The 2 things everyone got wrong about adaptation at COP26

World leaders, corporate executives, NGO professionals and activists gathered in Glasgow, Scotland last month at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change — better known as COP26 — for an event described by many as our “last best chance” to tackle climate change before it’s too late.

After two weeks of negotiations, discussions, and protests, progress was made. Some of the biggest news to emerge from COP26 included:

Of course, many would say these pledges didn’t go far enough to address climate change and its impacts. Much of the language in the pledges themselves was weak, and many of the commitments neglect to explain exactly how nations and companies will achieve them.

Rising above the noise, two trends in particular stood out to us: The first, that the climate adaptation plans and processes being discussed on this global stage are fatally flawed, but not irreparable; And the second, when leaders discuss the climate solutions of adaptation and mitigation, they treat them as separate from one another — when in fact, they’re intertwined and often the same.

Adaptation plans are fatally flawed… but not irreparable

Still, it has become abundantly clear that across these discussions of the private sector and climate impacts, both on this global stage and in the media in general that when leaders talk about climate adaptation, they don’t know exactly what they’re talking about.

Adaptation — or adapting to life in a changing climate — involves adjusting to actual or expected future climate and its impacts. We need to understand what the future climate will look like and those implications — the climate risks — in order to understand what the most effective actions to take will be.

However, these risks can range from the visible and extreme, such as more frequent hurricanes and multi-year droughts, to the subtle, such as shifts in temperature and timing, intensity or frequency of precipitation that can, for example, massively reduce yield, nutrition, and quality of our crops anywhere from 10% — 80%.

Though these risks have devastating implications, they are not considered in many adaptation plans simply because the underlying forecasts are over-simplified, over-generalized, and poorly communicated — and all of this is in spite of the capital flowing in (already, $3 billion in adaptation finance annually has been promised by the U.S. alone via the PREPARE initiative, by FY2024). In talking about the sub-par forecastability in many parts of the world, Red Cross climate scientist Kiswendsida Guigma summed it up very well, “If you can’t predict it, you can’t adapt to it.”

It will be more critical than ever to get adaptation right given its renewed attention on the global stage. We will need new strategies, such as better technology, to categorically understand emerging climate risks and to choose the best course(s) of action to avert the worst impacts.

As a result of recent advances in climate science, artificial intelligence, and the increasing amount of available data gathered by businesses and the public sector, predictive climate analytics tools are changing this paradigm, making climate-intelligent adaptation plans possible. We must adopt and scale these technologies if we wish to inform adaptation plans that achieve maximum impact in improving lives and livelihoods.

Climate change adaptation and mitigation are closer to one another than people realize

At COP26, everyone from business executives to government officials and NGOs spoke about climate change adaptation and mitigation as two separate problems. In most sectors, this is not the case, and speaking and thinking of them as two separate problems will create issues with how the trillions of dollars earmarked for climate solutions get invested.

Consider the example of agriculture. Over the past decade, the climate has become more volatile, extremes have become more frequent, and climate shifts have started to accelerate away from historical norms. We are increasingly finding that we can no longer grow our crops the same way we have been for the past few centuries.

Instead, we must develop new and improved ways of producing enough food to feed our growing global population. That means building resilience into our agricultural production system through methods such as:

  • Planting the right crops and varieties in the right locations for the upcoming season (long vs. short, dry vs. wet, windy vs. still) and for the coming decades (avoid key climate risks and identify new climate opportunities)
  • Using technology to determine the weather-optimal time to plant the seed, apply inputs, and harvest
  • Breeding the right varieties, specifically tuned to location-specific climate changes
  • Building healthy soils that increase water holding capacity and can better resist both droughts and floods

However, each one of the pillars of resilience listed above is critical for climate change mitigation as well. Planting the right crops in the right locations means boosting productivity in yield and quality simply by aligning with the changing environment.

Similarly, weather-optimal timing of planting, input applications, and harvesting boosts productivity, and it can do so with far greater resource efficiency i.e. less wasted fertilizer, pesticides, and less time running fossil fuel-powered tractors in slow, sub-optimal, muddy conditions. For example, farmers in the Mississippi River Basin apply nitrogen-based fertilizers to their croplands. Nitrogen- based fertilizers are a large contributor to agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions as a result of their energy-intensive production as well as the potent N2O emissions released once the fertilizer is applied to soils. Increasingly, severe extreme precipitation events carry the applied fertilizer into the watershed, contributing to wasted fertilizer (unnecessary emissions) on top of a deadzone in the Gulf of Mexico. If farmers could better time their fertilizer applications with better precipitation predictions, the nitrogen runoff could be reduced by 16%. This is both an adaptation measure (helping farmers make smarter decisions around an increasingly volatile climate) as well as a mitigation measure (less wasted fertilizer means less wasted emissions).

Beyond fertilizer, breeding the right varieties for the future will allow us to continue to ensure efficient production over the coming decades. Healthy soils sequester more carbon and the approaches to achieve healthy soils also boost carbon sequestration and retention e.g. low till, cover crops, crop rotations, etc.

Adaptation at its core is all about bolstering efficiency in an environment of flux, which as it turns out, is a critical lever for driving mitigation as well.

Climate risk is not a tomorrow problem — it is a today problem. Countries, businesses, and people are feeling its impacts every day. And as we continue the global fight against climate change, it becomes increasingly important to think more holistically and act more precisely. We must ensure that we make science-based, data-driven decisions backed with cutting-edge analytics and that we pick the low hanging fruit — the actions that can simultaneously drive impact across both adaptation and mitigation at scale.

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