The challenge of adaptation


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POLICY responses to climate change include mitigation of greenhouse gases (GHG) that contribute to the expected changes in the earth’s climate and adaptation to potential impacts caused by the changing climate. Climate change policy has so far been exclusively focused on GHG mitigation. For instance, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) refers to adaptation only within a narrow focus. Going by the UNFCCC’s widely accepted interpretation that without greenhouse gas emissions there is no climate change, adaptation thus becomes necessary only when mitigation of greenhouse gases has not completely halted climate change. The Stern Review summarizes this view: ‘Adaptation is crucial to deal with the unavoidable impacts of climate change to which the world is already committed’.1

However, the reality is that several million people the world over are currently at the risk of climate related impacts. To say that their suffering is not the concern of climate change policy could make such policies irrelevant from the point of view of developing countries where most victims of climate related impacts reside. At the same time, it may not be meaningful to attribute every climate related issue to climate change policy because this would only complicate an already complex policy issue.

In the context of climate change, adaptation should be discussed taking into account these conflicting perspectives. Adaptation is a much broader concept than mitigation of greenhouse gases – what we need is the policy counterpart of adaptation. While there are varied interpretations of the notion of adaptation, it should be interpreted in the broadest possible sense from a developing country perspective. Such an interpretation would be in line with the often cited ‘mainstreaming’ of climate change policies.

The significant feature of climate change policy with reference to adaptation is the creation of several funds such as adaptation funding under Global Environmental Facility (GEF), Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF), Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF) and Adaptation Fund. The GEF is to provide funding for three stages. Stage I involves identifying vulnerable regions through impact assessment studies; Stage II involves capacity building measures for adaptation; and Stage III includes measures that facilitate adaptation. Stage III is burdened by the incremental cost principle and reluctance on the part of GEF donors to permit use of funds for adaptation capacity improvements. The SCCF created through decisions at CoP-7 provides funding based on a sliding scale principle which demands co-financing from the developing country accessing the fund. The LDCF is targeted towards preparation and implementation of National Adaptation Programmes of Action in least developed countries.


Finally, the Adaptation Fund potentially has a significant amount at its disposal for funding adaptation activities in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. The fund is not linked to developed country contributions but to a two per cent levy on clean development mechanism projects. Several issues regarding the management of this fund are still being negotiated. As shown in Table 1, the entire adaptation related funds committed over the last decade are quite small – roughly equal to $600 to 900 million. In contrast, the global overseas development assistance flows amount to $100 billion per year, whereas foreign direct investments in developing countries are around $160 billion per year.


Funding for Adaptation in Climate Change Policy – An Overview


Created through decision at


Available amount (in million US$)

Disbursed amount (in million US$)

Basis for disbursement

GEF – Stage I


To provide support for first and second national commucations



Full cost funding

GEF – Stage II


To provide support for capacity building for adaptation



Full cost funding

GEF – Stage III


To support demonstration projects



Incremental cost



To support activities, programmes and measures in adaptation, technology transfer, economic diversification



Sliding scale



To support urgent adaptation projects in LDCs



Additional costs for adaptation

Adaptation Fund


To support real adaptation projects and programmes in developing countries

2% of CDM revenue: $270 to 600 M*


Not finalized

Source: Various UNFCCC documents (*The range is based on low and high estimate of CER price estimate in 2012).

Concern over potential adverse impacts of climate change has triggered ‘impact assessment research’ since the early 1990s. The primary motivation for these studies has been to provide inputs for mitigation policy based on the premise that ‘the greater the expected impacts due to climate change, the higher the need for policy intervention through greenhouse gas mitigation.’ Adaptation in these studies is mainly aimed at ameliorating the adverse impacts of climate change.


Figure 1 shows the conceptual basis for climate change impact assessment studies with a focus on agriculture. The reference case illustrates the future without climate change. The naive farmer allows the adverse impacts of climate change to manifest without undertaking any adaptation. The impacts under such a scenario are referred to as potential impacts. A typical farmer is expected to undertake autonomous (or unplanned) adaptation and hence avoid impacts to some extent (resultant impacts are referred to as expected impacts).

Figure 1: Conceptualization of Climate Change Impacts.

Source: Fussel and Klein, 2006.


With planned (along with autonomous) adaptation, a smart farmer can further reduce climate change impacts; the impacts that cannot be reduced are referred to as residual impacts. A clairvoyant farmer, on the other hand, can undertake all theoretically possible adaptations and avoid climate change impacts to the maximum extent. The impacts that even the clairvoyant farmer cannot avoid are referred to as unavoidable impacts of climate change.

