Expert Perspectives

NAPs: The Best Path to a Long-term Adaptation Strategy in Developing Countries

The Paris Agreement fundamentally changed the international approach to mitigation by replacing the Kyoto targets with nationally determined contributions (NDCs), regular reviews and stocktakes, and international pressure to incrementally ratchet ambitions to limit global temperature increase to 2°C or less above preindustrial levels. It also widened the framework for adaptation to better recognize its links to development, human rights, and gender and intergenerational equity. Each Party is requested to submit and update an appropriate adaptation communication as part of its NDC, including priorities, implementation plans, and support needs. Each communication should be appropriate to the Party’s circumstances and should not create an additional burden for developing countries.

The Agreement also requested that countries develop midcentury long-term mitigation strategies for “low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.” Such long-term planning for global emissions is difficult but feasible and essential, lest we lock in emission pathways incompatible with our goal of 2°C or less in temperature increase.

The rules and communication procedures for the NDCs and midcentury strategies are still being written, so this is a good time to ask how much effort might go into long-term adaptation planning? And, in particular, what resources should developing countries, with relatively small emission profiles and vulnerable populations, apply to developing and reporting adaptation strategies for midcentury?

The Paris Agreement has had little immediate effect on approaches to adaptation. Most countries included an adaptation component in their initial NDC and expressed a goal of increasing resilience while emphasizing their existing efforts. Developing countries often described what they would be able to do with additional resources. But the treatment of adaptation has been mostly brief, patchy, and very generic. This may improve during the NDC process as further research on metrics for tracking adaptation effort and effectiveness becomes available, along with the work of bodies such as the Adaptation Committee and the Least Developed Countries Expert Group (LEG) on developing methods for assessing adaptation needs.1

So what might be the benefits of preparing midcentury adaptation strategies? All countries can benefit from long-term mitigation strategies that can guide nearer-term planning and mitigation ambitions. Anticipating the impacts of future climates on long-lived infrastructure, on land-use planning, and on social change is also beneficial. Developed countries have the resources to identify factors that are most likely to increase the climate robustness of their policies and measures in the longer term. One could argue that developing countries will likewise benefit. But developing countries must ask whether midcentury adaptation strategies will provide sufficient shorter-term guidance to justify the burden of reporting.

It is widely accepted that adaptation is inextricably linked to national development visions, plans, and progress. This link is recognized by most development agencies and adaptation funding agencies; it is also one of the two objectives of the national adaptation plan (NAP) process. A comprehensive literature review  undertaken in 2016 noted that despite different approaches to adaptation and development, no articles promoted stand-alone adaptation policies or programs that are disconnected from development planning.2

But very few countries have national development plans (“plans” rather than “visions”) that extend to 2050. Such a planning process would be fraught with uncertainties about the many factors, climate among them, that will affect development pathways. In most developing countries development planning has a time frame of 3 to 5 years, and sometimes 10. A longer-term adaptation strategy without the context of a national development plan is of doubtful value.

No country should be discouraged from developing a long-term adaptation strategy, but to encourage such planning is likely to impose another burden on most developing countries; a burden that the negotiation process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has explicitly sought to avoid. In many developing countries progress on adaptation is limited by a shortage of human resources that can be allocated to adaptation, and to climate change issues in general. This is especially the case in least developed countries (LDCs) and small states where the challenge is decide where and how to focus their skilled but scarce experts.

Developing countries have engaged in the preparation and reporting processes for national adaptation programs of action (NAPAs), NAPs, intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), and NDCs. Should they now engage in preparing and reporting a midcentury adaptation strategy? A 2050 strategy may identify some broad principles to be followed; for example, inclusive institutions, cohesive societies that enable women and men of diverse cultural backgrounds to work together, and transparent accountable institutions responsive to the public interest. But these are principles that should be applied now; they are a challenge of the present.

