Measuring adaptation in light of the Paris Agreement: reflections from the Adaptation Metrics Conference

How can adaptation actions be measured and for what purpose? Impressions from the Adaptation Metrics Conference which informed COP22.

The Paris Agreement calls for enhanced transparency on adaptation action. Countries are asked to provide information on actual adaptation achievements, e.g. progress towards adaptation targets mentioned in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). In addition, a Global Stocktake will assess the collective progress of all Parties. Against this background, the Scientific Committee of COP22 organised the Adaptation Metrics Conference which took place in September 2016 in Morocco (pdf, 1.8 MB).

An impressive line-up of speakers and organisations addressed the objective to “advance the scientific and technical debate on the topic of assessing adaptation to climate change”. The sheer number and diversity of participants, from financial institutions to implementing agencies and from UN organisations to NGOs, demonstrates the strong desire to better assess and communicate adaptation results. With the Paris Agreement in force, and more national and international funding dedicated to climate resilient development, this issue is more pressing than ever.

So, what lessons can be drawn from the Adaptation Metrics Conference? First, there appears to be confusion on the purpose of adaptation metrics. Some want to use metrics to allocate funding, others to assess vulnerability, and again others to measure the performance of climate portfolios. Whilst these are all important issues, it is evident that no uniform set of indicators could sufficiently fulfil all of them at once. For example, simple quantitative indicators may satisfy basic accountability needs, but understanding the context-specific factors of vulnerability requires a much more nuanced set of indicators.

In fact, the appropriateness of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) methods, including indicators, depends on the specific purpose for which M&E is undertaken (the Adaptation M&E Navigator provides orientation).

Unfortunately, this important fact does not seem to have sunk in yet, since many are still searching for the holy grail of all-purpose adaptation indicators – just as I predicted in the UKCIP blog two years ago. In contrast, the conference once again testified that there is no single, generic and global adaptation metric that could be universally applied. After all, it was telling that only few metrics were presented at the metrics conference. Instead, there was strong agreement among presenters that adaptation is context-specific, and therefore generic indicators have limited applicability.

This does not mean that adaptation cannot be measured. In fact, the conference showcased several promising developments to assess adaptation. Important outcome metrics featured at the conference are avoided economic damages, value of assets made climate resilient, and avoided negative health impacts. Some of these have already been piloted in a coastal protection project in Viet Nam. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also presented sectoral initiatives to advance tracking of adaptation actions, e.g. through climate and health country profiles. The World Bank also previewed its new methodology to assess the impact of extreme weather on poverty and the corresponding economic potential of adaptation.

Additional momentum comes from numerous countries which are developing national adaptation M&E systems to better track their adaptation progress. Whilst initially limited in their ability to assess effectiveness, and often lacking a link between national and subnational level, newly emerging adaptation M&E systems increasingly focus on adaptation outcomes, as the example of South Africa shows (pdf, 2 MB). Reporting, monitoring and review also form a core element of the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) process, helping countries to implement their adaptation-related NDC targets (pdf, 400 KB).

Overall, the Adaptation Metrics Conference underscored the importance of assessing and communicating adaptation outcomes. To comply with the transparency demands of the Paris Agreement, it is no longer sufficient to rely on simple input (finance) or output (“Number of XY”) metrics, because they do not address the essential question: how far have climate vulnerabilities been reduced? Over the coming years, it is imperative to continue developing, testing and sharing approaches to meaningfully quantify adaptation in ways that are responsive to different M&E purposes. And some people, I am sure, will continue to search for the holy grail of one-size-fits-all adaptation metrics.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GIZ or BMZ.

Posted: 8 December 2016

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