If global governments invested some $1.8 trillion over the next decade to help communities adapt to climate change, these communities would see some $7.1 trillion in benefits. This is one central finding of Adapt Now, a major new report by the Global Commission on Adaptation, which is led by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations; Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank.
At the report’s launch at the World Bank last week, Axel von Trotsenburg, acting CEO of the World Bank, said gains made in reducing extreme poverty around the world are now being undone by the increased destruction wrought by climate change. More flooding, more hurricanes, longer droughts, more wildfires, and hotter temperatures are hitting the poorest communities hardest. “There are now 100 million people worldwide who are poorer because of climate change.”
Von Trotsenburg estimated that of the billions spent on climate change globally by governments and development agencies, just some 30-40 percent is focused on helping communities adapt to a changing climate; the rest is aimed at mitigation, which is geared towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He called for increasing adaptation spending to at least half of all climate change-related investments.
Andrew Steer, CEO of the World Resources Institute, which co-wrote the report with the World Bank, also called for much greater investments to help communities get ahead of the climate impacts they are destined to experience. “We can either plan wisely and smartly now or wait and see much more human misery. We can plan and prosper or delay and have more pain.”
The report calls for spending $1.8 trillion in five critical areas deemed to have the greatest adaption benefit: early warning systems, mangrove protection, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture, and investments in making water resources more resilient.
According to the report, early warning systems are among the most effective investments. They “save lives and assets worth at least ten times their cost. Just 24 hours warning of a coming storm or heat wave can cut the ensuing damage by 30 percent. Spending $800 million on such systems in developing countries would avoid losses of $3–16 billion per year.”
Protecting and expanding coastal mangroves can also provide a 10:1 return. “Mangrove forests provide more than $80 billion per year in avoided losses from coastal flooding—and protect 18 million people. They also contribute almost as much ($40–50 billion per year) in non-market benefits associated with fisheries, forestry, and recreation. Combined, the benefits from mangrove preservation and restoration are up to 10 times the costs.”
Designing and building climate-resilient infrastructure, such as networks of green infrastructure, can “add about 3 percent to the upfront costs but has benefit-cost ratios of about 4:1. With $60 trillion in projected infrastructure investments between 2020 and 2030, the potential benefits of early adaptation are enormous.” The authors cited The Netherlands’ Room for the River program, which directs river flooding into safer areas using natural and engineered systems, and projects created by landscape architects, such as smart “water plazas,” which have been built in Rotterdam to store excess flood water, as key examples.
The report goes into great detail about the need to increase nature-based approaches to both climate adaptation and mitigation, calling for greater investment in creating “sponge cities,” expanding tree canopies, wetlands, and wildlife habitat, and using agroforestry to improve soil moisture and reduce evaporation, all approaches landscape architects have actively promoted for many years. (The sponge city approach, which is now national policy in China, was conceived and promoted by Chinese landscape architect Kongjian Yu, FASLA).
The report delves into the many co-benefits of natural climate solutions as well, “such as better water quality, more productive natural resources, job creation, improved health, cultural benefits, and biodiversity conservation. Nature-based solutions often work well at a broad scale, such as in whole watershed restorations or along coastlines. They can be more cost-effective than engineered approaches, like seawalls, and can also work well in tandem with those engineering approaches to control floods, protect coasts, and reduce urban heat.”
Perhaps Steer’s most persuasive argument for those focused on the financial bottom line is that investments in resilience are critical to ensuring future growth. Without protective infrastructure that can reduce flood risks and high temperatures and ensure water and food supplies, communities can’t attract the investment needed to grow. Therefore, in the near term, climate risks need to be “made more visible,” not hidden. That is the only way to get governments and the financial sector to increase spending on climate adaptation quickly.
In a panel discussion, Laura Cook, vice president for sustainability at the World Bank, said “good adaptation is good development.” Climate adaptation must become part of the “DNA of every project,” even for things that are seemingly unrelated. For example, climate impacts can have ripple health effects. When flooding hits Kampala, the capital of Uganda, which has population of some 1.6 million, “some 30 percent of the population can’t get to a hospital.” Future health infrastructure investments should then be coordinated with resilient urban planning and design.
Steer was ultimately optimistic, arguing that many countries have shown that we can adapt. In 1970, Cyclone Bhola killed 300,000 people in Bangladesh, and then in 1991, another cyclone killed 138,000 people there. After decades of investment in national and local disaster preparedness and an early warning system, a cyclone that came through the delta country in 2019 resulted in 5 deaths. While even the loss of a few people is horrible, “this is largely a climate adaptation success story.”