* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
On Feb. 23, the United Nations Security Council met to discuss the threat that climate change poses to global peace. The question is no longer whether global warming sparks the flames of conflict; it is about where climate shocks are likely to tip already fragile situations into war or civil strife.
This could occur in the Arctic Circle, where melting ice caps are triggering a scramble for resources, or in the world’s populous and fertile river deltas, turned barren by rising seas, or in the Sahel and the Middle East, regions already blighted by conflict and acute water stress. In every region of the world, climate impacts are “threat multipliers” – they aggravate the risk of conflict, even if they are not directly responsible for instability or strife.
Policy-makers are only now beginning to look at the hidden peace dividend that flows from investing in climate adaptation. The idea makes intuitive sense. It is one our leaders should explore more fully.
We know there is no simple connection between climate change and conflict. But in a world already weakened by COVID-19 and existing climate stresses, we have a moral duty to do everything we can to eliminate or avert future threats to peace. And climate adaptation is something we know how to do. We just don’t do enough of it.
The adaptation gap
A new report by the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) estimates the world spends just $30 billion a year on climate adaptation – that is five to 10 times less than the $140 billion-$300 billion a year the UN Environment Programme and others estimate is needed to address climate impacts in the developing world.
It is also seven times less than the total global cost of climate disasters, which amounted to $210 billion in 2020, according to Munich Re, the global reinsurance house, and only a tiny fraction of the $14.5 trillion in lost annual economic output due to war and civil strife, according to the 2020 Global Peace Index. In the face of the devastating human and economic consequences of war and civil strife, we need a new approach to building peace.
The GCA’s State and Trends in Climate Adaptation 2020 report highlights some of the initiatives that are contributing to regional peace and stability.
In the Arab world, for example, a regional platform for assessing the impact of climate change on water resources is playing a crucial role in defusing potential tensions over water scarcity. The RICCAR platform’s knowledge hub is being used to raise awareness and promote regional co-operation and coordination in water management. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, two-thirds of freshwater resources cross one or more international boundaries, making regional co-operation on water management essential to guarantee peace and security. In this context, the importance of a regional knowledge hub that promotes shared policies for water management and for avoiding conflicts over water cannot be overstated.
Another encouraging story comes from Rwanda, where Christie Nicoson of the University of Uppsala has been studying the impact of climate adaptation programs on the cohesion of communities still traumatized by the 1994 genocide. One particular program worked to reduce vulnerability to heavy rains and mudslides by establishing early-warning and disaster preparedness systems, and by planting trees to prevent soil erosion. Nicoson found that communities were better informed and better able to cope with climate impacts thanks to the program. And by reducing resource stress, climate adaptation is having a positive effect on social cohesion and peace.
The link to peace
We know it is difficult to establish a direct link between climate adaptation and peace. And we are not touting climate adaptation as a cure all against poverty, social inequalities, weak institutions, the arms trade, religious extremism, or national, regional and ethnic power struggles and rivalries.
But climate adaptation does have a positive contribution to make, both in terms of promoting peace and in removing potential flashpoints for conflict. That is because social justice lies at the heart of successful climate adaptation. And peace, broadly speaking, is a measure of justice, fairness, and wellbeing of society.
Done well, adaptation reduces social exclusion and inequalities by promoting sustainable livelihoods and stronger coping mechanisms against severe climate shocks. Farmers who have access to drought-resistant crops will be less likely to abandon their landholdings when drought strikes. Nature-based solutions, such as tree planting, and good water management reduce the potential for conflict over scarce resources.
The Global Commission on Adaptation has estimated that investing $1.8 trillion in climate adaptation by 2030 could generate $7.1 trillion in social, economic and environmental benefits. The peace dividend from climate adaptation investment might be harder to quantify, but it definitely exists. Climate adaptation can help avert conflict by increasing communities’ coping capacities, and by facilitating development and progress toward greater wellbeing. For that reason, it is worth considering as a powerful tool for promoting global peace.
Tawakkol Karman is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation.
The regreening of the Sahel region through a ‘Great Green Wall’ appears to be an ambitious plan to roll back the ‘advancing deserts’ of the Sahara. However, the expertise and interests of local farmers and pastoralists inhabiting the drylands seem to be absent (yet again) from this strategy.
