First impressions from the UN climate change conference in Doha #Cop18

Written by Gernot Laganda, Climate Change Adaptation Specialist at International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

©IFAD/Amadou Keita
Less than a decade back, climate change adaptation was considered a white flag of surrender to a warming world. The dominant chorus was that there is only one way to address climate change, and that is reducing the greenhouse gases that drive it. Some people even argued that in the context of climate change, advocating for adaptation means advocating for a non-response: If we can adapt our way out of the problem, then what is the point in reducing greenhouse gases in the first place? At this year’s UN climate change conference in Doha, these entrenched positions have all but disappeared. People seem to have realized that the world they were born in has gone, and that they will never really recapture its climate, its seasons, the way its plants grew and its animals lived. It has started to sink in that we will be locked into a world that will be at least 2 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average by the end of this century. A confirmed warming record of 0.8 degrees puts us almost half way there, and the temperature rise we are already committed to, based on the current amount of global greenhouse gas emissions we are emitting, is almost certain to do the rest.

This renewed awareness of global change has been buoyed by a steady stream of scientific reports, catastrophic events and climate activism over the past few months: Satellite imagery of the lowest arctic sea ice on record have startled even the most critical climate scientist, while a new World Bank Report examining the risks of a 4 degree hotter world by the end of the Century had a similar effect on many people in the development community. This report makes it clear that 4 degrees of warming confront us with the limits of incremental adaptation; 4 degrees is the scary realm of large-scale tipping points, positive feedbacks and ‘nasty surprises’ in the climate system. Disasters such as Hurricane Sandy in the US, which have been analysed by many against the backdrop of a warming world, would multiply in scale and severity, plunging many countries over a ‘climate fiscal cliff’.

For governments, development agencies and NGOs, the resurgence of adaptation presents a new paradigm: Pitching wide but shallow criticism at an imperfect international negotiations process is not going to make them any safer. Too many friction losses are built into the negotiation of a post-Kyoto agreement: Which time period such an agreement should cover; which type of commitments should be specified; how the burden of climate protection should be shared between developed and developing countries; and if there should be a global plan or an array of decentralized alliances. Faced with the stark realities of a warming world, many countries have started to focus on adaptation planning and financing. Rather than complaining that they are heading into a train wreck, they have started to check the location and specifications of their seat belts. 

IFAD’s new Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ASAP) is a good example of a UN agency helping countries make this transition. The programme influences a third of IFAD’s new lending, and introduces a much stronger appreciation of risk and resilience to the design and monitoring of rural development programmes. ASAP provides room for countries to scale up those tried and trusted approaches that have shown to deliver livelihood and resilience benefits to smallholder farmers: Watershed management, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, mixed crop-livestock systems, integrated coastal zone management, land restoration and disaster preparedness, to name a few. Back to back, ASAP is introducing some new ingredients which have long been overlooked: Better seasonal forecasting, access to insurance, training on risk analysis and GIS, robust infrastructure that is protected from extreme weather, and empowerment of small local institutions to engage with national policy processes.

Programmes such as ASAP are a credible and large-scale effort to translate the urgency of climate change adaptation into an ambitious institutional programme that can achieve big leaps in climate risk management. In a time in which politicians argue that the climate crisis is every bit as real as the fiscal one, this is a very credible response.