Reflections by GCF experts on latest IPCC report – a glimmer of hope?

  • Article type Insights
  • Publication date 14 Mar 2022

On 28 February 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, its latest assessment of the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, human society, our infrastructure and the places where we live. It also examines the feasibility and limits of adaptation efforts.

It makes for stark reading, concluding that human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread impacts, and losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability. Climate-related extremes have affected productivity in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Droughts, floods, wildfires, and marine heatwaves have affected food security, nutrition, and the livelihoods of millions.

Most vulnerable hit hardest

The report shows that the impact of climate change on food security disproportionately affects the most vulnerable.  Women, children and the elderly in low-income households, Indigenous Peoples, minority groups, and small-scale producers are hit worst by malnutrition, rising costs, and loss of livelihoods.

Across the world, over three billion people live in countries with high vulnerability to climate change, with unsustainable development increasing the risk of climate hazards, both for people and ecosystems.

We face multiple climate hazards over the coming decades even if global warming can be held to the 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal.  Exceeding this level even temporarily will result in additional severe, possibly irreversible impacts. Climate change will increase deaths and the spread of infectious diseases, with projections of over nine million climate-related deaths by the end of this century under a high emissions scenario.

The new report places a strong focus on the intertwined nature of ecosystems, biodiversity, and human society – representing both emerging risks while offering opportunities for transformational adaptation interventions.

The risks to ecosystems – upon which all life depends - increases with every fraction of a degree of warming above 1.5°C. The proportion of species at high risk of extinction is projected to be as high as 18% at 2°C of warming.  Every further increment of warming will have a negative impact on all food sectors, especially in regions of high vulnerability.

The same is true of water-related risks.  Vulnerable coastal communities – especially those that rely on coastal ecosystems for protection and livelihoods – may face adaptation limits - the point at which adaptive actions are no longer effective - before the end of the century, even at low levels of warming. 

Adaptation limits – and potential

In many human and natural systems, adaptation limits have already been reached or will be more limited as global warming continues.  These are divided into soft limits (where no options are feasible now, but where new approaches could be available in the future) and hard limits (where existing options stop being effective and no further options are available). Most soft limits to adaptation result from financial, institutional, and policy constraints.

But the report shows that effective adaptation planning and implementation has been observed across all sectors and regions to some effect, though many gaps remain, especially around funding, knowledge, and effective implementation.

Whilst some adaptation efforts have reduced vulnerability, existing adaptation responses are inadequate.   Increases in climate extremes like heatwaves and extreme rainfall have already led to irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.  It is essential that future adaptation actions are guided by improved understanding of what works, underlining the importance of Monitoring and Evaluation for projects funded by GCF and others.

A glimmer of hope

The report has a strong forward-looking focus on “transformational adaptation” in order to address the root causes of vulnerability.

Many existing adaptation projects are considered “incremental”, meaning that they only modify existing systems. To achieve transformation and enable climate resilient development, five “systems transitions” are highlighted -  (1) energy; (2) industry; (3) land use and ecosystems; (4) urban and infrastructure and (5) societal. Action is required across all five, based on integrated, multi-sectoral solutions that cut across systems.

The new report offers hope that systems transitions offer an opportunity to bring about a step-change in the scale and effectiveness of mitigation and adaptation efforts, yet there is a narrow window of opportunity. Protecting and restoring ecosystem health is a key factor, alongside improvements in climate change literacy. 

Readiness work at GCF can help in achieving systems transitions but mainstreaming adaptation into existing governance and policy is essential for successful outcomes, eloquently summarized as, “Climate resilient development is enabled when governments, civil society and the private sector make inclusive development choices that prioritize risk reduction, equity and justice, and when decision-making processes, finance and actions are integrated across governance levels, sectors and timeframes.”

By Kevin Horsburgh, Climate Science Lead; and Hanane Hafraoui, Africa Adaptation Adviser at GCF.