In Glasgow, Experts Warn of Widespread Misspending of Climate Adaptation Funds

Youth Strikers at the Glasgow climate talks.

Youth Strikers at the Glasgow climate talks. Friends of the Earth International via Flickr

Tens of billions of dollars in aid are being poured into helping the most vulnerable nations to adapt to climate change. Rich nations in Glasgow are promising more. But is the money being well spent? Authors of a new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) say not. Often it is funding projects that increase vulnerability.

Many young people assembling in Glasgow this week to witness the climate conference know all about climate vulnerability. They are from developing nations on the front line of climate disasters happening today. They know all too well what is coming down the track. They include Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate, who will address a march through Glasgow Friday, organized by the school-strike movement Fridays for Future, to protest what Swedish youth activist and fellow speaker Greta Thunberg calls the “blah, blah, blah” inaction inside the climate conference.

Most of the marchers are unimpressed by the “youth day” going on inside, with delegates from various UN-sanctioned youth groups addressing meetings. Nor do they believe the promises of rich-world leaders that they will finally deliver on their pledge of a decade ago to provide $100 billion a year to help poor nations “adapt and mitigate” climate change.

They are not alone in their skepticism.

A little-noticed report published this week by the UNEP explains why the seemingly generous aid promise is far from enough, why the “adaptation gap” between funding and the need for protection is growing, and why too many adaptation projects are making the situation worse rather than better.

“So far, building back better is a slogan, not a reality,” said Thom Wetzer of the Oxford Sustainability Law Program and a co-author of the UNEP Adaptation Gap Report for 2021. The report suggests that, while demands for climate adaptation funding may be the hot issue today, its misspending could be headline news at future climate conferences.

First things first. Is the promised adaptation money — intended for protecting coastlines from sea-level rise, farmers from droughts, cities from heat waves, and infrastructure from storms — actually coming? Well, a bit. But, even as overall annual climate aid funding for developing nations pushes towards the promised $100 billion, only around a fifth of it is going into adaptation to climate change. The rest is being diverted into climate “mitigation” measures, mostly low-carbon energy.

This is not good enough, says UNEP report co-author Brian O’Callaghan of the Boston Consulting Group: “By failing to invest in climate adaptation, we’ve gone skydiving and decided we don’t need a parachute.” Governments need to increase their aid for adaptation in vulnerable nations “by at least 900 percent,” he says.

True, funding has improved since the Paris climate conference in 2015. Twice as many adaptation projects started in the second half of the last decade as in the first half, the UNEP report says. But many donors are over-reporting their activities. More than a third of the projects claimed as contributing to climate adaptation promises did not meet the rules for genuine adaptation schemes, as drawn up by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Many projects, the UNEP notes, began with other purposes, such as modernizing agriculture or improving water supplies. The climate-adaptation badge was only added later — fueling a rising concern that donors are not allocating new money to meet their climate promises, but just repackage existing aid.

In any case, rising spending is not keeping up with rising estimates of what will be needed, the report finds. This is hardly surprising when the World Meteorological Organization just reported that the rate of sea-level rise has doubled in the past two decades, to 4.4 centimeters per decade.

UNEP estimates the real need for adaptation at $300 billion per year by 2030 and $500 billion by 2050. “The adaptation finance gap … is widening,” it says, while “funding flows remain stable or decreasing.”

Still, we must hope the projects are doing their job in making people safer. The trouble is nobody knows for sure. “There is still scarce evidence of climate risk reduction as a result of adaptation actions,” UNEP finds. Fewer than 2 percent of scientific analyses of adaptation projects it looked at “provided primary evidence of risk reduction.”

In all probability, the situation is worse than that, says one author of the report’s chapter on the implementation of adaptation projects. Lisa Schipper of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University says “many adaptation projects are actually backfiring, leading to people becoming more vulnerable to climate change. A lot will be seen as failures in the next few years.”

With tens of billions of dollars a year — and a great deal of political capital and trust — being earmarked for such projects, this is a shattering claim. She gave Yale Environment 360 some examples of what goes wrong.

  • Sea walls to protect low-lying shorelines in Bangladesh from rising tides often leave out the most flood-prone areas that are vital food-producing spots for the poorest and most vulnerable people. “Landless poor women can no longer find food and resources to sell when these flooded areas disappeared,” she says. And by channeling water flows in river deltas, the sea walls are leading to more submerged land along the River Jamuna.
  • Similarly, sea walls being built on the Pacific islands of Kiribati and Fiji often protect infrastructure but “shift erosion further down the coastline instead.”
  • In the African island state of Sao Tome and Principe, adaptation funds have been spent on making bigger farms more productive. That benefits those farmers and protects food supplies, but also leaves out the smallholders and landless farmers who are most vulnerable to climate change, and who end up as casual farm laborers.
  • In Vietnam, hydroelectric dams have been sold as climate adaptation schemes because they can regulate flooding in lowlands downstream. But they also take land and forests from mountain people upstream, making them more vulnerable to climate change.

In a wide-ranging review published earlier this year, Schipper and her colleagues found widespread evidence of “elite capture” of adaptation aid that often left the most vulnerable people more marginalized in society, and often at greater risk from climate change. “We need to shift attention from how much money is available for adaptation and instead focus on how adaptation projects can actually reduce vulnerability, targeting the people who are most in need,” she says.

Will that happen? The omens are not good. Glasgow delegates mostly agree that private investors will be needed to fill the adaptation funding gap. Yet the UNEP report predicts that “private investment will gravitate to opportunities where revenues are highest and risks lowest. It is unlikely to target the most vulnerable in least developed countries.”

That is not a finding that will do anything to placate the anger of activists marching through Glasgow.

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