Putting a Value on Climate Adaptation

By Chen Chen, ND-GAIN. Originally published Op-Ed on Triple Pundit: www.triplepundit.com

The Paris Climate Agreement put climate adaptation squarely on the climate agenda when it established a global goal to “enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change.”

Through the agreement, funds from developed countries are pledged to fuel adaptation planning and implementation in vulnerable, developing countries. Similar to other issues related to global development, garnering monetary pledges could be the crucial first step toward positive change. But what can we expect to come out of the multibillion-dollar pledge for adaptation?

If we look at typical development projects, we can anticipate the output of development investment because the unit costs of the projects are often provided, as in anti-malaria efforts in Malawi or DRC, or learning opportunities for refugee children in Syria. We must now ask: What is the unit cost of improving adaptive capacity or reducing climate vulnerability?  No such measure yet exists, making it difficult to identify measurable goals for adaptation funds.

In a recent webinar hosted by the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN),private-sector, climate-adaptation investment mavens discussed how an adaptation assessment measure could inspire a larger market to meet the needs of the developing world. The creation of a Common Adaptation Unit (CAU) allows us to quantify the adaptation goals. This discussion inspired me to consider the steps needed to conceptualize a measurement unit for adaptation based on the three years of inquiry leading ND-GAIN’s research on adaptation measurement at the global, country, city and project evaluation levels.

A critical step is to derive a per-unit measure that is comparable to outputs in a typical development project, such as the number of insecticidal nets distributed or the number of refugee children gaining learning opportunities.

The impacts of climate change manifest in two ways – through climate-induced shockssuch as extreme weather and climate disasters like floods or landslides, and climate-imposed stresses such as shortened growing seasons or extended disease transmission periods, both of which could take an enormous toll on lives and assets. Adaptation success can therefore be measured using the number of lives saved or assets value preserved. However, this way of quantifying adaptation success would be comparable to measuring the outcomes of usual development projects (e.g., increased retention rates of school children due to funding to improve education accessibility), which requires a complete cycle of project impact evaluation to quantify such unit. 

The improvement of adaptive capacity or reduction of vulnerability is the intermediate step leading toward a scenario where climate disasters cause less or no damage to lives and assets.  Therefore, what we need is a unit to measure the intended “output” from adaptation funds in its immediate form, a unit by which taxpayers understand what the funds are going to be spent on.

This novel CAU would quantify the progress of adaptation. As a standardized measure, the use of this CAU would precede the measures of lives and assets impacted by climate change. It can be helpful to think of the CAU as similar to Intelligence Quotient (IQ). One common feature of CAU and IQ is that they both measure something that only exists conceptually. Some standardized tests can gather key information from an individual to measure IQ. Similarly, standardized tests, in a form of standardized surveys, can be given to a country or a community to measure CAU.

City surveys have been gathering data on the perception of climate risks and adaptation planning that can serve as the basis for a CAU for certain cities.  Although further quantification challenges remain to formalize the unit, standardized surveys that quantify adaptation progress at multiple scales will bring us closer to developing a baseline for adaptation and to a setting adaptation targets.

Using standardized survey to obtain a measurable state of vulnerability can help global adaptation leaders realize many uses of CAU, as listed in its concept note, including providing a target to guide future Conference of the Parties similar to greenhouse gas mitigation targets. We can then estimate the cost of improving a country’s, city’s, or community’s CAU and know what outputs we can expect from monetary pledges for adaptation.

Image credit: Flickr/COP21 Paris

Chen Chen is the research scientist at Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative’s (ND-GAIN) and Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development, focusing on adaptation measurement at various scales to serve a prospective adaptation market.