As agriculture is a climate sensitive sector that provides livelihood for more than 60% of the Indian population, there have been a large number of studies over the past decade that have tried to assess impacts due to climate variability and climate change. For India, it is estimated that if carbon dioxide concentration levels double from their preindustrial revolution levels in the later half of the 21st century, the gross domestic product would decline by 1.4 to 3 percentage points due to climate change.2 More significantly, this would also mean an increase in the proportion of population in the bottom income groups of the society in both rural and urban India under climate change conditions.


Using an alternative approach of environmental valuation it has been found that a 2oC temperature rise and 7% increase in rainfall would lead to almost 9% loss in farm level net revenue in India (1990 net revenue expressed in 1999-2000 prices).3 The use of a different data set projects a 12% decline in annual farm level net revenue.4 More recent studies argue that agricultural variables in regions are defined not only by local conditions but also by conditions in the neighbouring regions and estimate a lower impact (three per cent decline in farm level net revenue) for a similar climate change scenario.5


Impact assessment literature has been mainly driven by the end goal of justifying action to avoid climate change. However, mitigation of greenhouse gases represents only one side of the climate policy; adaptation is the other half. In an effort to provide inputs for adaptation policy, the impact assessment literature is slowly moving towards vulnerability and adaptation assessment. Climate change literature has viewed vulnerability as the ‘end-point’ of the impact analysis – i.e., the remaining impacts of climate change on say, agriculture, after all adaptations are accounted for. However, vulnerability can also be conceptualized as the starting point of analysis as is the case with several other disciplines (e.g., food security and disaster management) that focus on vulnerability.6

Increasingly, the research and policy community is showing interest in ‘starting-point’ characterization of vulnerability. The key difference between the ‘end-point’ and ‘starting-point’ approaches is in terms of assessing the adaptive capacity. In the end point interpretation, adaptive capacity has been used as a measure of whether technological adaptations can be successfully implemented. On the other hand, in the starting point interpretation, adaptive capacity refers to present day ability to cope with and respond to stressors and secure livelihoods. By focusing on the mechanism that facilitates or constrains a system’s ability to cope, adapt or recover from various disturbing forces, vulnerability assessments help in not only identifying who are vulnerable, but also why they are vulnerable. Such information is critical in prioritizing limited resources for the ‘most vulnerable’ and also for designing the ‘most-effective’ vulnerability reducing interventions.


To capture the wide range of concerns that vulnerability to climate change poses, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) described vulnerability in its Third Assessment Report as ‘a function of the character, magnitude and rate of climate variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity and its adaptive capacity.’7 In the Indian context, district level data on several indicators to assess the exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity components of vulnerability revealed that Indian agriculture is vulnerable to the exposure of both globalization and climate change.8 Other empirical studies have concluded that while most states remained static in terms of their relative vulnerability status over the period 1990-91 and 1999-2000, a few exceptions like Gujarat have recorded a decline in relative vulnerability ranking.9


A study of the vulnerability of rice yields in the northern states of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal to climate variability indicate that significant disparity exists across districts in terms of their vulnerability. More importantly, the study also suggests that districts which are presently ‘poor’ (i.e., having yield lower than the threshold yield) need not necessarily turn out vulnerable.10 This is important from a policy perspective as it enables effective allocation of resources. The cost of adapting to such vulnerabilities, summarized in Table 2, provides an ‘order of magnitude’ estimate of the costs associated with adaptation. The wide range of estimates also highlights the diversity in the assumptions that go into the cost estimations.


Macro Estimates of Adaptation Costs


Cost of Adaptation (USD billion/year

Time frame

Countries included


Comments on methods/sources

World Bank(2006)



Developing countries


Estimate based on OECD and World Bank analyses of official flows exposed to climate risk. Costs of ‘climate proofing’ are assumed in the analysis.

Stern (2006)



Developing countries


Update, with slight modification, of World Bank study

Oxfam (2007)

At least 50


Developing countries


World Bank study plus extrapolation of cost estimates from NAPAs and NGO projects.

UNDP (2007)



Developing countries


World Bank study plus costing of targets for adapting poverty reduction programmes and strengthening disaster response system.

UNFCCC (2007)



Developing countries

Agriculture, forestry, water supply, human health, coastal zones, infrastructure

Indepth costing of specific adaptation in water, health and coastal zones. Less detailed costing for agriculture, infrastructure, and ecosystems.

UNFCCC (2007)




Agriculture, forestry, fisheries, water supply, human health, coastal zones, infrastructure

Infrastructure adaptation costs overlap with costing in coastal zones and water resources.

