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In coastal Odisha, flash floods often devastate the paddy crop, leading to severe distress among farmers, who have to suffer unsustainable losses, and sometimes give up rice cultivation altogether. To tackle the impact of such extreme weather, a few hundred farmers in two villages of the eastern province of India started cultivating a variety resistant to prolonged flooding.

The results were remarkable. Not only did the crop survive but the harvest also fetched returns beyond the farmers’ expectations. This small experiment showed that instead of mitigating farm distress, it is often a better idea to adapt to the recent changes in weather brought on by climate change.

There are many such examples of people around the world trying to successfully adapt to global warming instead of trying to merely mitigate its impacts. And that is precisely the argument put forward forcefully in a report by the Global Commission on Adaptation, an initiative led by tech billionaire Bill Gates, former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank chief executive Kristalina Georgieva.

The report, released at the ongoing UN desertification summit being held in New Delhi, advocates radical strategies to transform key economic systems to be more resilient and productive in the face of climate change. By investing USD 1.8 trillion globally from 2020 to 2030 in five areas of climate adaptation — early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture, mangrove protection and investments in making water resources more resilient — could yield up to USD 7.1 trillion in net benefits, the Commission said in its report titled Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience.

Call for urgent action

The report calls on governments and businesses to take urgent action to innovate and advance climate adaptation solutions in light of new research findings. Climate adaptation can also deliver a “triple dividend” by avoiding future losses, generating positive economic gains through innovation and delivering additional social and environmental benefits, it said.

“Climate change is here and now, and we need to take early action,” Anand Patwardhan, professor at University of Maryland and lead author of the report, said in New Delhi at the report’s launch. “The report presents the economic case, and the benefits of action early and at scale.” It is important to make climate risks visible, understand the benefits of investments on adaptation and then “plan processes that give the vulnerable a voice,” Patwardhan said. “All of this will lead to local action.”

Without adaptation, climate change may depress growth in global agriculture yields up to 30% by 2050, which will severely affect some 500 million small farmers around the world, the report said. Rising seas and greater storm surges could force hundreds of millions of people in coastal cities from their homes, with a total cost to coastal urban areas of more than USD 1 trillion each year by 2050, it said.

“Adapting now is in our strong economic self-interest,” the report said. “Failing to seize the economic benefits of climate adaptation with high-return investments would undermine trillions of dollars in potential growth and prosperity.”

The report calls for renewed thinking in three areas — understanding, planning and finance — to ensure that climate impacts, risks and solutions are factored into decision making at all levels. It explores how these major system changes can be applied across seven interlocking systems — food, natural environment, water, cities, infrastructures, disaster risk management and finance.

“Climate change mitigation is to avoid the unmanageable. Climate adaptation is to manage the unavoidable,” said economist Nicholas Stern, head of the UK delegation to the desertification summit. Climate risks can destabilise the world economic system, he said. “We have to invest in natural infrastructure (such as mangroves to protect coastal areas), reduce climate risks and lower the cost of capital,” Stern said. “We need stronger emphasis on how development, mitigation and adaptation come together.”

More collaboration needed

“One way to handle this uncertainty (arising due to climate change) is for national and local governments, local academics, business and communities to collaborate more on planning and investment decisions,” said Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson, Global Environment Facility. “Only by working together will we find solutions which will leverage private sector investment at the pace and scale needed to address the climate crisis.”

While avoiding losses is the most common motivation for investing in resilience, taken alone such losses underestimate the total benefits to society, the report said. Many adaptation actions generate significant additional economic, social, and environmental benefits, which accrue on an ongoing basis starting at the time of investment and are not dependent on the future state of the climate, it argued.

“We must apply these revolutions (understanding, planning and finance ) to the key economic systems affected by climate change: systems that produce food, protect and manage water and the natural environment, plan and build our cities and infrastructure, protect people from disasters, and provide financing for a more resilient future, the report said. It shows how the climate crisis is disrupting these systems and offers specific, actionable recommendations for how to respond.”

“It is becoming increasingly clear that in many parts of the world, our climate has already changed, and we need to adapt with it. Mitigation and adaptation go hand-in-hand as two equally important building blocks of the Paris Climate Change Agreement,” Ban Ki-moon said in a statement. “Adaptation is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do to boost economic growth and create a climate-resilient world.”

The Commission is expected to unveil additional actions at the UN Climate Summit in September based on its report. These so-called action tracks, which are outlined in the report, cover areas such as food security, resilience, disaster risk management and finance.

The Commission will also announce the start of the Year of Action at the UN Headquarters on September 24. The Year of Action will build on the report’s recommendations to mobilise action on climate change, which will be featured at the Climate Adaptation Summit in October 2020 in the Netherlands.

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