On 11 January at the One Planet Summit, President Macron of France announced US$14 billion dollars of funding for the Sahelian ‘Great Green Wall‘. Stretching across 8,000kms and 100 million hectares, the ‘advancing deserts’ of the Sahara are to be rolled back through the planting of trees and greening of landscapes across the Sahelian region.
Visible from space and pronounced a ‘wonder of nature’, the symbolism of a wall reversing environmental degradation, quelling insurgency and conflict and stemming the flow of migrants is dramatic. Following the announcement, press releases, media coverage and celebrity endorsements sang the praises of the initiative as a ‘game-changer’ for Sahelian development.
While the websites list glowing achievements across the region, the statistics behind these leave many questions unanswered. There have been many trees planted, but how many have survived, and what are the gains for the farmers and pastoralists inhabiting the drylands of the Sahel? Is such a grandiose, continental strategy the right approach?
Questioning simplistic narratives
Debates about desertification in the Sahel go back a long way. The narratives of encroaching deserts, deforestation by farmers and overgrazing by pastoralists have a long history. As described so well by Jeremy Swift, in 1934 colonial scientist E.P. Stebbing first claimed that the Sahara was expanding year on year.
This was based on faulty analysis, but at the time it fed into the doomsday idea of environmental degradation, provoked by the experience of the American dust bowl. Huge efforts were made in top-down soil conservation measures along with the regulation of farming and livestock-keeping populations.
This pattern of ‘the expert knows best’ has persisted, with even greater imperatives now added to the agenda. Popular perception sees mass migration being provoked by over-population and climate catastrophe, while armed insurrection is attributed to environmental degradation and the collapse of local livelihoods.
Local people – their expertise, interests and history – are absent from the analysis. The story is much more complex: simplistic Malthusian narratives are widely disputed, and labour shortage may be more of a problem than population growth.
The simple storyline that the Sahara is expanding and in need of a ‘Great Green Wall’ to stop its spread has been thoroughly challenged. Dryland degradation emerges through a complex interaction of processes, and does not expand in a single direction.
Satellite imagery and archaeological evidence from these dryland regions show wet and dry periods, with the greening and drying of landscapes occurring in phases over time. These are highly variable settings, where attempts at stability and control are futile, and livelihoods are best served through diversification, risk spreading and mobility.
Trees have always been integral to Sahelian farmed landscapes and, although many have been cut as farming expands, most fields retain trees for fruit and shade. This in turn offers livestock a resting place during the midday heat, and deposits of dung help replenish soil fertility and nourish crop yields. In the wider landscape, there are more trees than had been thought.
A recent study found 1.8 billion trees in the Sahara and Sahelian regions of West Africa that had not been picked up by earlier assessments. Planting new trees may not be the solution if regreening can occur through natural regeneration of trees and shrubs.
Beyond tree planting to livelihood regeneration
How then can the noble ambitions of the ‘Great Green Wall’ initiative of tackling poverty and improving the sustainability of livelihoods be realised? As the publicity material around the effort makes clear, it is not just about planting trees, although this is clearly a central feature.
Twenty-five years ago, with Chris Reij we co-edited ‘Sustaining the soil‘, which contained multiple cases of locally-generated practices for managing soil and water in a dryland farm settings, with many of the examples taken from the Sahel.
One of the most famed is the traditional ‘zai’ planting pit, improved and popularised by Burkinabé farmer Yacouba Sawadogo, and a practice long-used to conserve moisture and preserve soils across the Sahel. The expansion of such techniques has since become standard practice for NGO and government programmes alike.
As our book pointed out, it is not the technology alone that’s important, it’s how it well it fits within a complex social and ecological setting.
Looking back over 40 years of work in a Sahelian village in central Mali, a book by one of us – ‘Land, Investment and Migration‘ – provides an insight into how livelihoods and landscapes shift in concert over time, and how the entire farming system can be put in jeopardy by ill-judged, large-scale government interventions.
Oxen drawn ploughs are a critical part of farming systems in the Sahel region (Photo: copyright Camilla Toulmin)
Alternatives driven from below
Moving beyond the glamour of big announcements from the Elysée Palace, can this moment offer a window for an alternative approach for Sahelian development?
