UN study reveals costs of adapting to climate change are climbing

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Even as the United States, Britain, and other wealthy countries congratulate themselves on their recent combined commitment of nearly US$ 10 billion to a Green Climate Fund, a new study released on Friday at COP20 cautions governments to be more realistic.

The report, prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme at the request of UN member states, offers a fresh assessment of the gap between existing and emerging financial needs for adaptation to climate change.

Adaptation refers to a package of measures that make communities and industries more resilient and ready for more extreme weather events and a rapidly shifting climate.

UNEP says that while international contributions have been growing lately, these and current forward estimates fall rather short of what is required.

“Indeed national studies indicate that by 2050, costs of adaptation are plausibly four to five times higher than current estimates,” says UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in the report’s foreword.

Earlier this year, the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the world’s pre-eminent scientific advisory body on global warming—suggested that the costs in developing countries alone would be between US$ 70 and US$ 100 billion annually leading up to 2050.

UNEP’s estimates are based on a sample of non-OECD countries, including Peru, and sectors, such as agriculture and water. Shifting rainfall patterns are expected to raise the risk of flooding in northeastern Peru and make drought more common and more intense in the west.

Steiner warns that the global costs could double again if rising emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are not reversed soon.

“Mitigation is the best insurance against an insurmountable future adaptation gap,” says Steiner.

The report stresses, however, that even if all emissions were to cease today, the extra carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere has committed a warming of at least 1.5 ˚C. In the last century or so, the temperature has risen by 0.8 ˚C above the pre-industrial average.

Non-governmental organizations at COP20 expect further contributions to the Green Climate Fund before the end of the week, though some countries, including Australia, have refused to donate at all.

Erwin Jackson, Deputy Executive Director of independent Australian think-tank The Climate Institute, warns against complacency.

“The positive momentum outside the process does risk creating a sense of complacency in the negotiations. At times it has felt like countries were coasting to the end game,” Jackson said.

The Climate Action Network says that developed countries have so far baulked at additional specific commitment to further funding.

UNEP’s report suggests a role for both the private and public sector finance in adaptation, but notes that, at present, no one has a good grasp of private contributions. And not all participating COP20 countries are willing to foot the bill…

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