COP26: Big steps forward on adaptation and resilience

By Michael Mullan, OECD Environment Directorate

Image credit: Shutterstock / MemoryMan

While I was at COP26 in Glasgow, one of the speakers said that hope was not the same as optimism; rather it was about being able to see the possibility of a better future. In that sense, I returned from COP26 feeling hopeful about what can still be achieved, even though the path to success remains narrow.

The Paris Agreement seeks to mobilise the collective effort needed to reduce emissions, while recognising that individual contributions will differ. It is building collective effort by combining clear goals with regular submissions of national commitments, transparency about respective contributions, and peer-pressure to encourage a race to the top.

We could see this mechanism in action for COP26. Collectively, our mitigation efforts still fall well short of what is required, but there has been a “ratcheting-up” of ambitions over time. The Glasgow Climate Pact will help to accelerate this process by urging countries to submit revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by the end of 2022. Current NDCs would lead to global emissions being higher in 2030 than in 2010, while reaching 1.5oC requires emissions to fall 45% over the same period.  There is an extremely large gap to fill, but I remain hopeful that the combination of accountability, support and peer-pressure will provide a powerful mechanism for mobilising increased collective action.  

Stepping up efforts on adaptation and resilience

Beyond mitigation, the Glasgow Climate Pact has given renewed impetus to efforts to build resilience to the growing impacts of climate change. The need for this is obvious, as we are already facing the human costs of climate change: the current flooding in Canada following on from extreme heat and forest fires. Madagascar is seeing successive droughts, threatening hundreds of thousands of people with hunger. Unprecedented heatwaves in Southern Europe, contributing to deadly wildfires. These impacts will become increasingly severe – with uncertain tipping points – and the burden being borne most heavily by people in developing countries.

 A major development in Glasgow was the launch of a work programme on the global goal on adaptation. This may sound rather technical, but it is critical to understand progress toward this goal, established in the Paris Agreement. Overcoming the methodological, empirical, conceptual and political challenges of reviewing the overall progress towards it will be important for the global stocktake. At the national level too, it will be important to broaden attention from tracking processes to outcomes to allow effective practices to be identified and scaled-up and ensure that efforts are targeted where they will yield the greatest benefit. The OECD is currently working in partnership to support efforts to track progress on adaptation.

Another major step was the commitment to increase the provision of resources for adaptation in developing countries. The Paris Agreement called for a balance in the provision of financial resources between adaptation and mitigation. Yet, the latest OECD analysis of finance provided and mobilised by developed countries towards the $100 billion goal shows that, in 2019, finance flows for adaptation were $20 billion in 2019, compared to $51 billion for mitigation and $8.7 for cross-cutting activities. The ambition made in Glasgow to double finance flows implies a further $20 billion of additional resources to protect lives and livelihoods in the face of climate impacts.

Making climate resilience the norm

These two developments set the stage for a crucial third step: aligning all finance flows with climate-resilient development. This will require scaling-up dedicated funding, but also ensuring that all investment is consistent with climate-resilient development. For example, in 2019, $2.7 trillion was invested in new infrastructure. The design, location and operation of these assets will affect our vulnerability to climate change, yet we lack clarity on whether current investments are consistent with our adaptation needs. Providing greater clarity and transparency would help to unlock a positive feedback loop that drives capital towards activities that build resilience.

New work by OECD and the UK Centre for Greening Finance and Investment is helping to provide that clarity by defining adaptation-aligned finance, building on the work done to better manage physical climate risks and assess alignment with mitigation goals.  Transforming this into a collective effort was a central focus at our recent discussion on Aligning Finance with Adaptation and Resilience Goals.

Recordings of these discussions – and many others – can be found at the OECD COP26 Virtual Pavilion, which features a programme of 36 events and more than 160 speakers.  Leading thinkers and policy experts show how we can collectively achieve higher ambition and tangible outcomes across a range of climate-related topics, including regional approaches to mobilise climate action, driving innovation for net zero, transport strategies, the impact of trade agreements on climate action and more.

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