Source: Adapted from Agrawala and Fankhauser (2008: 69-70).


When vulnerability is interpreted as the starting point adaptive capacity (referring to the present day ability to cope with and respond to stressors and secure livelihoods), it has significant policy relevance in the ongoing discussion on ‘mainstreaming’ climate policies. For the vast majority of developing countries (including India) climate change is a distant and invisible threat, whereas they are presently exposed to a range of stresses (including climate related shocks such as cyclones, droughts and floods). If climate change response strategies were to be embraced by these countries, it is imperative that such response strategies are aligned with the development agenda.

It is unrealistic to expect special policy initiatives to deal with climate change adaptation, especially when so many of the suggested adaptation measures (such as drought planning, coastal zone management, early warning and so on) are currently being addressed in other policies and programmes. In order to ‘mainstream’ policies, it is essential that the analyst pays serious attention to (a) climate related issues that matter now to the community, (b) management or coping strategies presently employed by the local community to deal with those conditions, and (c) policy structure that exists now to deal with such conditions.11


The integration of climate and development policies (at least in the local context) need not be interpreted as nullification of the need for research on climate change specific adaptation options. On the contrary, the two should be seen as complimentary to each other. There are response strategies that societies undertake in response to non-climatic stimuli such as globalization. It is important to integrate such strategies with climate change concerns as otherwise there is scope for maladaptations. Adaptation in the climate change context is fairly complex but given the long-term nature of the climate change problem and sustainable development goals, it is important to choose actions from a holistic perspective rather than stand-alone approach. Figure 2 presents an integrated conceptual framework for addressing adaptation.

Figure 2: Conceptual Framework for Adaptation Analysis.

Legend: + Reinforces; +/? Largely reinforces, barring mal-adaptations; ?/- Uncertain, but could be negative; <> May crowd the resources; ? Uncertain


Studies of adaptation to current climate also make it clear that human activities are not always as well adapted as one would want them to be. The losses suffered due to climate extremes cannot be ascribed to events alone because lack of appropriate human adaptation also plays a critical role; very often maladaptation accounts for significant losses.12 In this context it may be worth noting the experiences with the super cyclone in 1999 that devastated the state of Orissa. There is general agreement that the devastation caused by the cyclone was significantly worsened by deforestation on the coast. Satellite pictures show that 2.5 square kilometres of mangroves were lost each year since the 1970s. A recent study has established that about 92% of the deaths could have been avoided at Kendrapada during the 1999 super cyclone in Orissa, had the mangrove forests that existed in the year 1950 still been in place.13 This could have also limited the loss of livestock and materials.

As the end of the first commitment period (2008-2012) comes closer and negotiations are starting on future commitments, it is in India’s interest to engage with the international community and take some responsibility for reduction of GHGs. While taking such a proactive role, India (and other developing countries) could benefit by keeping the following aspects in mind: From the vulnerability assessment literature it is becoming clear that climate change induced threat operates at the ‘margin’ of significant threat that societies (especially in developing countries) face through other factors. For instance, the global population at risk from malaria would increase by 100% by 2080 without taking climate change into account, whereas accounting for climate change would further increase this risk by at most 7%.14 Thus, from a developing country perspective, climate change is one among several risks that could have significant adverse effects on human well-being. Hence, focus on adaptation options that deal exclusively with the climate change threat may not be meaningful for these countries. In other words, the narrow focus adopted by the UNFCCC on adaptation may not be attractive from a developing country point of view.


The phrase ‘mainstreaming’ has emerged as a key notion in climate change parlance. It describes the integration of policies and measures that address climate change into development planning. While the importance of integrating climate change mitigation policies with energy policies is well understood, the link between climate change adaptation policies with development policies has only recently gained wider acceptance. Since development needs are highly location specific, adaptation policies should also be designed to satisfy local requirements. In other words, it may not be appropriate to look for generic (i.e., one size fits all) strategies. While close association with development policies and adherence to local needs would ensure effectiveness of adaptation policies, clear grounding in common sense morality (i.e., ensure the responsibility of nations to provide resources for adaptation and compensate for climate impacts in other nations) would firmly maintain the climate change connection.


Though it appears simple and straightforward, ‘mainstreaming’ of adaptation policies poses an important dilemma for policy-makers. While from a developing country perspective, a rupee spent on ‘adaptation’ is most effective if it contributes towards increasing adaptive capacity in general, developed countries would like to see their contribution to developing countries going towards new and additional activities geared towards climate change rather than towards ‘business-as-usual’ development. However, developed countries may continue to focus on adaptation issues – even in the broad sense that developing countries prefer to define them – for several reasons:

* For decarbonizing the world economy it is essential to involve developing countries in GHG mitigation. But without focus on adaptation it could be difficult to engage developing countries in climate negotiations.

