Adaptation Q&A: What’s at stake for Africa at COP28?
What is adaptation? What will African countries be arguing for at COP28? Against whom?
At the upcoming international climate talks in Dubai, developing countries will be hoping for much more action on adaptation, which has typically taken a back seat at the COP negotiations. To unpick what adaptation is, what’s on the agenda at COP28, and what’s at stake for African countries, our climate editor, James Wan, spoke to Darlington Sibanda, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the African Climate & Development Initiative (ACDI) at the University of Cape Town.
In the run-up to COP28, we will be publishing explainers with experts outlining the issues of importance for African countries in the negotiations. See more here.
What is climate adaptation? What does that term refer to in concrete terms?
In short, the adaptation means the ability to cope and adjust to the effects of climate change.
This is particularly important in Africa, which is warming at a faster rate than the average, with different areas experiencing different kinds of severe climate impacts. While coastal cities face rising sea levels, and East Africa tries to recover from recent severe flooding, Cape Town in South Africa has just narrowly avoided another potential Day Zero – a day when a city of nearly 5 million would run dry due to prolonged drought.
This is really important for all countries. Failure to adapt can be nightmarish. Droughts, floods, and cyclones, for instance, have already contributed to thousands of deaths and forced many people to migrate, leading to competition over resources and sometimes conflict. Failure to adapt quickly enough is similarly worrisome. When Durban faced terrible floods last year, many of the worst affected people were living in makeshift housing they’d moved to after previous floods destroyed their homes in 2019.
The climate crisis change is global and people all across the world need to adapt to changes it brings. 3.6 billion people are currently highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. But adaptation requires money. If you have wealth, you have the capacity to adjust much more easily. It is not pure chance that people in poorer countries are more vulnerable.
How has adaptation typically been treated at COPs?
For a long time, adaptation was given little prominence in climate talks, which were much more focused on mitigation (i.e. reducing emissions). The breakthrough, following years of efforts by developing countries and particularly the African Group of Negotiators, was the 2015 Paris Agreement. This document recognised adaptation as a central pillar of climate action and established the global goal on adaptation. Article 7 spelled out the importance of “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience, and reducing vulnerability to climate change” and the need for international support and cooperation.
Since then, adaptation has been increasingly understood as a critical aspect of local, national, and regional climate action and been integrated into countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – i.e. each country’s plans to not just cut emissions but adapt to climate change. At the same time, action has been far too slow and international support for adaptation has been far too meagre.
What international financial support is there for adaptation and in what form does it come?
UN reports typically estimate that developing countries need $200-250 billion every year by 2030 to adapt to climate change. Yet, so far, a tiny fraction of that has been provided. The UN’s Green Climate Fund, for instance, has barely raised $12 billion. Meanwhile, despite a pledge in 2021 to double adaptation finance by 2025, the sums available fell by 15% that year to $21.3 billion. Figures for 2022 and 2023 are not yet available.
Either way, adaptation is clearly massively underfunded and neglected compared to efforts focused on mitigation, which receive over 90% of climate finance flows by some measures.
The form financing takes is also important. Much adaptation financing comes in the form of loans. Even if at concessional rates, this approach adds to poor countries’ indebtedness and means they have to constantly repay money that could be used to support vulnerable communities and adaptation or development projects. Very little comes in the form of grants.
What is the Global Goal on Adaptation?
The Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) is intended to be a clear framework that can drive action and finance to help enhance developing countries’ ability to adapt to climate change. However, since it was established in Article 7.1 of the Paris Agreement, very little progress has been made towards defining it. At COP28, negotiators are expected to finally agree on the GGA and begin to implement it.
What will African countries and communities be hoping is in the GGA?
The GGA must contain clear and globally acceptable metrics and indicators to define, measure, and track progress on adaptation. It should have testable and quantifiable targets, but also see adaptation holistically and recognise that it has qualitative aspects that are harder to measure with numbers. These guidelines need to be flexible enough that they can be applied in Malawi or Egypt or the Philippines and still be meaningful. There is no one size fits all when it comes to adaptation across vastly different contexts and challenges.
At the core of the GGA there also needs to be clear funding commitments through which developing countries can get access to finance for adaptation projects. This finance must be in the form of grants, not burdensome loans. The scale and urgency of this funding needs to match that of mitigation. And the quantity of funds provided must accelerate rapidly to reflect the hundreds of billions per year needed. It is essential that principles of equity and justice are at the heart of the framework.
What resistance will they experience, from whom and why?
As can be seen by the fact that the vast majority of climate finance has gone to mitigation rather than adaptation, developed countries don’t tend to see adaptation in developing countries as a priority. Historic polluters don’t want to accept that they are responsible for climate change. They are also reluctant to recognise that the wealth they accumulated through their emissions means they are now far more able to cope with the impacts of the crisis they created. They prefer to imagine everyone is in this together and on an equal footing, disregarding the fact that Africa has contributed less than 4% to global carbon emissions and is bearing climate change’s worst consequences.
There is a lack of global solidarity from the Global North towards the Global South, and a lack of justice. Rich countries will therefore need to be pressured to commit to the GGA and funding for adaptation.
How hopeful are you that we will see meaningful progress on adaptation at COP28?
A colleague of mine recently described COPs as being like badly organised orchestras in which there’s lots of noise, and noted that that noise doesn’t always lead to anything meaningful. That is how things will be at COP28, which will be some particularly jarring as negotiators discuss the future of the world’s most vulnerable communities in a city of excess in a petrostate.
However, this noise is necessary to bring attention to important issues. It took too long for adaptation to be recognised as a key pillar of climate action, and it has taken too long for the GGA to be operationalised. The amount of adaptation funding we have seen is miniscule compared to what is needed. And yet, we are all now talking about the GGA and adaptation, and that is a result of all the noise that came before. I would say that, going into COP28, I am negatively hopeful.