The political obsession with targets – so many trees, this number of hectares, such-and-such an amount of money to be disbursed – can create huge distortions. Large amounts of aid money for cash-strapped governments can also result in distorted incentives, and sometimes corruption.
Too often, decisions are made on a map in a far-away office about an area deemed to be ‘empty’ and suitable for ‘regreening’. Across the Sahel, dryland farmers and mobile livestock keepers have kept a wary eye on each other’s strategy. Conflicts may emerge, when land is constrained – for example by huge blocks of irrigated agriculture, tree planting or soil conservation investments.
Pastoral herders may be unable to move their animals to the dry season grazing they could formerly negotiate with settled villagers, in exchange for manure, milk and other livestock products. A green wall risks becoming a further barrier to people’s livelihoods, not just a symbolic wall against a mythical advancing desert.
Most important is the recognition that there are numerous existing practices – of soil conservation, water control and tree management – that already constitute ‘nature-based solutions’ generated from local initiatives.
Yes, these need support, but giving agency to local voices, strengthening rights over land and water, emphasising grounded practices, and ensuring accountability will be more likely to create the sustainable mosaic of green patches across the Sahel that one day may be seen from space.
The worldwide retreat of mountain glaciers is one of the most visible impacts of climate change. In the wake of receding glaciers, thousands of lakes have formed and expanded. These lakes threaten the communities living below them with tsunami-like waves known as “glacial lake outburst floods”.
One such lake, Palcacocha, sits high in the Peruvian Andes and is notorious as one of the world’s greatest flood risks. It threatens tens of thousands of people living downstream.
This looming catastrophe has raised questions about the role of climate change in creating this flood hazard.
Our new study, published in Nature Geoscience, is the first to assess the role of climate change in changing an outburst flood hazard. By establishing this link, our research provides new evidence for an ongoing legal case brought against RWE, which aims to hold the German utility firm responsible for its historical contribution to climate change.
As the Palcaraju glacier in the Andes has melted, Lake Palcacocha has expanded rapidly – approximately 34-fold by volume since 1990 (pdf). The meltwater is gradually filling the valley vacated by the retreating glacier.
The view that Lake Palcacocha poses a serious flood risk is well supported by scientific research. These studies show that were an outburst to occur – most likely triggered by an avalanche – flood waters would reach Huaraz, a downstream city of 120,000 people.
Palcaraju is just one of thousands of glaciers around the world that are retreating as the climate warms. The characteristics of each individual glacier, along with the local climate, will determine how it responds to Earth’s rising temperatures.
In our study, we accounted for these factors and considered all steps of the causal chain – from emissions of greenhouse gases to the present-day flood risk.
Quantifying the role of climate change
To assess the human influence on the flood hazard from Lake Palcacocha we considered in turn:
The role of greenhouse-gas emissions in the change in temperature around Palcaraju glacier.
The influence of this change in temperature on the retreat of the glacier.
The impact of the resultant expansion of Lake Palcacocha on the flood hazard to which the people of Huaraz are exposed.
Previous research has established that virtually all global temperature rise since the mid-19th century is the result of greenhouse-gas and aerosol emissions from human activity. Given spatial variation in temperature trends, we first tested whether this relationship between human influence and warming held true in the region around Palcaraju glacier.
We then considered what role this temperature change has played in the retreat of Palcaraju glacier and, therefore, in the expansion of Lake Palcacocha.
Our results show that the observed retreat would not have happened without human-caused warming. Further, our central estimate is that 100% of the retreat is due to the temperature trend since 1850. In other words, in the absence of climate change, it is as likely that the glacier would have lengthened as it is that it would have retreated.
Having established the role of climate change in the dramatic expansion of Lake Palcacocha, we considered how this has changed the outburst flood threat posed by the lake.
Applying two independent “outburst flood hazard” ranking indices, the smaller lake of the 19th century is categorised as having a “medium” hazard. Subsequent growth has raised the lake to the highest hazard level. In response, local authorities have been compelled to implement hazard mitigation measures (pdf).
These findings establish a direct link between greenhouse gas emissions and the growing flood hazard to which Huaraz is exposed. The need to implement protective measures now – as well as any potential damages caused by flooding in future – can, therefore, be linked to climate change for the first time.
Early climate change impacts
The people of Huaraz have experienced the deadly threat posed by Lake Palcacocha once before. In 1941, a devastating outburst flood from the same lake destroyed one-third of the city, causing at least 1,800 fatalities and possibly as many as 4,000.