* If climate change were to adversely affect developing countries and hurt their growth prospects, it would have obvious repercussions for developed country economies as well. Hence, minimizing and/or avoiding climate change induced impacts in developing countries could be in the self-interest of developed countries.

* From ethical and legal perspectives, developed countries may have an obligation to provide resources towards adaptation in developing countries.


In this context, climate negotiations in future would have to address several thorny issues including: (a) setting up legally binding adaptation commitments of countries; (b) identifying ‘eligible’ recipients and allocating adaptation resources; and (c) designing proper accountability (of allocated adaptation funds) principles that are agreeable to donor as well as recipient. Several mechanisms are being debated presently in policy circles and literature to ensure smooth functioning of adaptation in climate regime and these include:15

* Expansion of existing ODA network – this has the obvious advantage of vast experience in development fund allocation among developing countries.

* Expansion of adaptation funds created under UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol – while these funds have a clear link with climate change, they have been designed on the ‘additionality’ principle which may hinder the pursuit of the most desired adaptation strategy.

* Linking with insurance market – while it may avoid the moral-hazard and free-rider problems, the market may not be able to function without governmental assistance.


* The article is based on a paper presented at the ORF-RLS Conference on Sustainable Development and Climate Change held in New Delhi on 24-25 September 2009.


1. N. Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.

2. K.S. Kavi Kumar and Jyoti Parikh, ‘Socio-economic Impacts of Climate Change on Indian Agriculture’, International Review of Environmental Strategies 2(2), 2001, pp. 277-293.

3. K.S. Kavi Kumar and Jyoti Parikh, ‘Indian Agriculture and Climate Sensitivity’, Global Environmental Change 11(2), 2001, pp. 147-154; K.S. Kavi Kumar, Climate Change and Indian Agriculture. Report prepared for the World Bank project on Climate Change, Agricultural Productivity and Rural Poverty in India, July 2009.

4. A. Sanghi and R. Mendelsohn, ‘The Impacts of Global Warming on Farmers in Brazil and India’, Global Environmental Change 18, 2008, 597-598.

5. K.S. Kavi Kumar, ‘Climate Sensitivity of Indian Agriculture: Do Spatial Effects Matter?’ SANDEE Working Paper (forthcoming).

6. K. O’Brien, S. Eriksen, A. Schjolden and L. Nygaard, What’s in a Word? Conflicting Interpretations of Vulnerability in Climate Change Research. Working Paper 2004:04, Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research Oslo, University of Oslo, Norway, 2004.

7. J.J. McCarthy, O.F. Canziani, N.A. Leary, D.J. Dokken and K.S. White (eds.), Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001.

8. K.L, O’Brien, R.M. Leichenko, U. Kelkar, H. Venema, G. Aandahl, H. Tompkins, A. Javed, S. Bhadwal, S. Barg, L. Nygaard and J. West, ‘Mapping Vulnerability to Multiple Stressors: Climate Change and Globalization in India’, Global Environmental Change 14(4), 2004, 303-313.

9. K.S. Kavi Kumar, Vulnerability to Drought, Cyclone and Flood in India. Research report submitted to Winrock International, July 2006.

10. Ibid., n. 3.

11. B. Smit and J. Benhin, Tools and Methodologies for Mainstreaming Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change into Sustainable Development Planning. Paper presented at workshop, Integrating Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change into Sustainable Development Policy Planning and Implementation in Southern and Eastern Africa, 4 September 2004, Nairobi, Kenya.

12. I. Burton, R.W. Kates and G.F. White, The Environment as Hazard, Second Edition, Guilford Press, New York, 1993.

13. Saudamini Das, Storm Protection by Mangroves in Orissa: An Analysis of the 1999 Super Cyclone. SANDEE Working Paper no. 25-07, December 2007.

14. R. Jr. Pielke, G. Prins, S. Rayner and D. Sarewitz, ‘Lifting the Taboo on Adaptation’, Nature 445, 2007, 597-598.

15. S. Kartha, P. Bhandari, L. van Schaik, D. Cornland and Bo Kjellen, Adaptation as a Strategic Issue in the Climate Negotiations, ECP Background Paper no. 4, 2006, European Climate Platform, http: www.ceps. be/files/ECPBackgroundPaper/Adaptation 2006.pdf (URL last accessed on 5 September 2009).