/ 23 September 2021

Adaptation should be central to climate crisis talks. Here’s why

Without action by 2030
Climate change poses a health risk to our society.

The cabinet has approved South Africa’s updated legal commitment to take action on climate change on Monday, 20 September. 

It is expected to be deposited with the UN ahead of a final report that includes all 191 country commitments to prepare for the upcoming November UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. The Conference of the Parties, or COP26, is regarded as one of the most important meetings for the future of humanity.

Every degree of warming makes a difference

Cabinet approved South Africa’s revised climate change mitigation target range for 2030 for submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Presidential Climate Commission released a recommendation in June that the proposed range be reduced to between 350 and 420 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e). This recommendation was submitted to President Ramaphosa on 1 July. South Africa has revised its target range for the year 2025 to 398 to 510 MtCO2e and for 2030 to 350 – 420 MtCO2e. This equates to about 1 200 barrels of oil consumed a year. 

However, the latest Nationally Determined Contributions Synthesis report on global efforts to cut emissions shows that the combined efforts of 113 countries that have updated their commitments to stop climate change will reduce emissions by 12% by 2030.

The UN agency said the latest scientific assessments require a 45% or 25% drop in harmful gas emissions in order to avoid different levels of global warming. A 45% drop will avoid 1.5℃ heating and 25% will avoid a global heating of 2℃ (which is Paris Agreement aligned, while 1.5℃ is what scientists say we should be aiming for.) Scientists say every degree of warming makes a difference in the severity of climate change.  

All climate action is, however, not equal. This is particularly true for climate diplomacy at a level of the UN, where people’s capacity to adjust to existing and future harm from climate change takes a back seat. 

At the front of the queue at these meetings is a great and important focus on stopping activities that are causing the climate emergency, by mega-industries in energy, farming and transport, some of whom will spend the next two-week negotiations lobbying governments to consider their interests before making any ambitious commitments to their own demise.  

Why the adaptation talks must be central 

Climate change is not gender-neutral and that existing inequalities have left women and girls more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. 

If adaptation is not foregrounded, it means that women farmers in the most rural parts of the world lose out on the support needed to adapt to climate change, which will erode water and land resources.

When women farmers in KwaZulu-Natal take part in training to learn new ways of dealing with droughts, they are essentially learning to adapt to climate change. 

One such adaptation project is happening in the Mkuze River ecosystem. The project is  focused on food security, restoring natural resources and giving the affected rural community access to the green economy

“Women are the primary drivers of subsistence agriculture in these rural communities. Our project aims to improve this in the face of climate change predictions by providing training

in climate smart agriculture to women along the Mkuze River and assisting a large portion of these women to develop climate-smart homestead gardens that grow more traditional crops that are resilient to drought,” they said. 

An important element of the project involved giving the women access to markets to earn income but, according to a brief from the environment department, cultural beliefs made community members hesitant to embrace gender equity in communities along the river.

What is adaptation?

Although agreements between countries commit everyone to invest in stopping gas emissions and adapting to climate change, the UN’s climate conferences are dominated by talks on issues affects industry and less about people adjusting to the existing crisis.

The UNFCCC defines adaptation as “adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. It refers to changes in processes, practices, and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change.”

It includes “smarter cities” and green buildings; transforming transport, roads and food systems; water use; land use; as well as protecting wetlands and forests that absorb and break stormwater. 

“Adapting the world to our climate emergency is essential for our safety even as we continue to tackle a global pandemic. COP26 in Glasgow will fail if it does not put adaptation on an equal footing with emission reductions,” said Patrick Verkooijen, the Global Centre for Adaptation’s chief executive, at youth forums on the sidelines of the second day of former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s high level meeting earlier this month. 

He had called the meeting in Rotterdam, Netherlands to drive a new narrative before the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland in November. 

Discussions were going to “hammer out a clear call to action for governments, policymakers and the public on what COP26 must deliver if communities are to be kept safe from the accelerating climate impacts in the coming decade,” the Global Centre for Adaptation said. 

It also coincided with the African Development Bank’s launch of a new adaptation accelerator programme that could provide African countries with mechanisms to access international finance. It will do this in partnership with the Global Centre for Adaptation and the European Investment Bank. The banks have set a goal of $25-billion in adaptation finance for Africa.

“We need massively scaled-up investment in adaptation and resilience. This is absolutely critical for those at the frontlines of the climate crisis, yet only 21% of climate finance is channelled to adaptation efforts,” said UN deputy secretary general Amina Mohammed. 

Adaptation needs financing, just like other areas of climate change

“Of the $70-billion that developing countries need now to adapt, only a fraction is being provided. Adaptation costs in the developing world could rise to as much as $300-billion by 2030. We have a moral imperative to close this gap.” 

In community adaptation projects focused on water and food security like those in the Mkuze River, skills have to be coupled with access to technology in order to implement techniques to overcome drought conditions. 

The UN’s Mohammed said that these kinds of initiatives can no longer be relegated to half of the climate conversation. “We have less than 80 days to COP26, I ask you to act boldly now — people and planet, before it is too late,” the deputy secretary general said. 

Acknowledging the “huge gaps” remaining in financing for adaptation in developing countries, UN secretary general António Guterres called for 50% of all climate finance provided by developed countries and multilateral development banks to be allocated to adaptation and resilience in developing countries. 

Adaptation involves building resilience to a changed climate where droughts are longer and floods are more frequent, while sea rise displaces people and damages ecosystems in the environment. 

The Paris Agreement obliged wealthy nations (most responsible for the crisis) to mobilise $100-billion in finance every year from 2010 to 2020 to assist countries to meet their climate action needs. 

In 2018 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said that climate finance provided and mobilised by developed countries for developing countries totalled $78.9-billion in 2018, up 11% from $71.2-billion in 2017. 

A worrying outcome of the assessment was that private finance was sorely lacking and many of the increases were publicly financed. This means that private fossil fuel industry giants are not paying their fair share for their role in the climate disaster. 

The OECD report found that out of the overall climate finance in 2018, 70% went to climate change mitigation activities, 21% went to adaptation and the remainder to cross-cutting activities.

This makes climate negotiations under the UNFCCC at COP challenging, and puts mitigation almost in conflict with adaptation.

At the last COP in Spain, South Africa’s Environment Minister Barbara Creecy and the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment president stressed that given Africa’s history of colonialism and underdevelopment, and its current reality of unemployment, infrastructure backlogs and inequality, the continent could not afford to carry the adaptation burden alone.

Tunicia Phillips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa