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Charting the future of adaptation: Five key takeaways from Adaptation Futures 2023

Image credit: Montreal city by Jackie Hutchinson, Unsplash Licence

Written by Elisabeth Gilmore, Marta Olazabal, Ricardo Safra de Campos, Jessica P. R Thorn, Erin Coughlan de Perez, and Sherilee L. Harper who are PLOS Climate Journal Editors. First published in PLOS Blogs Latitude on January 3, 2024

The intensifying climate crisis, including the impacts of increasingly frequent extreme events, has undeniably significant consequences for lives, livelihoods, and wellbeing. People living in lower-income countries, emerging economies in the Majority World experiencing rapid growth and industrialisation, and those affected by existing socioeconomic, cultural or geopolitical disparities are most affected. Having now concluded its seventh meeting, Adaptation Futures has continued to grow in importance as the magnitude of the task of moderating these impacts, planning for future risks and financing these efforts is coming into view.

Held in Montreal, Canada in October 2023, a global conference on adaptation science, provides researchers, policymakers, businesses and practitioners an opportunity to showcase their efforts, exchange ideas on the best available science and practice and lessons learned, and strengthen existing and create new collaborations. Organised locally by Ouranos, under the auspices of the World Adaptation Science Programme, Adaptation Futures 2023 convened the climate adaptation community at a critical time of escalating climate risks that are progressively affecting our well-being and disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable. Focusing on identifying transformative approaches to meet these challenges, and in light of COP28, we highlight five priorities for adaptation science and practice that emerged from this international meeting.

1. Locally led adaptation (LLA) and self-determination needs to be at the centre

of adaptation

Communities that are most adversely affected are already deciding how best to adapt to these changes. However, this self-determination needs to be recognized, prioritised and supported by national governments. An important priority and emphasis of this meeting was to elevate globally diverse Indigenous Peoples’ voices, experiences, and knowledge systems. Focusing on the wide range of adaptation activities that are being developed and led by Indigenous Peoples, alongside the critical contributions of Indigenous Science and Knowledge, underscores the importance of Indigenous self-determination throughout the adaptation process as fundamental to success. 

The importance of centering self-determination in adaptation is also expressed through locally-led adaptation (LLA). However, there is a clear need for critical reflection to ensure that LLA does not unintentionally provide national and international policymakers with a convenient argument that local communities can support these efforts independently. Supporting local communities should be refocused as shared responsibility with national governments, recognizing climate justice as a foundation for providing finance, resources and helping to build and share capacity.

In the context of internal displacement due to escalating climate risks, significant challenges for self-determination and LLA were discussed. There is a risk that people with limited resources will be unable to leave places where conditions are deteriorating, resulting in immobility. This scenario raises questions about the scope of local and national governments’ responsibility for helping people to move out of harm’s way and settle in a safer location while retaining important social networks and connection to place. Nowhere is the need to foreground self-determination more important than in the discourses and decisions around displacement and relocation, especially as it affects Peoples who have already experienced and are currently experiencing displacement due to colonialism and who are uniquely well-positioned to be stewards of land. Ensuring the decisions about mobility and immobility are underpinned with informed and prior consent, transparency, accountability, meaningful participation, dignity and equity is a critical policy need. Therefore, LLA can play a central role in formulating a clear assessment of the potential for mobility (whether internal or international) within a portfolio of sustainable and potentially progressive and transformative adaptations to climate change. 

2. Nature-based adaptation solutions can be leveraged for risk reduction and multiple co-benefit

Adaptation engages with a wide range of responses from renewed infrastructure, to helping individuals and communities better prepare for and recover from climate-induced hazards. Historically, adaptation strategies have relied heavily on “grey” infrastructure. Options that leverage nature to provide risk reduction support a wide range of co-benefits and synergies with mitigation and biodiversity. Examples at Adaptation Futures included protecting and storing wetlands for flood risk management in Tanzania, increasing urban forest cover to mitigate heat extremes in cities and in particular informal settlements in Namibia, sustainable rangeland management in Uganda and Ethiopia, community forest management in Nepal, catchment reef management in the Comoros, regulated mangrove restoration in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and temporary closure areas in Madagascar. Thus the conference underscored the role of nature-based solutions (NbS) in line with Target 11 of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. This target advocates for using NbS to enhance nature’s contributions to people, including protection from natural hazards, while also recognizing the intrinsic value of nature.

However, it was highlighted that not all interventions are equally effective and that some schemes are more akin to “greenwashing”. The potential for maladaptation in the design of NbS includes limited attention to marginalised groups (e.g. “green gentrification”), colonial implementation of NbS, and potentially limited efficacy at higher levels of climate change. Unequal, preferential or exclusive access rights to ecosystem services such as carbon, water and land need to be addressed. There is still uncertainty as to what are the potential risks and opportunities associated with NbS for local communities who depend on ecosystem services for their livelihoods.

