The 2022 COP conferences in Sharm el-Sheikh and Montreal were, depending on who you ask, either regrettable or no short of spectacular. The COP27 climate gathering in Egypt will not go down in history as groundbreaking in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but in retrospect it will perhaps be considered a landmark edition. This is because the loss and damage principle finally materialized, albeit imperfectly, paving the way for the formalization and aggregation of the efforts to compensate the poorest states for the climate-related damage they incur. The conference perhaps initiated a certain change in perception of the climate COP format, hitherto focused almost exclusively on mitigation efforts. A similar thing can be said about this year’s COP15 conference on biodiversity, where a deal was struck to declare 1/3 of the planet as a protected zone and to flow billions of dollars into the developing world to reverse biodiversity loss. All in all, the two outcomes portend a new chapter in international climate negotiations. More importantly still, they herald the advent of a new sphere of interstate competition: the geopolitics of climate adaptation.
Up until this year, climate adaptation had largely remained out of the climate COP’s scope of business. Largely, because to help finance climate action in developing countries, the richest economies pledged in 2009 at the Copenhagen summit to provide them with $100 billion a year starting in 2020. The promises have remained unfulfilled however, and Britain’s Oxfam estimates that by 2025 developed countries will donate at most $93-95 billion for adaptation. Separately, the Chinese-brokered accord with 190 signatories at the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference this December pledged to provide $30 billion in yearly conservation aid for the developing world to protect lands, oceans and species from pollution, degradation and the climate crisis. While the very notion of “loss and damage”, a principle for addressing the harm caused by anthropogenic climate change, applies to the climate domain, its role is functionally rather similar to the solution now conceived for addressing biodiversity loss. And rightly so, because, as highlighted by the leaders gathered in Canada last month, “we cannot achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement without drastically reducing the threat to biodiversity – and Vice Versa”.
While both developments are huge news for adaptation, as always, the devil hides in the details. It is going to take some years before the climate loss and damage fund becomes operational. A roadmap was adopted, but technicalities are missing – who will provide funding, how, and what role is to be given to multilateral investment institution(s). These deficiencies have attracted criticism, and so have those underlying the biodiversity deal, belittled for “its loopholes, weak language, and timelines around actions that aren’t commensurate with the scale of the nature crisis we’re all witnessing”, as one expert put it. But these criticisms, however valid, overshadow a crucial point: that adaptation is finally finding an actual and well-deserved place in the entwined climate and nature agendas. Perception matters, and even if full implementation of these achievements will take time, their adoption has hopefully set in motion a political dynamic which admits that adapting to a changing climate is a struggle of at least equal importance to that of climate mitigation.
These acknowledgments of the relevance of adaptation are belated, but indispensable. The Cost of Delay report, released this fall with widespread endorsement, pointed out the consequences of the lack of streams of adaptation financing from the Global North to the Global South. Since 1991, 55 countries most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change have suffered economic losses from extreme weather events totalling over half a trillion dollars, or 20% of their total GDP, while the profits of the fossil fuel industry have exceeded these losses nearly 60 times. In developing countries, extreme weather events – of which the number more than doubled – were responsible for almost 80% of all recorded deaths caused by such events, killing nearly 7 million people.
Meanwhile, as laid out in the prominent 2019 IPBES report, the Earth has already lost roughly half of its natural ecosystems, ⅔ of the oceans are negatively impacted, ¾ of its land surface has been significantly altered, and over 85% of wetlands have been lost.
Bear in mind that nature itself is mitigating half of the anthropogenically induced CO2 emissions via natural carbon sinks and photosynthesis. Halting biodiversity loss is therefore critical to effective climate action.
As mind-blowing as the figures cited above are, the fear they engender is hopefully finally bringing about the much needed prioritization of adaptation measures. Yet the glass remains half full and half empty. Regardless of the well-established causal relationship between the extent of emissions in rich countries and its dire consequences for the poor ones, the leverage of the former over the latter which climate adaptation confers is immense. First of all, the question of profitability casts a long shadow over the consistency of the assistance to adapt. Adaptation finance has less lure than mitigation as it is more akin to sunk costs rather than investments – e.g., foreign funding of coastal shore-ups in Vanuatu will not bring the profit of a wind farm financed in India. On the other hand, many of the countries most exposed to climate risks possess some of the terrestrial resources much needed to advance the green energy transition: think cobalt in Congo or nickel in Indonesia. Then there is the Sino-American rivalry, practically opposing the collective West on one hand, and China, Russia and Iran on the other, with both camps courting other countries to join them. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and US-led Build Back Better World (B3W) both propose climate investments to bait emerging economies and choose joining one block over the other.
These are just two of the various examples of geopolitical leverages which the Global North is discovering that it has over the Global South in the sphere of climate adaptation. Ample space has therefore emerged for the billions needed for increasing climate resilience in most vulnerable countries to come with strings attached. Climate change knows no state boundaries, and while in the very long run taming it is in the interest of all nations, in the short to mid-term we may witness assistance to adapt being conditioned to the geopolitical requirements of the donors. Let it be yet another reminder that even in a world on fire great power rivalry is not going away.