“Battered, bruised, but alive” – How COP26 is a turning point for early action

26 November, 2021
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As COP26 wraps up after months of preparation, now is a good time to reflect on the progress of the early warning and early action agenda. What does the success (or failure) of the climate negotiations mean for adaptation actors? Where do we go from here?
Police on horseback wondering whether to dismount to save a women tied to train tracks, as there is a possibility the train will take another track.
COP26 cartoon (courtesy Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre)

As COP26 wrapped up on Saturday 13 November, global leaders were quick to announce that the final agreement was “a step in the right direction” (Ursula von der Leyen) that allowed for “serious breakthroughs” (Boris Johnson), or, on the contrary, a “profound disappointment” (the Marshall Islands) that “will not bring us closer to 1.5C but will make it more difficult to reach it.” (Switzerland).

Civil society organizations were even more blunt in their assessments, with Amnesty International calling the negotiations “a catastrophic failure (..) caving into the interests of fossil fuel and other powerful corporations”.

In an emotional close to the proceedings, even the President of COP26, Alok Sharma, publicly acknowledged that the conference process had come short of expectations: “May I just say to all delegates I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry.”

From disappointment to action – what do we do now?

In spite of disappointment on the mitigation agenda – or perhaps because of the shortcomings of past COPs in reducing current and future emissions of greenhouse gases – COP26 highlighted that the climate adaptation agenda has been gaining steam. The humanitarian community was much more visible and vocal in Glasgow, thanks in part to dedicated spaces set aside for civil society in COP26, the UNFCCC’s newly launched Race to Resilience campaign and its dedicated Resilience Hub pavilion, building on the longstanding experience of the Development and Climate Days.

Another factor in this growing presence of the humanitarian and development communities is undoubtedly due to the changing frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events. Since COP25, the world witnessed record bushfires in Australia, wildfires in California, and extreme floods in Germany and China, all in countries traditionally well prepared to tackle climate-related events. 

When every year sees new records in climate-related impacts, a new approach is needed.  Adapting to our rapidly changing climate requires a new level of ambition to anticipate the growing impacts of extreme heat, cold waves, overflowing riverbanks and increases in sea levels.

It requires stronger connection to science – understanding new weather patterns and identifying local exposure to new and growing hazards, building new defenses ahead of time.

It requires better communication – improving the use of forecasting models that lead to simple, actionable alerts for local leaders.

It requires greater investments – rebuilding infrastructure not designed for stronger storms or higher flood levels.

It requires political will – building the capacity of local community leaders to take steps ahead of hazards.

Committing the money first

COP26 saw a commitment to double adaptation finance on 2019 levels by 2025. This is the first time an adaptation specific financing goal has ever been agreed globally, and came with significant increases in contributions to different funds. The Adaptation Fund went from $129m at COP24 to $356m at COP26, while the Least Developed Countries Fund (which supports climate adaptation action) received a record $413m in new pledges. The Natural Capital Investment Alliance pledged to invest $10bn of private capital in nature based solutions, as well as through multi-stakeholder collaborations such as the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA), which aims to drive $500 million of investment into coastal natural capital. And the launch of the Adaptation Research Alliance aims to scale investment in action-oriented research and innovation for adaptation.

Several Governments announced new initiatives or funding for adaptation, though the concrete implications for early action will still need to be seen. The UK Government committed £274m for the Climate Action for a Resilient Asia (CARA) and another £143.5m for a series of initiatives focused on climate adaptation in AfricaUK, India and Australia provided $10m of funding each  for a Technical Assistance Facility for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure in SIDS. Germany announced contributions of €10m to each of the Pacific and Caribbean risk pools, PCRIC and CCRIF (€20m total). Finland announced an additional €30m for new projects to develop weather and early warning services in developing countries, while the US officially launched its ambitious President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE) to help vulnerable countries and communities adapt to and manage the impacts of climate change.

Specifically on early warning and early action, the CREWS initiative received additional commitments of $20m, and the new START Ready fund, launched by the START Network to make humanitarian funds available from the moment a crisis is predicted, received initial contributions from the UK Government (£1m), the French Government (€250,000), the IKEA Foundation (€500,000) and the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies ($2m). On the research side, the launch of the Climate Adaptation and Resilience (CLARE) partnership, a £100 m initiative co-funded by the UK and Canada, includes a priority specifically on “research to improve risk-informed anticipatory action to reduce humanitarian impacts of weather, climate variability, and related natural hazards.”

A roadmap to early action, from those already doing it on the ground

Despite the general disappointment on the conference outputs, COP26 taught us two important lessons: first, that we can no longer wait on international agreements for ambitious action on climate hazards. And second, that the world is full of climate champions who have already identified and implemented early action solutions – solutions that can now be replicated elsewhere.

Here are some concrete priorities that were highlighted in COP26, a roadmap of sorts from this growing early action community:

-         Improve the quality of climate data: climate-related hazards are predictable, and forecasts are increasingly precise. But the forecasts are only as precise as the quality of the data that go into the models. In parallel to the high-level negotiations, COP26 saw the launch of the Systematic Observations Finance Facility (SOFF), one such effort to collect good quality meteorological data. Through this funding facility, WMO, UNDP and UNEP work together to address the long-standing problem of missing weather and climate observations from Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States.

-        Build strong early warning systems (EWS): To anticipate the growing frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events, governments and local communities need access to early warning systems. COP26 saw further multi-million financial commitments to EWS in Africa and the Caribbean, while the Green Climate Fund reaffirmed its continued emphasis on EWS, with $1.2bn of its funding currently going to climate information and early warning.

-        Use technology to anticipate the impacts of climate extremes: UN agencies have invested a lot in laying the groundwork for early action. The World Food Programme has developed a Hunger Map to anticipate droughts and floods and identify the implication on access to food. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has several artificial intelligence projects that use climate data, such as the Predictive analytics in the Sahel initiative that links climate risks with displacement and food insecurity to identify threats to livelihoods in the Sahel region. The United Nations Environmental Programme and its partners developed the Strata: Earth Stress Monitor with open Earth data to help end-users identify where environmental and climate stresses are converging.

-         Expand humanitarian and social protection mechanisms to include risk-informed early action: With an increased ability to anticipate disasters (thanks to the initiatives just mentioned), humanitarian actors are increasingly releasing humanitarian funds ahead of a disaster, such as through the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), the Red Cross Red Crescent’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) or the newly-launched START Ready fund for predictable crises. But it is also increasingly building on existing social protection mechanisms, where it can expand existing cash distribution channels. The launch of the CRISP-M tool in India, just weeks ahead of COP26, offers one such example.

The dissemination of these tools and initiatives is benefiting from stronger networks, such as the Risk-informed Early Action Partnership (REAP), that aims to connect like-minded early action champions, across governments, UN agencies, research institutes, donors and civil society organisations. The InsuResilience Global Partnership connects partners who focus on climate and disaster risk finance and insurance solutions. And the Anticipation Hub brings together practitioners, scientists and policymakers to facilitate knowledge exchange, learning, guidance, and advocacy around anticipatory action.

So where does Glasgow leave the climate agenda? For Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, the final outcome left the climate negotiations “battered, bruised, but alive”. It seems an appropriate analogy for the planet as a whole – but with the right level of commitment and urgency towards risk-informed early action, key partners are starting to come together to give the most climate-vulnerable communities the tools for a brighter and safer tomorrow.