

The semantic distinction between “framework” and “program” came to embody the lack of trust between developed and less developed countries-–-those who have the money do not trust their developing country partners to spend it wisely, while countries who need support do not trust their wealthier negotiating partners to deliver on their promises.

The Copenhagen Accord on Adaptation

The Accord represents a ‘mixed bag’ for adaptation, with some positive developments and some negative ones.

On the positive side, the text mentions adaptations prominently in several places, particularly with respect to climate finance, including the Copenhagen Green Fund that the Accord creates. The Copenhagen Accord is also the first global agreement to articulate a concrete, measurable goal for mitigation: keeping the global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius. This–--together with an agreement to review progress under the Accord, review the goal, and consider shifting it to 1.5 degrees C)--–represents an important win for adaptation. If, as is likely, science continues to show that the impacts associated with 2 degrees are so severe that people cannot adapt successfully, the Accord requires that the goal be adjusted.

On the negative side, the Accord refers to adaptation not only as a response to climate change, but also as a response to “the potential impacts of response measures.” “Response measures” are a relic of climate negotiations from the 1990s–--a term promoted by oil-rich countries meaning that their transition to a low-carbon global economy (i.e., that uses less fossil fuels) would be supported along with vulnerable countries’ needs for adapting to climate change. The conflation of the impacts of climate change with the impacts of response measures tied the adaptation negotiations in knots for many years. Then, under the Bali Action Plan, response measures were integrated into emissions reduction (mitigation) discussions, while adaptation became its own “pillar” to be negotiated separately. The inclusion of ”response measures” in the adaptation portion of the Copenhagen Accord is a step backward, creating a negotiating space that oil-rich countries can exploit at the expense of the most vulnerable countries. As this meaning was likely not understood by many heads of state, it would be helpful if oil producing nations did not use it as an excuse to reopen a closed debate.

Conspicuously absent in the Copenhagen Accord is the creation of a mechanism for supporting adaptation akin to those created for technology and REDD-plus. This could be a signal that adaptation may get less attention under the Copenhagen Accord than other issues and is less of a priority for the Parties who led in the Copenhagen Accord negotiations.

More likely, however, negotiators were wise in not creating a new mechanism for adaptation, since one already exists---the Kyoto Protocol Adaptation Fund. There also are two adaptation-specific funds under the Global Environment Facility. The Accord’s lack of a special adaptation mechanism probably will turn out to be positive, since it will not be competing for funds and attention with other adaptation funds under the UNFCCC.

Moving Forward on Adaptation

A decision on adaptation would help build goodwill and trust among Parties, which could have positive repercussions for other issues in the UNFCCC climate talks.

Near the end of the Copenhagen sessions, negotiators appeared to have settled their semantic differences and elected to create an adaptation “framework.” They also had produced a relatively clean draft decision text, which should provide a reasonable basis for negotiations over the next seven months. If they can finalize this text by the Cancun talks, the global community will have a new “north star” by which to steer toward a shared, climate-resilient future. Perhaps equally important, a decision on adaptation would help build goodwill and trust among Parties, which could have positive repercussions for other issues in the UNFCCC climate talks.

However, forward movement on adaptation is closely tied to finance. Developed countries made financial commitments in Copenhagen to support adaptation efforts and financing for other issues. The Cancun negotiations must send a clear signal about where this money will come from, how it will be administered, what it will be spent on, and how it will be accounted for. The hoped-for adaptation “framework” will help clarify spending priorities, but relevant decisions will also be made outside the adaptation talks, in the finance stream of the negotiations. Crafting a financial mechanism that works for adaptation will be critical for success in Cancun.

Adaptation Funds to Watch

With that goal in mind, the players to watch this year are the several global funds now implementing adaptation initiatives and positioning themselves to shape the UNFCCC’s finance decisions. Briefly, these are:

  • Kyoto Protocol Adaptation Fund: Funded through the Kyoto Protocol Clean Development Mechanism, the Adaptation Fund is unique in having a governing board dominated by developing countries. It is pioneering “direct access” to finance for recipient countries, (i.e. without mediation of a UN agency), and will have distributed its initial grants before Cancun.

  • World Bank Pilot Program on Climate Resilience (PPCR): Funded by contributions from several wealthy countries, the PPCR is piloting new approaches to integrating adaptation into broader development decision-making. Some have criticized it as unjust because it calls for recipient countries to take loans to support adaptation---an activity forced upon them by the greenhouse gas pollution of wealthier nations.

  • Global Environment Facility (GEF): The GEF is the traditional repository for funds associated with the UNFCCC, and has been supporting adaptation projects for several years. However, recipient governments have expressed frustration with the slowness of the GEF, as well as the extent to which UN agencies hold the reins on its projects.

Each of these funds will bring new practical experiences to Cancun, and negotiators will have a chance to reflect on what seems to be working and what doesn’t. They may select one of these funds to lead on adaptation finance under the UNFCCC, they may craft their agreement to support all three of these institutions (among others), or they may apply the lessons of these funds in creating something entirely new.

Whichever route they choose, the challenge will be to craft a finance structure that has legitimacy in both the developed and developing worlds, and that accommodates the diverse, place-specific set of activities that will need support if adaptation is to succeed.

Read More From This Series

From Copenhagen to Cancun: Technology Transfer


From Copenhagen to Cancun: Forests and REDD


From Copenhagen to Cancun: Climate Finance

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