Resiliency and Risk: Lessons from the Adaptation Gap Report 2021

At COP26, work is being done to figure out how we can adapt to inevitable climate disruption and protect vulnerable people, closing the adaptation gap.

The Gathering Storm: Adapting to climate change in a post-pandemic world is the 2021 Adaption Gap Report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). As Glasgow hosts a diverse group of stakeholders at COP26, the Adaption Gap Report (AGR2021) assess global trends in the planning, finance and implementation of adaptation efforts to mitigate the impact of global warming. 

The basis of the report is that even the most optimistic of achievements to curb global warming—including reaching the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050—are probably not sufficient to undo the damage that has already been done. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its report Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, recently concluded that the impact of global warming, particularly on the oceans and ice sheets, is irreversible, and that it will be centuries or even millennia before any recovery is possible. Adaptation to climate change is therefore an important element of the risk mitigation every nation, especially developing nations that are most vulnerable to climate disruption, must undertake immediately. 

AGR2021 assesses approaches to adaptation around the world. Overall, it reports that the rate of climate change is outpacing the financing and implementation of adaptation, suggesting that severe economic and social disruption are inevitable without more action. The estimated costs for adaptation for developing countries alone is estimated to be between USD 280-500 billion per year. 

What is Adaptation? 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) defines adaptation as the modification to ecological, social and economic systems to meet the impacts of climate change. It assumes that climate change is likely, and it therefore operates outside the scope of preventing climate change. It considers climate change from the perspective of risk, in which there are both threats and opportunities. Threats related to climate change require responses like citizen access to resources and infrastructure such as emergency services and telecommunications after extreme weather events. Individuals living in physically vulnerable locations, such as coastlines prone to flooding, can be resettled in areas that offer more protection. At the same time, adaptation offers opportunities to improve existing standards of living, such as housing built or retrofitted to conform to new building codes that emphasize resiliency in the face of climate change. 

The approach to adaptation will be different for every community based on context and specific needs. Everything from flood defenses to early warning systems to improved communication systems might be required. Regardless of the specifics of the implementation, adaptation requires input from a broad set of stakeholders including private and public sectors, the scientific community and indigenous communities. 


AGR2021 looks at adaptation approaches with the following points of focus: 

  • Planning 
  • Financing 
  • Implementation 
  • Emerging Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic 
  • Outlook on the Global Process of Adaptation 

Here is a brief summary of the findings. 


Overall, there is a positive trend in climate change adaption efforts around the world. Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused global economic disruption, 79% of countries have put in place at least one national planning instrument, such as a plan, strategy or law, representing an increase of 7% since 2020. While much of the progress in this area is incremental, it is consistent and represents the extent to which most countries take the threat of climate change seriously. 


Estimates for the cost of adaptation are increasing around the world, particularly for developing countries. In many cases, this is due to incorporating more sectors into the risk assessment, such as agriculture, infrastructure and water management. While progress for adaptation planning and financing have been consistent up to this point, the cost increase suggests that a gap will soon open, requiring increased public funding. 


Despite the consistent growth worldwide, the scale of adaptation is quickly falling behind the pace of climate change. Adaptation plans must incorporate more factors into their risk assessments, including local contexts, project design and target population, as well as the likelihood of the more severe climate change scenarios proposed in the IPCC 2021 report. Plans should also incorporate mitigation actions to protect against possible negative impacts of adaptation actions, known as maladaptation.  

Emerging Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic 

The COVID-19 pandemic presents both threats and opportunities for climate adaptation. For many developing nations, the pandemic has compounded the climate change risk by forcing vulnerable populations into even greater deprivation, which has reduced their capacity to adapt. COVID-19 stimulus packages, totaling more than USD 16.7 trillion, were a significant opportunity to build climate resiliency and adaptation into economic systems.

Unfortunately, very little of that stimulus money has been used for adaptation. On a positive note, the pandemic has demonstrated that governments need to consider the likelihood of simultaneous events that compound climate change risk and plan accordingly. Climate change will be a constant, but natural disasters, pandemics and social unrest will continue to occur and exacerbate the impact of disruption on vulnerable populations. 

Outlook on the Global Process of Adaptation 

General progress on adaptation is positive, but this is likely to be short-lived without significant changes in approach and increases in funding. With costs rising more quickly than financing, compound impacts resulting from COVID-19 and the possibility that the more catastrophic climate change scenarios will come to pass, governments will need to increase funding for adaptation efforts exponentially. 

Lessons from AGR2021: Resiliency, Planning and Risk 

While much of the coverage related to climate change focuses on prevention, adaptation requires a different mindset. In this case, we assume that the event is inevitable and that the most important thing we can do is prepare for it to understand better the risk and opportunities it presents.  

Climate change or not, the world’s social and economic infrastructure can’t cease to function. Every system, from individual organizations to nations, must embrace the principals of resiliency and risk management that consider the possibility of high-impact, low-likelihood events—such as pandemics—and high-impact, high-likelihood events—such as climate change. Organizations should look to business continuity methods and risk mitigation to better prepare for the role they can play in creating social resiliency and adapting to inevitable disruption

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