Our research shows that the emergence of human-induced climate change in the early 20th century initiated the retreat of Palcaraju glacier and the expansion of Lake Palcacocha, giving rise to the dangerous setting depicted in the photographs.
Our results indicate, therefore, that this mid-20th century event was one of the earliest fatal impacts of climate change to have been identified.
Setting a legal precedent?
Our findings offer new evidence relating to an ongoing lawsuit in the German courts.
In this case, Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a farmer and mountain guide from Huaraz, sued RWE – a German energy utility and Europe’s largest carbon dioxide emitter – seeking compensation for a portion of the costs of measures to reduce the flood risk from Lake Palcacocha.
The lawsuit argues that RWE is liable for part of the costs of building flood defences, in proportion to their contribution to historical greenhouse gas emissions. As such, the case hinges on the existence of a causal relationship between climate change and the need to build flood defences.
The lawsuit is now in an evidence-gathering phase, in which scientific evidence about this causal relationship may be considered.
And, although evidence from attribution research has not yet entered widespread use in climate lawsuits, climate scientists now possess the tools to provide evidence about the role of greenhouse gas emissions in causing specific impacts.
For example, scientists previously published a study investigating the role of climate change in Japan’s 2018 summer heatwave. The research found that a heatwave as intense as that of summer 2018, in which over 1,000 people died, could not have occurred without climate change
Such studies add to the growing body of evidence that lawyers have at their disposal on which to base legal claims for compensation.
Glacial lake outburst floods are already a major hazard as mountain areas. The ongoing retreat of glaciers will threaten growing numbers of communities. Our findings provide clear evidence that the threat to life from Lake Palcacocha is a direct consequence of human-caused climate change.
Even as the impacts of climate change continue to accumulate globally, there remains no comprehensive assessment of what the climate change impacts experienced to date are.
Understanding which events are the consequence of human activity has assumed growing significance and research on this topic may inform litigators and the courts, support policymakers in prioritising adaptation measures, and refine estimates of the economic impacts of climate change.
Geneva, 26 January 2021- As climate change leads to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, the need for effective early warnings and early action took centre stage at the Climate Adaptation Summit on 25-26 January.
The online event, hosted by the Netherlands, convened global leaders and local stakeholders. It launched a comprehensive Adaptation Action Agenda and heard of new financial pledges to initiatives to make the world more resilient to the effects of climate change.
“According to the World Meteorological Organization, there have been more than 11,000 disasters due to weather, climate and water-related hazards over the past 50 years, at a cost of some US$ 3.6 trillion,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the opening session.
“Extreme weather and climate-related hazards have also killed more than 410,000 people in the past decade, the vast majority in low and lower middle-income countries. That is why I have called for a breakthrough on adaptation and resilience,” he said.
Although the global death toll has fallen, the poor remain disproportionately exposed.
Guterres further stated at the opening that as “one person in three is still not adequately covered by early warning systems, and risk-informed early approaches are not at the scale required, there is a need to work together to ensure full global coverage by early warning systems to help minimize these losses.”
Disaster Risk Management
A special Anchoring Event on Disaster Risk Management — one of the action themes of the Climate Adaptation Summit – addressed the urgency of greater investment in early warning systems. It also focussed on the need to translate early warnings into risk-informed early action in advance of hazards striking.
The event, Getting ahead of the climate curve: Investing in early warning and early action, was co-hosted by the Risk-informed Early Action Partnership (REAP), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) through the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems (CREWS) initiative and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). It featured leaders and decision-makers, including from countries on the frontline of climate change.
The event heard of new financial commitments from France, Finland and the European Commission to CREWS to build early warning systems capacity. Luxembourg Minister for Climate, Environment and Sustainable Development Carole Dieschbourg presented Luxembourg’s climate finance strategy that is doubling over the next five years, with support to the most vulnerable countries, such as small island developing states.
Early warning systems are a highly effective way of adapting to climate change and building resilience to extreme weather. It is estimated that investments in these services can save lives and assets worth at least ten times their cost.
Only 40% of WMO Members report having an early warning system in place. Furthermore, the WMO State of Climate Services 2020 report showed that there is a global incapacity for translating early warnings into early action.
