The impacts of climate change were more visible in recent years than ever before. In Southern Africa many countries experienced severe droughts, with 45 million people affected by resulting food shortages. The Central African Republic, a country with one of the lowest levels of income per person, was one of the many African countries hit by unprecedented flooding, affecting millions of people. In 2020, wildfires ravaged vast areas of forests and wetlands in Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. Somalia witnessed its strongest ever cyclone, leading to Northern regions receiving two years’ worth of rainfall in just two days. In India and Bangladesh 4.9 million people were displaced as a result of cyclone Amphan, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal.

Alongside these highly visible short-term impacts, more long-term and incremental climate change is also progressing at a dangerous pace. Desertification in Nigeria and other countries in the Sahel region is enhancing conflict over land which is threatening to lead to wider regional instability. In Bangladesh, the persistent occurrence of floods and rising sea levels are forcing the rural population to abandon their livelihoods and migrate to already overcrowded cities. The North Pole has been melting at an alarming rate, leaving scientists to consider the prospect of Arctic sea ice completely disappearing by 2035.

The role of a champion

2020 is set to be one of the three warmest years on record, just behind 2016 and 2019. The increasingly devastating impacts of global warming, particularly for low-income countries in the Global South, underline the urgent need for stepping up ambition for climate change adaptation and resilience. As its International Champion on Adaptation and Resilience for the UNFCCC COP26 summit in Glasgow scheduled for later this year, the UK government has appointed Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who has served in multiple high-ranking positions in the UK government after her election to parliament in 2015. The function of this special role is to lead discussions between national governments, the international community and the private sector on adaptation and resilience. At recent COPs, champions have shown to be highly effective in raising ambition for issues related to climate change adaptation and resilience.

Appointment receives mixed reception

The appointment of Trevelyan has been met with some criticism from opposition parties and various media channels, citing her history of campaigning against the building of wind farms and her support for the fracking of shale gas in her constituency of Berwick-Upon-Tweed in the English region of Northumberland. Critics further reference data on her voting record as a conservative MP revealing that, in 13 votes on measures to prevent climate change, Trevelyan has voted against their implementation in every instance. Further voting trends include not calling on government to develop and implement a plan to eliminate the substantial majority of transport emissions by 2030, and also not supporting a motion for encouraging a green industrial revolution to decarbonise the economy. Additionally, she was against reducing the permitted carbon dioxide emission rate of new homes.

Although the UNFCCC climate negotiations depend highly on the principles of multi-lateralism, Trevelyan has supported the exit of the UK from the EU. During this process, she has voted against taking steps to prevent UK’s exit from leading to the deterioration of environmental protection. With regards to EU environmental standards, Trevelyan voted against upholding these standards as a minimum after the UK’s exit. Trevelyan also voted against requiring a “climate and nature emergency impact statement” as part of any proposal for financial assistance under a UK Internal Market Act. In summary, Trevelyan’s voting history shows a pattern of refusal to vote for climate protection measures.

The jury is still out on whether this criticism is justified, and Trevelyan deserves to be judged on her actions at COP26 in Glasgow. Her voting record does not necessarily mean she will not succeed in her role as Champion of Adaptation and Resilience. Past negotiations have shown that those with mixed voting records are not necessarily precluded from being suitable ambassadors of climate change issues. Her considerable experience and expertise in high-level policy-making and political negotiations, particularly as the former Secretary of State for International Development, should prove a key asset. In addition, any appointment which breaks the male dominance of COP26 leadership positions should be welcomed. It will be interesting to see therefore whether Trevelyan will address the key areas for enabling adaptation and enhancing resilience of vulnerable communities in low-income countries to more frequent and intense climate change impacts.

Five priorities for adaptation and resilience at COP26 in Glasgow

The first priority is the provision of climate finance to low-income countries. Despite causing the fewest greenhouse gas emissions, low-income countries are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) finances adaptation chiefly through the Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF) and the Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF). The UNFCCC aims to mobilize $100 billion per year for assisting low-income countries in adapting to climate change impacts and enhancing resilience. Current funding efforts have however fallen significantly short of this aim. Not only is it crucial that the funds are provided, but that access to the funds for those most in need of adaptation finance is facilitated.

The second priority covers the compensation of those affected by climate change impacts. When the limits to adaptation are reached and irreversible loss and damages occur, the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) stipulates that those affected have the right to compensation. However, negotiations around resolving the funding issue of the WIM has been hampered by high-income nations, particularly the US. Contentious issues include whether funds could be drawn from the GEF, meaning the proportion of finance available to low-income countries for adaptation would decrease. In light of a change in US leadership, acknowledging the need for additional finance separate from the GEF, and identifying possible avenues for necessary funding, may become more achievable.

The third priority is enhancing multi-level cooperation. While climate adaptation policy is debated and agreed upon at the international level, implementation is dependent on action at the national and sub-national level. Climate change adaptation in particular is context-sensitive, meaning effective multi-level cooperation is dependent on the capacity of local actors to enact change. The National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) are a mechanism for enabling low-income countries to identify and address priorities for adaptation. Support is still needed for developing and mainstreaming NAPs with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In addition, strategies for scaling up local knowledge on adaptation to inform the NAPs are urgently required.

The promotion of gender-responsive climate policy through the unanimously agreed upon Gender Action Plan (GAP) was a key success at COP25 in Madrid. However, the GAP falls short of clear metrics for measuring success. The fourth priority therefore is to establish clearly defined indicators and targets for tracking progress, and to ensure this success is built upon by securing adequate funding and political will at national and sub-national levels for implementing the GAP.

The fifth priority should be around further enacting climate justice legislation. While the GAP is most certainly a step in the right direction, additional plans for other groups particularly affected by climate change need to be initiated, including indigenous communities, marginalized groups, and young people. Again, establishing clearly defined indicators and targets for tracking progress is key, in addition to adopting new policies and mandates.

Adaptation and resilience a question of equity

Broken down, climate change adaptation is a question of equity. When working with affected communities, from residents of informal settlements in South Africa to coastal communities in Mauritius, the urgency for equity in terms of climate change becomes immediately apparent. While COPs have many deficiencies, the collective nature of climate change means if they did not exist, they would have to be invented. Championing the priorities listed for COP26 could contribute to lessening the inevitable burden of climate change for those disproportionately affected.

 

Teaser photo credit: By Dumbassman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85661296