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expert reaction to UNEP’s 2021 Adaptation Gap Report

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Adaptation Gap Report for 2021 has been published.


Prof Len Shaffrey, Professor of Climate Science at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, University of Reading, said:

“As the climate warms, extreme events, such as the devastating floods we saw across Europe this summer, will become more frequent. The UNEP report outlines the urgent need to step-up efforts to adapt to climate change, especially in terms of improving our resilience to flooding, droughts, heatwaves and storms. Critically, we need to ensure that finance is available to fund climate adaptation projects, particularly in less economically developed countries.”


Prof Daniela Schmidt, Professor in Palaeobiology and Research Director, Faculty of Science, University of Bristol, said:

“The report clearly states that even with strong mitigation, adaptation to already experienced climate change and increasing risk needs to happen. There are many plans for adaptation, but much less action.

“While many small scale examples give indication of the power of well designed and implemented adaptation, we lack urgently needed knowledge what works where, and for whom and which approaches are most effective.

“Making decisions without this knowledge sets us on adaptation pathways which may have unintended consequences. The lack of understanding results in our inability to upscale and transfer successful adaptation examples to other regions and systems.”


Prof Hannah Cloke, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Reading, said:

“This latest report from the UN shows that the world is not doing enough to prepare for extreme climate events such as floods, droughts and wildfires, that cause severe disruption to people’s lives.

“Even if COP26 finished with a plan to phase out fossil fuels and cut emissions to zero, we would still have to live with the impact of the warming we have ready caused, which we know has made many types of extreme weather events much more likely.

“It is also important to realise that while climate change may make some events worse, bad weather has always happened and always will happen. Adapting to climate risk means taking a proactive response, by investing in better buildings, infrastructure, and early warning systems.

“This report contains some eye-boggling figures about the amount of investment that is needed. We should see these huge sums not as a cost, but as a way to help societies grow in a way that reduces future risks through careful design.”


Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh, Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, University of Bath, said:

“It’s encouraging that there has been progress on adaptation (despite COVID), but there remains a clear implementation gap between strategies/plans and action. There is also an evidence gap – few adaptation measures are evaluated, and there is little understanding of what works or whether climate change risks have even been reduced. 

“Also encouraging is the rise of stakeholder engagement in developing adaptation plans/measures – this is critical for the level of change required to effectively tackle climate risks and increase resilience. Although behaviour change isn’t mentioned in the report (whereas technology transfer is, for example), it will also be central to adaptation.”


Prof Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts Research at the Met Office Hadley Centre, said:

“Now that climate change impacts are ramping up, we have no choice but to adapt to more extreme weather that is now occurring. We can still limit further increases in climate hazards if we stop dumping carbon into the air, but adaptation remains critical to keeping us safe”


Brian O’Callaghan, lead researcher and project manager on the Oxford university economic recovery project and a contributing author on chapter 6 of this UNEP report, said:

“COVID-19 recovery spending has so far not prioritised green investment – and more than any other sub-category, adaptation and resilience needs have been ignored.

“By failing to invest in climate adaptation, it seems like we’ve gone sky diving and decided we don’t need a parachute.

“Investing in climate adaptation is a bit like getting insurance for a known event. We pay $1 today to save ourselves $10 tomorrow.

“There are opportunities to learn from COVID-19 for climate adaptation. Millions of lives could have been saved with better pandemic planning and response – for climate change preparedness, the figure is in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions.

“The world’s poorest nations are also the most vulnerable to climate change, and yet empty public coffers mean they have the lowest ability to respond. To deal with the overwhelming need, rich governments need to increase their annual financial aid for adaptation in vulnerable nations by at least 900%, probably more.”


Prof Thom Wetzer, Director of the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme and Lead Researcher on the Oxford Martin Initiative on a Net Zero Recovery, who led the team responsible for Chapter 6 of this report, said:

“The report shows that, so far, building back better is a slogan – not a reality. If we want to make this slogan real, we need action now. Wasting this opportunity will set us back significantly during this crucial decade: the heightened cost of servicing debt burdens that resulted from the COVID crisis, combined with decreased government revenues, may hamper future government spending on adaptation, particularly in already vulnerable countries. 

“COVID-19 and climate change are compounding on each other to create immense human suffering, and the increasing debt burden is constraining the ability of the most vulnerable to protect themselves from that suffering. And yet, governments are investing trillions in responding to the pandemic without taking proper account of climate adaptation, leaving the risks that a warming planet poses to build. It does not have to be this way; governments around the world promised to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic, and funding climate adaptation should be a central part of that. And let’s be clear: this requires wealthier countries to step up their financial support to those most vulnerable. At COP26, political leaders have the opportunity to work together to do this on a global scale.”


Dr Lisa Schipper, Environmental Social Science Research Fellow, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford and lead author of chapter 5 of the report, said:

“We now have sufficient evidence from the ground to be able to see that many adaptation projects are actually backfiring leading to maladaptation, where people instead become more vulnerable to climate change. So, while the calls for more funding are justified, it also needs to be clear that more funding is not a sufficient criteria for successful adaptation. We also need to rethink the design of projects so they involve local actors in order to incorporate a deep understanding of what drives vulnerability to climate change. 

“It is clear that most adaptation projects do not appear to reduce climate risk, and many do not even address vulnerability to climate change. This suggests that a lot of projects will be seen as failures in the next few years, and at worst as maladaptation.

“We have a poor understanding of what successful adaptation means, although we do know that it depends on different perspectives. Those who implement projects often rely on different indicators of success than those who are actually adapting. This matters because it means that what is a successful adaptation to a donor can mean maladaptation to a beneficiary.

“Among the different knowledge gaps is lack of clarity on whether current adaptation efforts will be effective in the long term or whether they will primarily result in maladaptation. This is exacerbated by difficulty in identifying maladaptation before it happens.”



Declared interests

Prof Schmidt: “No competing interests.”

Prof Betts: “COI declaration: I work for the Met Office who provide climate science advice to the UK govt, and also the University of Exeter through which I led the technical report of the UK’s 3rd National Climate Change Risk Assessment which informs UK adaptation planning.”

Prof Shaffrey: “I’m not an author and have no conflict of interest.”

None others received.

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