“There are new levels of awareness and political commitment at the highest levels to tackle the impacts of climate change. Early warning systems and risk-informed action is one of the most effective ways to adapt to climate change and to reduce the number of casualties and reduce economic losses from extreme events,” says WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.
“We need more impact-based forecasting to help bridge the gap between early warning and early action, by warning for not just what the weather will be, but what the weather will do,” he said. “But to provide good early warning services you need good observations. Gaps in data in Africa and some other parts of the world have a negative effect especially in data sparse areas, but also globally,” said Prof. Taalas, explaining the rationale behind a proposed Systematic Observations Financing Facility (SOFF).”
Juergen Vogele, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, stressed the need to ramp up investments in adaptation and voiced support for SOFF.
Reach the last mile
According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, a 24-hour advance warning of a coming storm or heatwave can cut the ensuing damage by 30 percent. Expenditure of US$ 800 million on such systems in developing countries would potentially avert losses of US$3–16 billion per year.
The IFRC World Disasters Report 2020 found that while the number of people affected by climate-related disasters have increased, the numbers of deaths from these disasters have decreased.
“This is a good indication of our progress, and a sign that disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation efforts are working,” says Jagan Chapagain, IFRC Secretary General.
“But progress is not happening fast enough, especially in places hardest hit by climate change. Most people who have been killed or are directly affected by climate-related disasters live in low and lower/middle-income countries. As extreme weather events increase, we must prioritize support to people most exposed and most vulnerable to climate hazards and stresses, even if they are the hardest to reach,” he said. Mr Chapagain took the occasion to launch the Risk-informed Early Action Partnership’s Framework for Action, which sets out how partners aim to take risk-informed early action to scale, making 1 billion people safer from disaster in the coming years.
The event heard of effective initiatives that are improving climate resilience of vulnerable populations. One such example is the DARAJA project, meaning ‘bridge’ in Swahili. In informal settlements in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, DARAJA has successfully built bridges between communities and weather and climate information providers. It is financed and developed under the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Met Office-led Weather and Climate Information Services for Africa (WISER) Programme.
In the Caribbean, 8 countries are now receiving CREWS funding and strengthening coordination against a common threat — hurricanes, said Arlene Laing from the Caribbean Meteorological Organization.
The CREWS Initiative was launched at the Paris Climate Change conference in 2015, with a target of raising US$ 100 million dollars to build resilience, especially in Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States,
It is estimated that an additional 10 million people are being protected thanks to these early warnings systems, through 13 projects covering more than 50 countries in the world.
European Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič announced a first Euro 10 million contribution to CREWS,
Finland’s Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, Ville Skinnari, announced that Finland was joining CREWS and committed Euro 5 million to the Trust Fund as part of the country’s scaled-up commitment to climate change adaptation. The Minister mentioned that this engagement goes towards the targets of the Risk-informed Early Action Partnership (REAP).
Stéphane Crouzat, France’s Climate Ambassador announced a new Euro 4 million contribution to CREWS bringing their total contributions, since 2016, to Euro 26 million.
UN Special Climate envoy Selwin Hart said he was encouraged by the ambitious commitments to scale-up action on early warning and early action through CREWS and REAP, which aims to make 1 billion people safer from disasters by 2025.
“The partnership we have seen today between CREWS and REAP is exactly what is needed to help bridge the early warning to early action divide, to protect lives and livelihoods from the climate crisis,” said Mr Hart.
Climate Change adaptation will be a key platform of this year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, according to Anne-Marie Trevelyan, International Champion on Adaptation and Resilience & Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, United Kingdom.
The Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction commit governments to substantially reduce global disaster mortality and increase access to and availability of early warning systems by 2030 and to measure their progress towards that target.
Singapore has warmed notably since the mid-1970s when rapid urbanisation took place, at a rate of 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade according to the Meteorological Service Singapore. The rate is higher than the global average rate of 0.17 degree Celsius per decade since 1970, based on data from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If the current urban development approach remains unchanged, local warming will lead to a rise in electricity demand for cooling and the risk of residents suffering from heat stress.
To help Singapore stay cool and improve urban climate resilience, Presidential Young Professor Dr Yuan Chao from the Department of Architecture at the NUS School of Design and Environment led a team to examine the heat balance in the street canyon – where the street is flanked by buildings on both sides – and developed a user-friendly Geographic Information System (GIS) tool to estimate the impact of urban planning on anthropogenic heat dispersion.
