Cancun climate change framework just a skeleton, but still a win for adaptation

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While much of the world’s attention to climate change has been focused on mitigation _ how to slow the rate of change _ its often-ignored sister adaptation took a significant step forward in the last round of U.N. climate change talks in December.

Adaptation works towards limiting the negative effects of climate change on people and ecosystems_ including forests. Climate change is already having dramatic effects on forested regions, which is damaging not only from an environmental perspective, but also for societies, with forests playing a key role in reducing the vulnerability of communities to losses from changes in temperatures, rainfall and other impacts.

The Cancun Adaptation Framework, adopted at the 16th Conference of the Parties in Cancun, Mexico, is the first formal agreement to establish principles and guidelines for decreasing the vulnerability of communities and ecosystems.

Although currently just a set of skeletal guidelines, the framework defines a revamped work program, ensures that adaptation finance should be additional to existing aid commitments and establishes a global adaptation committee to manage these issues.

“Since the Bali negotiations three years ago, adaptation has become important in international negotiations on climate change and Cancun is an encouraging milestone,” said Bruno Locatelli, leader of CIFOR’s research on adaptation to climate change.

Adaptation planning is not a new practice under the UNFCCC. Prior to the recent climate change talks, 45 of the most under-developed countries had already submitted their National Adaptation Programmes of Action, formulating projects to tackle their most urgent adaptation needs. However as yet, not much action has occurred on the ground.

To tackle this, parties agreed on a new work program for defining and prioritising approaches for adaptation such as vulnerability assessments, strengthening institutions, enhancing risk-reducing strategies and building resilience of socio-ecological systems.

“The creation of this work program and the need for approaches and methods for adaptation mean that the research conducted by many scientific organisations, such as CIFOR, is timely,” Locatelli said. “With research showing expected rapid changes to forests and the consequences for forest communities, this is a significant step toward action to assess vulnerability and design adaptation for both people and ecosystems”.

Emilia Pramova, an adaptation researcher at CIFOR, said that “Although the framework does provide some guidance for the formulation and implementation of adaptation plans and activities, it doesn’t really specify how this implementation will occur.”

However, it was agreed that the Subsidiary Body for Implementation has until COP17 in Durban to elaborate on the intricacies of the process that will enable the formulation and implementation of plans and activities.

The inclusion of both vulnerable ecosystems and communities in the principles and priorities is a key success of the framework and is more detailed than what was present in the Copenhagen Accord.

“Building the resilience of ecosystems could mean establishing more protected areas but this might not necessarily be good for the adaptation of ecosystem-dependent communities. The vulnerability of ecosystems and people should be addressed in an integrated manner as they are intertwined. Healthy ecosystems can provide critical services for the adaptation of societies to climate variability and change.”, Pramova said.

The integration of indigenous knowledge together with the best available science, an important part of the agreement, may help to avoid such scenarios.

“Local people have been adapting to change from time immemorial so it is incredibly important that their experience will now help to inform adaptation actions,” Pramova said.

Global action will be facilitated by an adaptation committee, according to the agreement. The composition of the committee will be decided by COP17 in Durban later this year.

Although its responsibilities have not yet been defined, developing countries have been pushing for a committee that enables direct access to adaptation money. However, several developed countries have been blocking any efforts to hand over control to a global committee as they want control of how adaptation funds will be spent.

Sourcing funds for adaptation activities has been a long standing issue, with an unclear boundary between adaptation and development funds. Under the new framework, developed countries are to ensure long-term and predictable adaptation finance which should be additional to existing aid commitments.

However, as Locatelli points out, “there is no mention of the magnitude of the fund or who will contribute. Also, there have not yet been any pledges from developed countries that refer strictly to the new Cancun Adaptation Framework.”

Strong linkages to sustainable finance, coupled with the decisive governance of a newly formed adaptation committee will be necessary discussions at the June SBSTA meeting in Bonn to ensure that both developed and developing countries can move forward with robust adaptation plans and enhanced adaptation action on the ground.

For more information on CIFOR’s work on adaptation, journal articles and new publications, click here.

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  • Kimbowa Richard

    The ‘no mention’ of the magnitude of the adaptation fund or who will contribute, which is key to taking action makes me think when ( given that there have not yet been any pledges from developed countries)and how this skeleton will have life.

    • Michelle Kovacevic

      Thank you for your comment Richard. Hopefully the June meeting in Bonn will help rally support for the adaptation fund and flesh out many other aspects of the adaptation framework. Michelle Kovacevic, editor, CIFOR blog.