Why COP27 Must Put Climate Adaptation at the Top of Its Agenda

One third of Pakistan has recently been underwater, resulting in the displacement of up to 33 million people. Somalia is on the brink of famine, amidst its worst drought in four decades. Torrential rains in Bangladesh, where I live, have left three million people homeless this summer the result of the third flood in a single season. These are not isolated snapshots anymore, but the reality of how the billions of people in low-income countries are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. This is a preview of our shared future unless the global community takes urgent action. 

Consider for a moment what it means for over 30 million people to be displaced. That’s almost the population of Canada (38 million), and that’s in one country, from one flood. 

When it comes to the climate crisis, we’re all in the same sea but we’re in very different boats, and some don’t have a boat. In low-income countries, those who are displaced are typically without any social protection. Climate migration will, therefore, increase out of necessity, and impact the entire world, as basic human needs are threatened. In Bangladesh, loss of livelihoods is driving 2,000 people to migrate to Dhaka, the nation’s capital, every day. 

COP26, last year’s global convening on climate issues, was shocking in its lack of attention to current climate change impacts around the world. Against the background of such widespread devastation this year, I am hopeful that COP27, which I will be attending as Executive Director of BRAC Bangladesh, will be different. 

The focus of COP26 was on mitigation of climate change—reducing the magnitude of future impacts which rightly is of vital importance. But focusing on mitigation should not preclude focusing on adaptation to current conditions. For much of the world, especially low-income countries, the current impacts are already devastating. We don’t have to wait for the future. 

Shifting the debate back to the fundamentals will be the key. That goes back to the question of how? How to support low- income countries to adapt to climate change to reduce the impact on lives and livelihoods in the short term, and save billions for everyone in disaster recovery efforts.  

First, we need to ensure easily accessible financing for scalable adaptation solutions. For that, global funding of adaptation must increase significantly. Just US$20 billion of climate finance funds went to adaptation projects in 2019. But most of these funds are stuck in a complex, bureaucratic funding structure that is close to impossible to access by local organisations. COP26 ended with an historic, though still inadequate, commitment by richer nations to provide $40 billion annually in adaptation finance to low- and middle-income countries by 2025. This year, with such widespread devastation readily apparent, the ask is two-fold: to support those countries suffering the most and to increase climate funding to $100 billion annually. Notably, that’s the figure that the world’s richest nations pledged 13 years ago, to reach by 2020.   

Second, we need to prioritise the approach to adaptation that should be funded. The approach to adaptation must be locally-led, to reflect the lived experiences of those most affected. Too often, strategies are created by global or international entities with little local input. The funds never get to the entities on the ground that are in greatest need, and the effort either fails or—worse still—leads to maladaptation

Eight principles of locally-led adaptation have been developed by a partnership of organisations, formed under the Global Commission on Adaptation, including the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the World Resources Institute. The evolution of the principles was facilitated by a locally-led adaptation track, guided by Dr. Muhammad Musa, my predecessor at BRAC Bangladesh, and Sheela Patel, former board chair and founding member of Slum Dwellers International. Over 80 governments, leading global institutions, and local and international NGOs have endorsed these principles and are advocating their endorsement by others. But the reality is only 6 percent of existing adaptation funds are going to locally-led adaptation

An example of a proven locally-led adaptation—one that addresses extreme poverty and is now adopting a climate resilience focus—is one in which I am closely involved, BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation programme. It is a multifaceted, researched set of interventions based on a deep understanding of the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty. It supports people to lift themselves out of extreme poverty and has reached more than 2.1 million households (about 9 million people) in Bangladesh alone. It is now increasingly supporting people to build resilience to climate shocks through providing training on climate-adaptive livelihoods and coaching on disaster management skills, in addition to Graduation’s usual support for basic needs, financial services and skills, coaching, and income generation. 

Third, we need to identify financing mechanisms that will support local organisations, and will be quick and easy to deploy without creating undue risk for donors. Too often the limitation of funds is compounded by the complexity of accessing them, due to overly bureaucratic processes that take years to untangle. This is where the role of strong intermediary organisations—international or national—can be useful. We can think about a time-bound role for them to serve as intermediaries between global funders and the people most affected on the ground—the people that funders want to reach, but don’t have the capacity or risk appetite to do so. 

An example that could be replicated is BRAC’s Climate Bridge Fund, a 22 million-euro trust fund created in 2019 with the support of the German government through the KfW development bank. The fund supports small-scale projects implemented by local nongovernmental organisations in Bangladesh to strengthen the resilience of people displaced, or at risk of being displaced by climate change. Projects focus on improving the resilience and adaptive capacity of people living in coastal cities and towns in the most vulnerable situations. Direct climate financing supports projects to move from short-term project funding to sustainable provision of services and infrastructure, and puts the people closest to the challenges at the centre of solutions. BRAC’s knowledge of local conditions and the civil society sector enables the funding process to be streamlined. 

Focusing on the fundamentals offers an extraordinary opportunity for the world to support the most vulnerable countries with the effectiveness and urgency needed. It would be a recognition that we’re all in the same sea, and we’re there for the people without boats. The question is: Will the global community seize that opportunity at COP27—or continue to overlook the needs of 3.6 billion people? 


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.