Fortunately, numerous lessons exist from decades of community-based natural resource management experience that must be acknowledged in the development of NbS, while adopting human rights-based and pro-poor approaches. We must continue to co-design for spatial protection and new habitats, while considering biocultural heritage and Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Developing new ways to identify which projects are most beneficial is needed to build trust in these options – as emphasised in criterion 5 of the IUCN Global Nature-based Solutions Standards. Issues of gender, youth equity, Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and social inclusion are at the very heart of NbS, and essential to consider in all stages of decision making and implementation of NbS.

3. Implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and learning can support effective adaptation 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 Reports highlighted that while adaptation planning and implementation efforts have meaningfully increased, there are important gaps between current levels of adaptation efforts and levels required to reduce risks. There are several open questions on how the effectiveness of adaptation efforts can be evaluated and on related challenges in assessing the overall benefits of these efforts. 

Throughout the meeting, various sessions discussed general challenges related to the measurement of the effectiveness of adaptation and processes of monitoring and evaluation, and also those related to  intervention-specific approaches (e.g. NbS). Across these discussions, the ambiguity of adaptation as an umbrella mission and the diversity of understandings of effectiveness and success arose as a critical element in the often contested operational approaches to measure adaptation progress. This includes the selection of time-bound, measurable and ambitious indicators and metrics, and their evaluation in a way which is feasible, robust and cost-effective. 

Some key directions for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of adaptation include a focus on the process, i.e. inputs and outputs of adaptation efforts, and evaluating how multiple knowledge streams are incorporated into the decision-making process. At the same time, focusing on outcomes and impacts of such efforts is necessary to identify adaptation co-benefits and maladaptive processes, and to enable more climate-resilient development pathways. Maladaptation was discussed as a continuum, with evidence of negative outcomes of adaptation efforts in terms of carbon emissions, impacts on marginalised groups, transformative potential, and ecosystem degradation. In this sense, one of the most critical challenges for evaluation is the distinction between contribution and attribution when accounting for outcomes and impacts and the incorporation of the spatial and temporal scales. Adaptation can not be only a question of yes or no, but also of for how long, led by whom, for whom and where. On this theme, there were discussions around efforts related to the use of indicators and capturing more nuanced and personal expressions of vulnerability,  incorporating more diverse forms of knowledge, and changing existing practices like cost-benefit and other monitoring and evaluation practices. Furthermore, conversations at the conference addressed the need to reduce disparities in information access about adaptation and effective models (e.g. through the sharing of open-source datasets). 

4. Finance needs to increase in scale and scope along with changes in the structure of this funding

Throughout the meeting, the urgency of adaptation was underscored by the escalating, compounding and cascading risks that characterise climate change. A substantial part of meeting these needs will involve the development of new national commitments as well as novel finance streams from both the public and private sectors. Discussions at the Adaptation Futures conference highlighted important considerations around the accessibility and availability of finance, investments and misalignments, and the need to ensure that these funds are directed to the most appropriate uses and those who are in the most need.

A recurrent theme was that many funding streams are not well structured for adaptation efforts. Many practitioners and funders reflected that the timelines for funding streams may perpetuate maladaptation, as adaptation projects often need longer implementation times to show results. A key example was that the need to meet funder priorities can sufficiently limit the types of projects that can be implemented with concerns that the limited range of projects which can proceed is not meeting the most urgent needs of communities. 

There was also a focus on how to improve the way that adaptation is taken into account in other investments, such as in infrastructure and development. In this way, there is a need to mainstream adaptation and resilience considerations into all activities, such as lending from public and private financial institutions. These issues are exemplified by issues around funding streams for NbS, especially as they support multiple objectives that could be lost if funding is not properly structured and without Indigenous and local voices. For this reason as well as in the interests of climate justice, there must be clear mechanisms to direct this finance towards Indigenous Peoples, LLA, and other groups that are marginalised, such as those in conflict-affected areas.  

5. The Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) will continue to need input from researchers, practitioners, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities in support of transformational adaptation

At COP28, the GGA was finalised with a request to start a two-year work programme to improve indicators, metrics and means of quantification of the GGA goals. There was also a request for more information on transformational adaptation and how progress in planning and implementing transformational adaptation might be assessed at the global level. 

The timely discussion of the GGA that took place in many sessions across the Adaptation Futures conference programme addressed questions and concerns related to the complexity associated with any kind of standardisation and aggregation of adaptation and the social, economic, environmental and political implications of such a process. There were again questions around how to reflect multiple and diverse knowledges, and how to build approaches that enhance rather than hinder climate justice. Many of these issues will continue to be strongly relevant as the GGA continues to take shape. There is now a clear need for continued engagement with the GGA as a research priority to ensure that the best available science is brought to bear. The GGA offers an unmatched framework to insert adaptation in current international negotiations and to galvanise adaptation efforts across all levels of government. 

In the near term, adaptation will remain a key priority across scientific and policy spaces, although these communities continue to work largely in parallel. This edition of the Adaptation Futures conference highlighted the growing need for the community of adaptation experts and the high-level international political negotiations to come together in places that encourage cross-fertilization and transfer of critical knowledge. In this way, we call on the next meeting, due to be held in New Zealand in 2025, to continue to foster a setting where some of the most challenging and complex questions around adaptation can be evaluated together, ensuring that all voices are heard, and engaging in more collective processes of envisioning transformational futures. 

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