Why we must adapt: reflections on the latest IPCC report

The planet is fast warming and the effects of climate change are being felt across every region. Devastating floods, extreme heat and increased risks to food security are making vulnerable countries even more vulnerable. The latest report from United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – one of the world’s most influential and respected scientific bodies – published today confirms and adds further clarity and urgency to what we already know: we need to adapt and work fast and hard on cutting down emissions.  In it, governments and scientists agree that our natural world and food systems are bearing the brunt of climate change. We are already witnessing some irreversible impacts on our land and marine wildlife – half of wildlife assessed by scientists are on the move to escape extreme weather. Other habitats like the Arctic permafrost are approaching irreversible impacts from climate change.  

Reversing nature loss by 2030, while also halving greenhouse gas emissions this decade, is critical. If we protect nature, nature can help protect us. In addition to both reducing the impact of climate on nature as well as boosting nature’s ability to help combat climate change, we must also acknowledge how natural ecosystems can also be an effective tool in helping to buffer communities from extreme weather events. 

N4C Director James Lloyd said: “The IPCC report delivers an opportunity to build momentum for equitable climate finance, in which developed countries and financial institutions must recognize the role of nature in mitigation and adaptation efforts and contribute their fair share of funding to scale up climate action in response to the needs of the planet and its peoples. They must agree to robust financial schemes to address Loss and Damage, which was a major demand at COP26. 

Here are some key reflections on the new assessment: 

Mitigation and adaptation efforts must go hand in hand for effective climate action 

This issue completes part two of the WG1’s three-part Sixth Assessment Report on the physical science of climate change, which was released in August 2021. According to the new assessment, we are now in the period of loss and damage’ – i.e. impacts of climate change that have not been, or cannot be, avoided through mitigation and adaptation efforts, as a result of unchecked global warming, with climate consequences that are close to approaching tipping points for adaptation in some cases. 

Countries in the African continent are already experiencing higher warming and sea-level rise than the world average. In the next decade, Africa will see more frequent and intense heatwaves (up to five times more common in 2050 than today) as well as heavier precipitation, droughts, and severe coastal flooding. In Europe, the frequency and intensity of hot extremes are increasing and will continue to do so, while glaciers and snow cover will continue to disappear. In North and Central America, the IPCC states that tropical cyclones and heavy rainfall will become ever more frequent as the world continues to warm.  

This goes to show that adaptation is essential – but can’t compensate for slow action on emissions. If warming continues, the world will increasingly see changes that cannot be adapted to. 

Nature-based solutions are key for this transformation 

Among the many pathways in which nature can contribute to cutting down emissions and helping communities adapt to these effects, the protection of forests is key. They are deeply connected to human health, food security, and the livelihood of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Forests pump massive amounts of moisture from the soil into the atmosphere, create flying rivers and regulate rainfall, which is critical for crops, ecosystems, and livelihoods. 

Studies already show that deforestation-fuelled heat is making work increasingly intolerable for millions across the Tropics. Deforestation is also linked to longer and more extreme droughts, lowering crop yields and soil productivity, harming farmers, agricultural production, food prices, and, as a result, food security.  

However, estimates show 40 times more spent on activities that drive deforestation than on those that protect forests and adaptation measures as still widely underfunded. 

Other examples of nature-based solutions for adaptation and resilience include: 

  • Urban greening using trees and other vegetation can provide local cooling  
  • Natural river systems, wetlands and upstream forest ecosystems reduce flood risk by storing water and slowing water flow, in most circumstances  
  • Coastal wetlands protect against coastal erosion and flooding associated with storms and sea-level rise where sufficient space and adequate habitats are available until rates of sea-level rise exceed natural adaptive capacity to build sediment  

A matter of social and environmental justice 

The game-changer for this publication is its interdisciplinary aspect, which looks at social justice with regard to impacts, adaptation and resilience of communities around the world. 

Climate change is already costing unprecedented amounts globally. But paying for these costs is not evenly distributed across the globe and certainly does not have direct proportion to where greenhouse gases are being emitted. While every part of the planet is being hit – and will most likely face – escalating costs related to loss and damage, it’s the poorer economies and people most at risk that are expected to have the worst impacts. This means that poorer nations, especially in the Global South, are at risk of having to deal with greater economic losses and Indigenous and local communities are facing the potential destruction of their livelihoods.

African countries, for example, contribute only 4% to global emissions and yet they are among the worst hit by climate change. Reducing countries’ and communities’ vulnerability to climate impacts thus requires urgent adaptation and finance to help developing countries absorb impacts and build resilient communities. 

The silver lining is that ecosystems in the Global South have also great potential for halting and reversing nature loss, reducing global emissions, and delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals. Done right, they could offer over 1,798 million tonnes CO2e per year emission reduction from reforestation and avoided forest conversion as well as help us increase capacity and empower local and Indigenous communities.  

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