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‘It is upon us’: The world is not adapting swiftly enough for climate crisis impacts, UN warns

Louise Boyle
·4-min read
Boats sheltering in a mangrove-lined channel ahead of Cyclone Yasa in Fiji last month. Mangroves are an important nature-based solution that can help communities adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis (RICHARD MARSHALL via REUTERS)
Boats sheltering in a mangrove-lined channel ahead of Cyclone Yasa in Fiji last month. Mangroves are an important nature-based solution that can help communities adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis (RICHARD MARSHALL via REUTERS)

Countries must adapt more quickly for the impacts of the climate crisis or face growing risks of heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather, the UN has warned.

A new report, published on Thursday, warns that while the vast majority of nations have bolstered their plans for the effects of global warming, there remains a vast funding gap for developing countries, many of which are already disproportionately bearing the brunt of global heating.

Similarly, financing required to build projects which will protect against droughts, floods and sea-level rises has not materialised, the UN Environment Programme’s fifth Adaptation Gap Report said.

As the pandemic raged in 2020, all corners of the world felt the consequences of climate change. Last year was the joint hottest on record, and more than 50 million people were directly affected by floods, locust plagues, droughts or storms. Wildfires burned across Australia, Brazil, Russia and the US at unprecedented rates.

Based on current greenhouse gas-reduction promises under the Paris Agreement, the world is barreling towards a 3C temperature rise by 2100. The World Meteorological Organisation chief said last month that there’s a one in five chance of the global average temperature exceeding 1.5C, and bringing with it severe impacts, in the next three years.

“The hard truth is that climate change is upon us,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP.

“Its impacts will intensify and hit vulnerable countries and communities the hardest – even if we meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming this century to well below 2C and pursuing 1.5C.”

Adapting makes good financial sense: a 2019 global commission studying adaptation estimated that $1.8 trillion (£1.3 trillion) investment in measures would lead to $7.1 trillion (£5.2 trillion) in avoided costs and additional benefits.

Progress has been stymied by the pandemic. While vaccine rollouts are now underway, even the wealthiest nations are facing a difficult economic recovery. This will impact the most vulnerable countries and population groups, the UN says.

UNEP is encouraging countries to invest in nature-based solutions to adapt to climate changeUNEP
UNEP is encouraging countries to invest in nature-based solutions to adapt to climate changeUNEP

Global recessions will put added pressure on public finances and may cause a shift in priorities when it comes to climate action, the report notes.

UNEP urges for investment in climate adaptation through green economic recovery packages, calling it “a sound economic decision”. But not enough countries are taking advantage of this opportunity, the report states.

The global agency calls for both public and private finance to be ramped up to introduce projects more swiftly.

Nature-based solutions also suffer from a woeful lack of attention, the report found, particularly unfortunate considering these are often low-cost options.

Such remedies, usually relating to flood control and urban heat reduction, have few concrete plans and a lack of funding, UNEP said. While support for green initiatives has risen over the last 20 years, only $12bn (£8.7bn) of the $94bn (£68bn) total for mitigation and adaptation projects was spent on nature-based solutions.

The study found that nearly 75 per cent of countries have come up with climate adaptation plans, including most developing nations. A further 9 per cent have plans in the works.

Adaptation costs in developing countries are estimated at $70bn (£51bn) a year, the report notes. This is expected to at least double by the end of the decade and could soar to $500bn (£364bn) by 2050.

There is some good news. The Green Climate Fund – the world’s biggest money pot for helping developing countries reduce emissions and respond to climate crises – will invest 40 per cent into adaptation, and has increasing additional private sector financing.

Since 2006, close to 400 adaptation projects financed by funds linked to the Paris Agreement have gotten underway in developing countries.

Additionally, more than 500,000 people have been trained in climate resilience measures. Most projects focus on agriculture and water, tackling drought, rainfall variability, flooding and coastal impacts.

The report also discovered that from “1,700 adaptation initiatives surveyed, only 3 per cent had already reported real reductions to climate risks posed to the communities”.

Global emissions – which had a temporary lull during the pandemic – remain at record high levels meaning that projects to adapt to climate change may be outpaced by the number of disasters.

UNEP calls on countries to have a green pandemic recovery and update their “Nationally Determined Contributions” – their pledges to tackle emissions, and include commitments to net-zero.

“But everyone must also plan to adapt – as a moral responsibility to those nations least responsible for climate change but most at risk, and as an economic decision,” says UNEP.

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