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The high cost of adaptation

Adapting to climate change will cost many times more than the UN has estimated, according to a report by former IPCC working group co-chair Martin Parry and colleagues, published by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London.

In 2007 the UNFCCC calculated that the bill for adaptation would run to $49-171 billion per year by 2030, and these figures show up regularly in international policy negotiations. In a press release, Parry says the true cost will be 2-3 times higher in the sectors the UN looked at – and impacts in sectors that have been ignored will raise the total even further.

Though the report notes the UNFCCC commissioned six studies to get its numbers, Parry says the work was done in haste. “Many of the previous estimates, it would be fair to say, were based on back-of-the-envelope calculations. In fact, one person said they were written on the back of a metro ticket,” he tells The Independent.

He worries that lowball back-of-a-metro-ticket numbers create the illusion that adaptation is a cheap alternative to mitigation. He says in Nature News’s story, “Sceptics could argue we should just walk into the future adapting as we go.”

If you’re prepared to geek out a bit on international development, the report makes interesting reading. As well as concrete costs, it reassesses some philosophical rules of thumb – for instance, the UNFCCC often calculates adaptation costs by adding a certain percentage to today’s investment in climate-sensitive sectors, but that current investment is arguably far from adequate in poorer parts of the world. To flesh out their figures, the researchers supplement top-down analyses like the UNFCCC’s with some bottom-up work based on published case studies. Though it’s not coming out in a peer-reviewed journal, Parry says the new document has been run by seven outside experts, including the lead authors of the UNFCCC estimates. Nature reports:

It suggests that the UNFCCC estimate of $11 billion per year for adapting to changes in water supply overlooks the expenses of floods and of transporting water from areas of plenty to areas to that need it. In health, the UNFCCC figure of $5 billion per year considered changes only in malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition in developing nations and excluded the health burden of climate change in developed nations. The new report also points out that the UNFCCC estimates excluded the costs of protecting ecosystems and the services they provide; on its own this sector could cost well over $350 billion per year, says Parry.

In defense of the organization, UNFCCC official Sudhir Sharma tells Nature, “We clearly indicated that this was not an exhaustive study. Our objective was to kick-start the process of putting numbers on the cost of adaptation so that other groups could pick up the baton and refine them.”

Now that more exhaustive calculations are out there, developing countries are sure to call even more shrilly for deep-pocketed financial support as part of the Copenhagen climate deal. In fact, the need for many times more cash may come as little surprise to those most affected. At the start of next week, for example, the African Union will consider a draft resolution asking for $67 billion per year for Africa alone.

Meanwhile, the UN Adaptation Fund paid into by developed countries currently stands at just $80 million per year, projected to grow to $300 million by 2012 – hundreds of times less than what’s needed in coming decades, by any account.

Anna Barnett


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