Global climate adaptation will only succeed by dovetailing Paris & Sendai

After the ceremonial signing of the global climate agreement in New York, one almost had the impression that the world had already been saved and that, after decades of climate negotiations, we could at last turn our attention to other issues. One of these, however, is currently drifting out of sight. Despite the justified mood of celebration – even if the signatory countries were to actually fulfil their obligation to limit global warming to two degrees (if possible, to 1.5 degrees) by the end of this century, the impacts of climate change are still likely to cause a considerable amount of loss and damage over the next few decades, particularly in the world’s poorest countries. Less water availability means that harvest losses of wheat and maize in the tropics will double, coral reefs worldwide will die off completely, and the Mediterranean countries will suffer from unprecedented aridity and heat. Even a 60 centimetre rise in sea level will still mean the loss of swathes of coastal regions in Asia and many Pacific islands. The consequences of this? Millions of people around the world would be forced to migrate. Climate-related migration – as the events of 2015 impressed upon us anew – does not stop at Europe’s borders.

Indeed, it would be illusory to think it is only newly industrialised and developing countries that will be affected by the impacts of a warming climate. The natural disasters of the last few years have made it abundantly clear that the economic and social impacts of flooding and drought are not limited to those countries directly affected. To give an example: after the devastating floods in Thailand in 2011, the globally networked supply chains for data storage drives were disrupted for months on end. Cascade effects like this will increase as climate warming and globalization progress. This is why adaptation to climate change and mitigation of its harmful impacts remain a must, even after the Paris climate deal.

This is also why it was given prominence in the Paris agreement – not least thanks to pressure exerted by developing countries. It elevates “climate change adaptation” and “avoidance of risks to world food supplies” to the same level as climate change mitigation. In addition, climate change funds are to flow equally into mitigation and adaptation, thereby bringing to an end the traditional disadvantaging of adaptation. Signatory countries are to give information regarding both points in their national climate change plans, which are monitored by the international community. A globally standardized system of reporting on adaptation is to be developed in several stages by the year 2020.

The agreement also recognises that however much effort is invested in equipping ourselves to deal with climate change, it will not be possible to avoid loss of and damage to human lives, health and property. Climate change insurance schemes are to be developed to deal with “loss and damage” alongside an early warning system and emergency contingency plans for those countries most seriously affected. However, as a result of pressure from the US, a right to “compensation” of any kind is ruled out. Another term which has also dropped out of sight is “climate change-related migration”. The supplementary document to the Paris agreement at least refers to the task to devise “integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”.   

Critics point to the fact that these resolutions will hardly lead to effective action if the amounts of money pledged are not increased. UNEP speaks of 500 billion US dollars each year from 2050. However, to base the argument on inadequate funding is to miss the mark, as it underestimates the potential for mobilising private financial resources. First, many insurance solutions only require minimal subsidising by the UN to be affordable, even for the poor and poorest. Second, it is often not the money that is key but rather the creation of institutions and the development of knowledge and technologies, such as early warning of natural hazards. Equally important is a re-orientation of national development plans and the creation of a system for monitoring nations’ efforts. By including adaptation within national reporting obligations, setting up a framework for transparency and committing the signatories to technology transfer, the Paris agreement provides important focal points in this respect which have been lacking up to now.

The real challenge lies elsewhere: if climate adaptation is to succeed, there needs to be a systematic dovetailing of the Paris agreement with another international agreement of which probably only experts are aware, namely, the Sendai framework agreement on averting disaster risks.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) was adopted at the third global conference on disaster risk reduction in the Japanese city of Sendai in March 2015. For the first time, the 195 countries of the United Nations pledged to substantially reduce the impacts of natural disasters by implementing measures such as awareness raising, early warning systems and financial assistance programmes at times of crisis.  It states literally: “Addressing climate change as one of the drivers of disaster risk […] represents an opportunity to reduce disaster risk in a meaningful and coherent manner […].”

The reason why the agreement is so important is that it underpins the system of “knowing” and “showing” by including uniform reporting obligations on the part of the signatory states and that it is linked with clear and ambitious targets such as to “significantly” reduce the numbers of dead and injured as well as national economic losses caused by natural disasters during the period 2020-2030 compared to figures from previous decades. At the same time the rich countries pledge to support the poor countries in implementing these targets by providing “substantial, long-term” financial assistance and technology transfer relevant to early warning systems. The host country, Japan, set a positive if tentative example by pledging to contribute a billion US dollars a year to building infrastructures for protection from natural disasters in developing countries – at least over the next four years – and it hopes that other countries will follow suit. The close similarity to the pledge-and-review procedure of the Paris agreement is unmistakeable.

Only by dovetailing Sendai and Paris will the outcomes of these international negotiations be mutually strengthened. For this to occur, the linkages between the Sendai and Paris agreements need to be identified, as the UN secretariat for disaster risk reduction stated in a recent press release. One thing required for this is to harmonise the indicators for climate adaptation as well as those for sea-level rise in both agreements. The definition of “loss and damage” needs to be adjusted to fit with the targets contained in the Sendai agreement and with how these are measured and monitored. The “climate insurance” promised in the Paris treaty ought to be judged by whether or not it actually strengthens the resilience of those – largely poor – people affected and whether it improves their living conditions. Dovetailing Paris and Sendai will involve, first, aligning their stages of implementation with one another in terms of both timing and organisation. Under Sendai, implementation occurs via so-called national UNISDR platforms, a civil protection organization which, in many cases, is barely familiar – if at all – with the challenges posed by climate change. Conversely, the national environmental agencies that deal with climate change generally keep their distance from disaster management tasks such as early warning and emergency programmes. Yet both belong together.  

Europe should take Sendai and Paris as an opportunity to undertake an urgently needed change of course. References contained in the EU Commission’s White Paper (2009) to the predominantly local and regional nature of adaptation tasks have become superfluous now that the impacts of climate change around the world are plain to see. The Paris agreement also commits the EU to engage directly in more joint action, given that the EU is a federation of states with a “nationally determined contribution” and is thus treated as an entity with responsibility in adaptation planning as well. It must report jointly, then, and account for its actions towards the international community if climate adaptation targets in Europe are not met. This requires a joint set of adaptation policies and joint strategies for mitigating the damage caused by climate change impacts, including the development of insurance solutions. Brussels’ abstention in these issues to date will come to an end with the commitment to develop uniform reporting systems for climate resilience. Similarly, the member states of the EU must play an active role in implementing the Sendai framework. In terms of their implementation, then, the Paris agreement and the Sendai framework reinforce one another.

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