I start with an open question. Is the UNFCCC the appropriate forum to address climate change adaptation?
Following a very interesting dissection of the COP 17 outcomes at an ACDI event held earlier this week at UCT, one of the apparent successes of the Durban meeting was the progress made on adaptation. The UNFCCC is giving increasing attention to the issue of how to adapt to climate change and established the Adaptation Committee as part of the Cancun agreements. My day job is to understand how climate information can best be communicated and used to inform climate change adaptation decisions so clearly I agree that adaptation is important. In fact, the short-term benefits of adaptating to climate variability and climate change in vulnerable parts of Africa far outweigh the short-term benefits of any mitigation agreement; of course over time the benefits of a comprehensive emissions policy becomes increasingly beneficial. However, I thought the mission of the UNFCCC was to “prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system”. Any progress on adaptation is really just an attempt to hide the miserable progress being made on the fundamental issue of emissions reductions. We can’t afford to “pat ourselves on the back” by coming up with solutions to problems of a different nature.
Now I recognise that the wider remit of the UNFCCC does indeed include an objective to launch national strategies to address climate change adaptation but I don’t think it is helpful to point to progress on adaptation to accredit success to the UNFCCC. Indeed adaptation and mitigation policy strike me as two very different beasts. Contrary to one of the comments from an audience member who stated that in the context of sustainability “mitigation and adaptation are the same thing”, it is important to recognise the very different objectives of mitigation and adaptation policy. In IPCC language, adaptation is an “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities”. No where in this definition does is suggest that adaptation should necessarily be green. Air conditioning is an obvious example of how adaptation to climatic stimuli need not be carbon friendly. Indeed if the goal of the climate negotiations was to enable humans to adapt to whatever climate zones we wish to live in, we might all choose to live on the beach near an air-conditioned, indoor ski resort (see picture for the ski resort in Dubai!). Clearly we need to avoid adaptation that is maladaptive, such that it leads to greater emissions, but also it is important that the forum in which adaptation is discussed reflects the different information required to enact policy and brings together the appropriate stakeholders.
…so what message am I trying to communicate for how we address adaptation policy at an international level? Well this comes back to another sentiment that was shared by many people at the meeting. We need to ensure that in making policies, the right people are in the room. In the UK, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) really has very little to do with adaptation; this work is the largely the responsibility of Defra (Department for environment, food and rural affairs) and the Environment Agency. At a national policy level, in the UK at least, this differentiation seems to work. Why then does the UN want to address both mitigation and adaptation in the same conference, under the same framework agreement? Surely the fact that they are both climate issues is not a reasonable justification. The reason I worry is that in setting legislation to guide African nations (and indeed nations on other continents) in addressing climate change adaptation, we need to ensure the people in the room are indeed the right people. The danger of combining mitigation and adaptation policy discussions within the same forum is that misinformed policies will result and action on adaptation will be weaker.