UN report warns of climate change ‘adaptation gap’ that threatens the developing world

Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, Sept. 20. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The measures being undertaken by world governments to adapt to climate change are not keeping up with increasingly severe damage caused by rising temperatures and should be dramatically increased, a new report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has found.

“Today’s UNEP Adaptation Gap report makes clear that the world is failing to protect people from the here-and-now impacts of the climate crisis,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement referencing the report. “Those on the frontlines of the climate crisis are at the back of the line for support.”

“Climate change is landing blow after blow upon humanity, as we saw time and again throughout 2022,” the report states. Many of the world’s poorest countries are being hardest hit by the changing climate. One-third of Pakistan was submerged in floods in late July, causing $10 billion in estimated damages. In East Africa, a drought intensified by global warming is contributing to widespread food insecurity and a potential famine affecting the lives of millions of people. Hurricanes made more powerful by warmer ocean waters have swept across developing island nations from the Philippines to the Dominican Republic.

“We’re nowhere near where we need to be in solving and addressing the climate crisis, and with each passing day of inaction, we’re getting further and further away from being on a pathway to limit global warming to 1.5 [degrees Celsius] and prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis,” said a senior UN official during a background press briefing on Wednesday. “And with every fraction of warming, climate disasters are getting worse and they’re wrecking lives and livelihoods and decimating economies like never before.”

Many countries have begun planning adaptation measures, such as moving residents from vulnerable areas and fortifying infrastructure. But the richer nations that are primarily responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change have not provided enough money to pay for them.

“More than eight out of ten countries have at least one national adaptation planning instrument,” the report’s press release states. “However, financing to turn these plans into action isn’t following. International adaptation finance flows to developing countries are 5-10 times below estimated needs and the gap continues to widen.”

A refugee camp in Sehwan, Pakistan

A refugee camp in Sehwan, Pakistan. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

The report comes on the eve of the COP27, the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Guterres argued that developed nations should respond with new commitments to fund climate adaptation in developing countries at the conference.

In the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, a precursor to the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact, developed countries pledged to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 for climate change assistance to developing countries. Half of that money was slated to be used for adaptation measures, while the other half would go towards helping developing countries reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. However, that funding has lagged, especially on adaptation. In 2020, $83 billion went to developing countries, of which only $29 billion was for adaptation projects. That $29 billion, however, represented an increase of 4% from 2019.

“Last year, developed countries agreed to double support for adaptation to $40 billion a year by 2025,” Guterres said. “At COP27, they must present a credible road map with clear milestones on how this will be delivered — preferably as grants, not loans.”

The cost of dealing with climate change continues to spiral upwards. The UNEP report estimates that adaptation needs will reach between $160 billion and $340 billion by 2030 and $315 billion to $565 billion by 2050.

A woman removes rubble from her destroyed house in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, in El Seibo, Dominican Republic

A woman removes rubble from her destroyed house in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, in El Seibo, Dominican Republic, Sept. 20. (Ricardo Rojas/Reuters)

The report argues that adaptation actions thus far have been too focused on the short-term and are insufficient in their ability to provide adequate protection from conditions like higher temperatures and higher sea levels later in this century. Future projects must be planned in a more comprehensive and inclusive way, the report warns, and must offer some general recommendations for democratizing and improving the process.

Richer countries have their own climate change adaptation needs, as can be seen from the effects of heat waves, drought and the resulting wildfires in Europe and the United States this summer.

But the warmer countries south of the US and Europe — sometimes referred to as “the Global South” — are suffering more extreme consequences of climate change. They also tend to be the poorest and least equipped to handle disasters.

“As the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] confirmed earlier this year, if you’re living in one of the global hot spots of the climate crisis — namely Africa, South Asia, Central or South America or on a small island developing state — you’re 15 times more likely to die from a climate impact,” said the UN official.

Embracing one of the report’s recommendations, Guterres announced the creation of an “Adaptation Pipeline Accelerator” — a project of the UN and related agencies like the Green Climate Fund that will help funders and developing nations partner on adaptation programs.

“This will be a central litmus test for success at COP27,” Guterres warned. “The world must step up and protect people and communities from the immediate and ever-growing risks of the climate emergency. We have no time to lose.”

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