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Opinion: Climate

Closing the Adaptation Gap: Harnessing the Power of Possibilities

Leanne Zeppenfeldt Leanne Zeppenfeldt
Bruce Campbell Bruce Campbell

By July 28th – Earth Overshoot Day – humans will have used more ecological resources and services this year than what our planet can regenerate.

The rate at which we are emitting greenhouse gases and using our clean water, healthy soil, oil reserves, and carbon-storing forests exceeds the Earth’s capacity. Despite the important role it plays to our lives and livelihoods, agriculture is also one of the largest drivers of planetary overshoot, and mitigation action to reduce our natural resource use and emissions is essential to #MoveTheDate of Earth Overshoot Day in the coming years. 

At the same time, combined with other external shocks, climate change is critically threatening food security and affecting our food systems around the world. From declining yields to increased conflict and migration, the projected and observed impacts of climate change on food production are severely hindering the resilience of our food systems. Communities that are faced with various sources of vulnerability, through poverty and marginalisation, are the ones most impacted by climate change. While Earth Overshoot Day highlights the need to mitigate climate change and reduce emissions, we also need to adapt to the effects of humanity having crossed planetary boundaries in the past decades

Closing the adaptation gap

So, it is time to harness the #PowerOfPossibilities to close the adaptation gap, although progress has been slow. As highlighted in this year’s sixth Assessment Report (AR6) from the IPCC Working Group II (WGII), the world is failing to capitalise on these possibilities. To close the adaptation gap, action is needed to address maladaptation, scale up existing adaptation, and deal with structural inequalities.

Strong business cases for adaptation that give due attention to social and economic constraints must be built. Public awareness and demand for action must be fostered, as well as social movements – especially those dealing with structural vulnerabilities. Lastly, monitoring and evaluation systems must be put in place that hold all parties to account.   Act4Food Act 4Change is doing just that. A youth-led initiative, the organisation is raising awareness and strengthening discussions and action on adaptation and mitigation, as well as other broader food systems challenges.

Dealing with maladaptation

Addressing structural vulnerabilities through adaptation is critical, because when poorly implemented, adaptation options can lead to maladaptation. When the focus of adaptation strategies are too short-term, they can reduce food systems resilience in the long-term, increase emissions or have other detrimental environmental effects which counter mitigation efforts or shift vulnerability from one group to another. 

For example, maladaptation can be found in some agricultural insurance schemes which promote a shift away from subsistence, drought-tolerant crops to more risky cash crops that are not suited to extreme weather. However, context and design is key, because when  bundled with climate-smart technologies and practices, agricultural insurance can actually improve risk management for smallholder farmers. 

An example of such a scheme is in India, for example, where wheat farmers in Haryana and Punjab are faced with increasing weather shocks. In this situation, agricultural insurance is one option to reduce risk. To build climate change resilience , insurance pay-outs were conditioned on the climate-smart practice of not burning residues, which is  common amongst wheat farmers but is a major source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Returning the residues to the soil as part of “conservation agriculture” would promote adaptation as well as sequestering carbon.

Scaling up planned adaptation

Currently, the adaptation that is happening, often derives from autonomous action from individuals and households in response to drought, flooding, and rainfall variability. Too little adaptation is planned, especially in the most at-risk regions. This means that those most vulnerable to climate change are forced to take the lead on adaptation, while contributing to mitigation. At the same time, the necessary planned and coordinated adaptation actions are lacking due to lack of funds, limited political will, or capacity constraints. 

Plenty of agriculture adaptation technologies and practices are available, but many of the on-farm options will not be able to withstand global warming passing 2° Celsius. An example of a positive case of planned adaptation comes from the coffee sector in Nicaragua, where the projected temperature increases and changes in precipitation prompted a government-led programme, co-financed by multilateral development banks, to help coffee farmers adapt to the predicted changes. The package of interventions included promoting crop diversification, increased water use efficiency, strengthening markets and institutions, and providing weather information services to farmers. 

Creating an enabling environment 

An environment that enables action on the ground is critical. For agriculture, this means looking beyond purely technical adaptation options, but instead exploring how systemic and political dimensions are inhibiting adaptation. Technologies and practices that can help farmers deal with climate impacts exist, but they are not being adopted and scaled up enough. The incentive systems are wrong, capacity and knowledge constraints are abundant, finance is not flowing where it is needed, and root causes of poverty and inequality entrench vulnerability.

For example, the IPCC AR6 chapter on poverty highlights structural vulnerabilities as a key limiting factor of adaptation. Many farming households faced with the most dramatic impacts of climate change are also living in poverty. Similarly, only by dealing with the root causes of gender inequality will vulnerability be reduced. 

Tackling these root causes of poverty and gender inequality is necessary to ensure that adaptation efforts move beyond just mitigation and aiding farmers to cope with climate change, and instead build their resilience to food systems shocks. This will require improved coordination and capacity of all actors across the value chain, with particular attention to power relations. 

Looking ahead

Earth Overshoot Day is not only an opportunity to reflect on the importance of climate change mitigation, but a chance to place a spotlight on adaptation. Focusing on on-farm technologies and practices is the easy part. But understanding context and design to prevent maladaptation, scaling up planned adaptation, creating an enabling environment for adaptation actions and dealing with the root causes of vulnerability – that is the challenge.

This will require political will and follow through on implementation. These are challenging requirements, which can get lost in technical conversations or day-to-day reality, but without this, the adaptation gap will remain. 

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