“The weak removal of anthropogenic heat is caused by stagnated airflow at urban areas. It is crucial to investigate the effect of urban morphology on anthropogenic heat dispersion to make high-density cities more resilient to future challenges such as an intensive urban heat island effect,” Dr Yuan explained.
In their findings published in the scientific journal Energy and Buildings, Dr Yuan Chao, Dr Mei Shuojun, Dr He Wenhui and Ms Zhang Liqing investigated the transient street air warming procedure and developed a practical GIS-based model to estimate how much and how fast the air temperature will be increased by anthropogenic heat.
By applying this novel model, the impact of urban morphology on anthropogenic heat dispersion was mapped. The dynamic air temperature increment caused by daily heat emissions was visualised in residential areas of Singapore. The maximum temperature increment with normal wind conditions could be about 0.45 degrees Celsius, which has a significant impact on both thermal comfort and public health.
Dr Yuan observed, “The air temperature increment in residential areas could be even higher in the future due to rapid global warming and urban development. It could increase the risk of residents in tropical cities suffering from more frequent and intensive long-term heat stress and short-term heatwaves.”
Feasible planning tool to deal with future uncertainty
The development of the new GIS-based analytical model starts from urban planning indices, and thus avoids the complicated fluid dynamics calculation used in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) simulation and wind tunnel, both of which are time-consuming especially for modelling at the urban scale. This model is a cheaper and faster alternative for urban planners to estimate the impact of urban planning and design on anthropogenic heat dispersion.
“Due to the huge uncertainty caused by urbanisation and global warming, the new GIS-based analytical model is a feasible tool to deal with numerous microclimate scenarios to help Singapore stay cool,” shared Dr Yuan.
Beyond applications in Singapore, this practical model can be easily adopted in cities overseas. By seamlessly connecting this model with global and regional scale models, city-level findings can also be used to tackle anthropogenic heat problems globally. As the next step, the team will explore collaborating with researchers working on global and regional scale models. Air pollution as another important urban climate issue will also be integrated into this GIS tool.
The GIS-based model is developed in collaboration with the Future Resilient Systems project at the Singapore-ETH Centre (SEC) that is supported by the National Research Foundation, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) programme, as well as the National Supercomputing Centre Singapore.
Australia is in the midst of tropical cyclone season. As we write, a cyclone is forming off Western Australia’s Pilbara coast, and earlier in the week Queenslanders were bracing for a cyclone in the state’s far north (which thankfully, didn’t hit).
Australia has always experienced cyclones. But here and around the world, climate change means the cyclone threat is growing – and so too is the potential damage bill. Disadvantaged populations are often most at risk.
Our recent research shows 54 cyclones struck Australia in the 50 years between 1967 and 2016, causing about A$3 billion in damage. We found the damages would have totalled approximately A$30 billion, if not for coastal wetlands.
Wetlands such as mangroves, swamps, lakes and lagoons bear the brunt of much storm damage to coast, helping protect us and our infrastructure. But over the past 300 years, 85% of the world’s wetland area has been destroyed. It’s clear we must urgently preserve the precious little wetland area we have left.
Wetlands can mitigate cyclone and hurricane damage, by absorbing storm surges and slowing winds. For example in August 2020, Hurricane Laura hit the United States’ midwest. Massive damage was predicted, including a 6.5-metre storm surge extending 65 kilometres inland.
In Australia, wetlands are lost through intentional infilling or drainage for mosquito control, or to create land for infrastructure and agriculture. They’re also lost due to pollution and upstream changes to water flows.
Putting a price on cyclone protection
Our research set out to determine the financial value of the storm protection provided by Australia’s wetlands.
We examined the 54 cyclones that struck Australia in the five decades to 2016. We gathered data including:
physical damage wrought in each storm swath (or storm path)
gross domestic product (GDP) in the storm’s path
maximum windspeed during each storm, which helps predict damage
total area of wetlands in each swath.
Using a powerful type of statistics called Bayesian analysis, we estimated the extent to which GDP, windspeed and wetland area affected total damage. This allowed us to estimate damage caused in the absence of wetlands.