It is likely that many developing countries will instead choose to focus their human resources on more immediate essentials. This includes placing adaptation within the context of a broader development plan, which is best achieved via a NAP linked to a national development plan. Excellent guidance exists for the preparation of NAPs,3 or equivalent plans, with the flexibility to account for varying national circumstances and planning processes. A comprehensive NAP should include long-term plans, but these are implicitly five years or so. It may include a vision extending to midcentury, but it should be the outcome of an integrated, climate resilient development plan, not a reporting task within the UNFCCC process.

The NAPs should be living documents, revised regularly according to changing national, external, and climatic pressures. This is consistent with the Paris Agreement and its cycles of NDCs, stocktaking, refinement, and increasing ambition. Examination of the INDCs suggests that without a NAP, or an equivalent, it will be difficult to present a comprehensive adaptation component in the NDC. NAPs are also a critical component in gaining support from the Green Climate Fund and other financial and knowledge-sharing institutions. Thus the focus for developing countries should be on preparing and updating NAPs, and these NAPs must be a bridge to greater on-the-ground action.

There is often a fear that without further assessments and analyses, actions that appear appropriate now may prove to be maladaptive in the future. This will almost certainly be true for some adaptation actions. But we can learn from them. It is certainly true that the lack of action is maladaptive.

It is time to act. We have been delaying too long with too many plans, assessments, and reports. Perfection should not be the enemy of action. We must avoid further extensive delays while yet more impact assessments are done and “visions” prepared. For most adaptation projects, the balance between further analysis and “getting on with it” favors the latter.

There are other actions that can help accelerate concrete adaptation actions and learning. We should avoid yet more generic capacity building that distracts staff from their tasks and focus more on skill building and knowledge sharing that is related to imminent or ongoing projects or programs.

We also need to tackle the internal rivalries between agencies within recipient governments, as adaptation action at scale is too big a task for single agencies, be they responsible for environment, water, or roads. Each country must find its best internal institutional structure to integrate climate volatility and trends into the national planning process. This includes fostering relationships between government institutions at national to local levels, and with the civil society organizations (CSOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who will often be responsible for much of the on-the-ground delivery.

Finally, we must halt the overlap and competition between international financial institutions and other specialist agencies in providing advice and finance to developing countries. This is a burden on both developing country staff and on the international staff working with them. Halting overlap and competition is no simple task for those trying to deal with it day-by-day on-the-ground; it requires leadership from the top of both the international agencies and recipient countries.

But the suggestion here that we focus on the immediate does not mean being blind to the range of futures. We must always ask, using the best of international research and national and local knowledge, whether current and near-term actions are likely to be robust to the range of possible futures. This includes identifying existential threats within the 2050 time frame, such as managing vulnerable low-lying lands and considering managed retreat from high-risk areas.

The process of the Intergovernmental Plan on Climate Change provides broad assessments of current and future climate risks and options to tackle them. But all nations need to translate these broad assessments into local priorities and policies. This requires cross-disciplinary teams that go beyond the biophysical sciences, to include social sciences and policy experience. Few developing countries can dedicate the human resources to such an effort. Here there is room for regional cooperation. Regional centers of excellence can evolve longer-term strategies while retaining a high level of country ownership and relevance, and provide opportunities for their skilled people to contribute and learn.

Ultimately, on-the-ground outcomes are the effective way of developing competencies, gaining community awareness and support, and leveraging greater action initiated by CSOs and communities. These will all help achieve a better outcome for 2050.


1 Adaptation Committee, “Methodologies for Assessing Adaptation Needs with a View to Assisting Developing Countries, without Placing an Undue Burden on Them,” 12th meeting of the Adaptation Committee, Bonn, Germany, September 19–22, 2017, https://unfccc.int/adaptation/groups_committees/adaptation_committee/items/10375.php.

2 Mya Sherman, Lea Berrang-Ford, Shuaib Lwasa, et al., “Drawing the Line between Adaptation and Development: A Systematic Literature Review of Planned Adaptation in Developing Countries,” WIREs Climate Change 7(5) (2016): 707–26.

3 Least Developed Countries Expert Group, National Adaptation Plans: Technical Guidelines for the National Adaptation Plan Process (Bonn, Germany: UNFCCC Secretariat, December 2012), https://unfccc.int/NAP.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.