Nairobi Climate Conference: Adaptation Sidesteps the Real Challenge

November 06, 2006
United Nations negotiations on climate change have opened in Nairobi with the focus, according to the BBC, on helping poorer countries adapt. This is the 12th set of U.N. climate talks since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. A U.N. report released on the eve of the talks, Vulnerability and Adaptation in Africa, forecasts dire impacts on the continent (All has a useful short summary). According to the report, rivers will run dry, crop yields will fall, and rising seas could engulf cities. Also getting attention at the Nairobi meeting is a 700-page report that the U.K. government released last week by Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank chief economist. The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change warned of major economic dislocations, and of a disproportionate impact on the poorest countries. But in contrast to the U.N. report, the Stern Report is clear about the urgency of addressing the root of the problem--and about the costs of inaction.The contrast between the two reports is revealing. The U.N. report focuses on adaptation partly because of the difficulty in getting countries to agree on mandatory reductions on greenhoue gas emissions. The U.S. refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change has made it a toothless tiger. The U.N. report has thus been left to propose ways to "climate-proof" African countries, such as:
  • sea and river defenses
  • boosting water supply infrastructure for drought-prone regions
  • planting of natural defenses such as trees and mangroves
  • development of new crop strains resistant to higher temperatures or drought
  • public education on issues such as saving water
Climate proof the poorest societies on earth? Get real! The richest nation on earth was unable to defend New Orleans against rising sea levels and we are supposed to believe it will be possible to construct a reliable system of levies to protect Africa's coastal cities? Four out of ten people in Africa lack access to running water and we are told that public education about not wasting water is going to help them cope with global warming?To be sure, adaptation must be part of the solution. But to focus primarily on adaptation because cutting the rate of global warming is seen as politically unfeasible is like stocking bomb shelters with food and water, instead of pushing for arms control and nuclear non-proliferation, because the nuclear powers are opposed to disarmament.The Stern Report strikes a better balance, including attention to adaptation but focusing squarely on the need to address the problem at its source. The report's key findings provide a solid basis for action:
  • There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we take strong action now.
  • The costs of stabilising the climate are significant but manageable; delay would be dangerous and much more costly.
  • Action on climate change is required across all countries, and it need not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries.
  • A range of options exists to cut emissions; strong, deliberate policy action is required to motivate their take-up.
  • Climate change demands an international response, based on a shared understanding of long-term goals and agreement on frameworks for action.
The report puts adaptation into its proper context, listing it fourth among the key elements in future international frameworks. All four are important:
  • Emissions trading: Expanding and linking the growing number of emissions trading schemes around the world is a powerful way to promote cost-effective reductions in emissions and to bring forward action in developing countries; strong targets in rich countries could drive flows amounting to tens of billions of dollars each year to support the transition to low-carbon development paths.
  • Technology cooperation: Informal co-ordination as well as formal agreements can boost the effectiveness of investments in innovation around the world. Globally, support for energy R&D should at least double, and support for the deployment of new low-carbon technologies should increase up to five-fold. International cooperation on product standards is a powerful way to boost energy efficiency.
  • Action to reduce deforestation: The loss of natural forests around the world contributes more to global emissions each year than the transport sector. Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way to reduce emissions; large scale international pilot programs to explore the best ways to do this could get underway very quickly.
  • Adaptation: The poorest countries are most vulnerable to climate change. It is essential that climate change be fully integrated into development policy, and that rich countries honor their pledges to increase support through overseas development assistance. International funding should also support improved regional information on climate change impacts, and research into new crop varieties that will be more resilient to drought and flood.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.