Climate adaptation faces ‘monumental’ underfunding challenge

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistMonday 21 February 2022

The COP26 summit raised the bar yet again for state commitment to tackle the climate crisis. The Glasgow Climate Pact set developed countries the unprecedented goal of doubling their funding for climate adaptation measures by 2025.

The Global Goal on Adaptation – the adaptation equivalent of limiting global warming to 1.5°C – was recognised in the Paris Agreement in 2015. However, November’s talks highlighted that there’s still a significant gap in climate adaptation financing and the devastating impact this shortfall is having on those most vulnerable to the climate crisis.

‘When the Paris Agreement was first signed, it was anticipated that there should be roughly equal amounts of financing for climate mitigation as for climate adaptation and that, unfortunately, has not come to pass,’ says Katherine Meighan, Associate Vice-President and General Counsel at the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Meighan says this financing imbalance – for every $18 dollars spent on climate mitigation only $1 is spent on adaptation measures – is rarely discussed. This is despite recent calls by high-profile figures like UN Secretary-General António Guterres that 50 per cent of the total share of climate finance should be spent on building resilience and adapting measures.

‘We were trying to sound the alarm bell on the need for climate adaptation at COP26,’ says Meighan, who participated in a virtual side event to the talks. ‘We have to really take it forward significantly because the underfunding for climate adaptation is monumental. When one sees that climate mitigation is not being addressed as quickly as one would hope, it means that it’s even more important to increase support for climate adaptation to help people deal with the climate crisis, which is not going away.’

IFAD has focused on climate adaptation measures for over a decade and Meighan says that today 95 per cent of its climate financing goes towards adaptation efforts. ‘When you look at climate adaptation – think of the climate emergencies that are ravaging the lives of millions of poor people today, every day – one severe weather event can eliminate the livelihood of a poor rural farmer, of his family and his entire community. Just one event, and then you're in a complete poverty trap.’

We were trying to sound the alarm bell on the need for climate adaptation at COP26

Katherine Meighan
General Counsel, UN International Fund for Agricultural Development

That’s why IFAD developed its Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP), which has raised US$305 million in grants since 2012 to help an estimated 6 million vulnerable smallholders across 41 countries. It’s now targeting a further $500m to scale up its efforts as part of the programme’s recently launched new phase.

For some, like those who live on low-lying islands, adaptation financing may literally be the difference between life and death. In May 2019, eight inhabitants of a group of islands in the Torres Strait launched a claim against the Australian federal government, alleging it had failed in its legal human rights obligations to take adequate action to reduce emissions or to implement proper adaptation measures on the islands. The government submitted a response to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva in which it said it felt it was already doing enough to combat climate change.

As the islanders await the Committee’s final decision on the complaint, the government has already committed AU$25 million in climate adaptation spending for the region – one of the key asks by the claimants.

Sophie Marjanac, the ClientEarth lawyer leading the case, says it may be too little too late. ‘As the Torres Strait claimants are only too aware, climate change is already here now, and having a significant impact on everyday life on low-lying islands,’ she says. ‘People from the Torres Strait are witnessing, in real time, the destruction caused by rising seas, more extreme storms and hotter marine environments.’

Marjanac says heavy-emitting countries like Australia must invest in both mitigation and adaptation. ‘Countries like Australia have a responsibility to protect their most vulnerable communities, both by reducing overall emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, and by investing in adaptation measures for those most affected,’ she says. ‘In the Torres Strait this means investing in coastal infrastructure, like sea walls.’

There’s growing awareness of the toll the climate crisis has taken on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which are already highly vulnerable to extreme weather events. Island nations’ scarce financial resources and low capacity has made the threat facing them even more ‘immediate’, says Maria Vizeu-Pinheiro, Environmental and Sustainability Policy Officer on the IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee.

Vizeu-Pinheiro says actions to manage climate risk must be taken immediately and that SIDS need funding if they’re to undertake the range of adaptation and mitigation measures required to improve their resilience. ‘Measures might vary from improving coastal infrastructure, investing in nature-based solutions, protecting marine and terrestrial ecosystems zones, investing in coastal areas, mangroves and reinvesting in all the measures that they need,’ she says. ‘Otherwise, we'll be too late.’

She points to countries like Costa Rica, which has pioneered several hugely successful ‘green’ initiatives to help the country adapt and promote a more sustainable economy. These include the payment for environmental services (PES) programme, which remunerates farmers and landowners for any environmental services produced by their lands using sustainable techniques. This programme is primarily funded through a nationwide gas tax.

She says an intercropping and shade tree programme has also made coffee production more sustainable and helped to reforest the country. ‘The country has been incredible in terms of being proactive and looking for innovative ways to finance different solutions to increase sustainability and climate change resilience,’ she says. ‘What Costa Rica shows is there are innovative ways to fund climate smart policies.’

Image: Degraded mangrove forest from climate change, Borneo. Borneo Rimbawan/Shutterstock.com

Download app for Climate Crisis Special Edition

Access a decade’s worth of Global Insight coverage of the climate crisis

Join the IBA

Expand your international network, gain new business and learn about the latest legal developments through IBA digital content and events, with IBA membership. Available for individuals, students, law firms, bar associations and corporations.

Find out more