Developing countries can adapt to future climate change impacts despite uncertainties in predictions

Posted on 24 Mar 2011 in

Developing countries can adapt to future risks from climate change, such as changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, despite uncertainties in predictions about the long-term impacts, according to a report published today by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

However, the report warns that if climate change is not taken into account in long-term development planning and policy-making, developing countries can ‘lock in’ their vulnerability to the impacts, leading to significant and potentially irreversible damage in the future.

The report, by Dr Nicola Ranger and Su-Lin Garbett-Shiels, was prepared as a contribution to the World Resources Report 2011, and points out that “uncertainties in computer model projections about future climate should not stop good adaptation decisions being made today”. It stresses that “by building flexibility into adaptation strategies from the outset, increasing climate resilience, even with deep uncertainty about future impacts, should be no more challenging than other areas of policy”.

The report recommends that developing countries should “focus on principles, not projections”, and identifies “simple, practical principles” which policy-makers can employ to deal with uncertainties in decisions about adapting to the future impacts of climate change.

Among these principles are “focus on additional measures that directly reduce vulnerability to current climate-related risks and limit near-term, irreversible harm to people and ecosystems”. These include ‘hard’ adaptation measures, such as early warning systems for extreme weather and flood defences, as well as ‘softer’ adaptation measures, such as public awareness-raising and evacuation planning.

The authors describe these as ‘no-regrets’ and ‘low-regrets’ options because they begin to create some benefits in the short term, no matter how the climate changes in the future and even if the potential long-term benefits are never realised. Such measures should, as soon as they are implemented, reduce deaths from extreme weather events, which have killed about 850,000 people in low- and middle-income countries over the past 30 years.

Another principle is “when dealing with expensive, long-term projects, such as public infrastructure, seek ‘low-regrets’ ways to build in flexibility to cope with the uncertainties at the start”. This means that policy-makers should “design measures and policies today to cope with a wider range of possible climate conditions”. For example, bigger reservoirs can be built to maintain an adequate supply of water even under a wide range of potential rainfall conditions in the future.

In addition, policy-makers should “design measures and policies today that can be easily and inexpensively adjusted later to cope with future climate impacts”. For example, new coastal defences can be built with broader foundations so that they can be increased in height at a later date rather than re-constructed entirely to protect against higher sea levels.

Other principles include “consider long-term climate risks within existing planning and policy-making processes such that, where possible, policy-makers avoid making decisions today that could actually ‘lock in’ impacts, increasing future vulnerability to climate or leading to expensive retrofits later on”. For example, planning policies should discourage the construction of new homes and businesses in areas that are already susceptible to flooding and which are likely to become even more threatened as the climate changes.

Policy-makers should also “move faster and harder on core development priorities” as it has been demonstrated that economic diversification, poverty alleviation, and improvements in healthcare, education and sanitation all have multiple and immediate benefits, while also significantly reducing vulnerability to the impacts of future changes in climate.

The report concludes that “adaptation and development are not opposing priorities that must be weighed up against each other by countries with limited resources”.

“Adaptation and development priorities are in alignment. Climate change strengthens the case for pushing ‘faster and harder’ on development priorities and investments, with a greater awareness of long-term risks.”

Notes for Editors

  1. Dr Nicola Ranger is Munich Re Research Fellow at the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy. Su-Lin Garbett-Shiels is Visiting Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
  2. The Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy was established in 2008 to advance public and private action on climate change through rigorous, innovative research. The Centre is hosted jointly by the University of Leeds and the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council  and Munich Re.
  3. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment was launched at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in October 2008. It is funded by The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.
  4. The World Resources Report is a joint project between the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute. The World Resources Report will provide practical guidance and information about integrating climate risks to policy- makers and officials, based on extensive research and analysis. Further information and outputs from the World Resources Report.