World needs to better prepare for climate disruption – United Nations

UN warns that ‘we need a step change in adaptation ambition ... and we need it now’

The world needs urgently to accelerate efforts to adapt for the inevitable effects of climate disruption, the UN Environment Programme has warned.

The alert noted that this is especially so in terms of improving resilience to flooding, droughts, heat waves, storms and sea-level rise. Extreme weather, increasingly attributable to human activities that are increasing carbon emissions, is hitting the world “with a new ferocity”, the programme cautions in its latest evaluation of global adaptation efforts issued at Cop26.

Countries in the developed world and developing states have failed to prepare and become sufficiently resilient for the widespread damage that will arise even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, it adds. Estimated adaptation costs in developing countries are five to 10 times greater “than current public adaptation finance flows”.

Developing countries – which are much more climate vulnerable – are likely to need between $140 billion (€121 billion) and $300 billion a year by the end of this decade to cope with the impacts. In 2019 they received only $80 billion in climate finance, which included cash to cut greenhouse gas emissions.


Without much greater focus on adapting to the impact of the climate crisis, millions more lives and livelihoods could be at risk, the programme notes.

"As the world looks to step up efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions – efforts that are still not anywhere strong enough – it must also dramatically up its game to adapt to climate change," said programme director Inger Andersen.

“Even if we were to turn off the tap on greenhouse gas emissions today, the impacts of climate change would be with us for many decades to come. We need a step change in adaptation ambition for funding and implementation to significantly reduce damages and losses from climate change. And we need it now,” she added.

About 79 per cent of countries have adopted at least one national-level adaptation instrument, such as a plan, strategy, policy or law. This is an increase of 7 per cent since 2020.

A total of 9 per cent of countries without such an instrument in place are in the process of developing one. At least 65 per cent of countries have one or more sectoral plans in place and at least 26 per cent have one or more subnational planning instruments.

Prof Daniela Schmidt of the University of Bristol, who contributed to the report, said it was clear that even with states with strong mitigation, adaptation to already experienced climate change and increasing risk needs to happen. "There are many plans for adaptation, but much less action," she noted.

“While many small-scale examples give indication of the power of well designed and implemented adaptation, we lack urgently needed knowledge what works where, and for whom, and which approaches are most effective,” she added.

Unintended consequences

Making decisions without this knowledge sets countries on adaptation pathways which may have unintended consequences. “Lack of understanding results in our inability to upscale and transfer successful adaptation examples to other regions and systems.”

Hydrology expert Prof Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading, said: "Even if Cop26 finished with a plan to phase out fossil fuels and cut emissions to zero, we would still have to live with the impact of the warming we have ready caused, which we know has made many types of extreme weather events much more likely," she said.

While global warming may make some events worse, bad weather has always happened and always will happen, said Prof Cloke. “Adapting to climate risk means taking a proactive response, by investing in better buildings, infrastructure, and early warning systems.”

The report contains eye-boggling figures about the amount of investment needed, she said. “We should see these huge sums not as a cost, but as a way to help societies grow in a way that reduces future risks through careful design.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times