We found for every hectare of wetland, about A$4,200 per year in cyclone damage was avoided. This means the A$3 billion in cyclone damage over the past 50 years would have totalled approximately A$30 billion, if not for coastal wetlands.
Importantly, the percentage of damage averted falls rapidly as wetland area decreases. And the protection afforded by a single hectare of wetland increases drastically if there are fewer other wetlands in the path of the storm. This makes protecting remaining wetland even more critical.
If the average cyclone path in Australia were to contain around 30,000 hectares of wetlands, it would avert about 90% of potential storm damage. If the wetland area dropped to 3,000 hectares, only about 30% of damage would be averted.
Climate change is making cyclones worse. By 2050, Australia’s annual damage bill could be as high as A$39 billion, assuming current levels of wetlands are maintained.
Seawalls and other artificial structures can be built along the coast to protect from storms. However, research in China has found wetlands are more cost-effective and efficient than man-made structures at preventing cyclone damage.
Unlike man-made structures, wetlands maintain themselves. Their only “cost” is the opportunity cost of not being able to use the land for something else.
Keeping wetlands safe
According to recent analysis by the authors, which is currently under peer review, global wetlands provide US$447 billion (A$657 billion) worth of protection from storms each year.
Of course, wetlands provide benefits beyond storm protection. They store carbon, regulate our climate and control flooding. They also absorb waste including pollutants and carbon, provide animal habitat and places for human recreation.
Wetlands are an incredibly important resource. It’s critical we protect them from development and keep them healthy, so they can continue to provide vital services.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Decisive action on climate change must be at the heart of any resilient recovery from COVID-19, according to the Government of Bangladesh. In comments made in its capacity as the new chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) and the Vulnerable Twenty (V20) Group of Ministers of Finance, Bangladesh called on leaders to ensure that recovery spending targeted at the pandemic also builds resilience to wider systemic shocks created by climate change.
“The COVID-19 pandemic had broken through the thin veneer of our security to the type of global risks we all faced today,” said H.E. Dr. A K Abdul Momen, MP, the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. “It has revealed just how vulnerable society had become and climate change has an even greater potential for disruption, especially for those of us on the frontline”.
Under Bangladesh’s leadership, the CVF indicated it would continue to call for delivery of strengthened contributions to the Paris Agreement. To reinforce this commitment, it confirmed that the country’s Prime Minister, H.E. Sheikh Hasina, will serve as Chair of the CVF.
Bangladesh indicated that its work within the V20 would continue to mobilize the economy and financial resources to fight climate change and ensure international financial institutions are better positioned to respond to climate threats and provide the right support to the most vulnerable. Several innovative financing initiatives under development by the V20 were also highlighted, including the “Accelerated Financing Mechanism”, which aims to address higher capital costs that hold back climate investments in the V20, and the “Sustainable Insurance Facility”, which aims to expand financial protection against climate risks.
“Already reeling from the economic shock of the COVID pandemic our economy was struck by a second tragic event with Cyclone Amphan. This situation of extreme vulnerability is dangerous and unsustainable,” said Ms Fatima Yasmin, Secretary of Bangladesh’s Economic Relations Division. “In leading forward the V20, Bangladesh, therefore, aims to work tirelessly, at home and with all our partner countries and institutions, to ensure today’s economic systems adjust to the realities we face. We will promote all efforts towards urgently reinforcing climate and economic resilience.”
By Thanh Van, UCCRTF Country Resilience Officer for Viet Nam
Over the past decade, tourism has grown to become a vital economic sector for Viet Nam. In 2019, Viet Nam received 18 million international arrivals, up from just over 2 million in the year 2000. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the industry. In March 2020, Viet Nam suspended the issuance of all tourist visas and implemented other measures to stop the spread of the disease, including closure of leisure facilities, enforcing social distancing and banning meeting in large groups. As of November 2020, the country remains closed to foreign tourists. The country recorded a 98 percent year-on-year drop in foreign visitors for April 2020. With no reopening for tourists in sight, the government has called for the promotion of domestic tourism.
COVID-19 and the measures that have been put in place to contain it have affected cities in which ADB’s Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF) works, including Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An. The impact of COVID-19 on the tourism sector is particularly problematic as the tourism value chain is extensive, encompassing leisure, entertainment, shopping, hotels, and other related services. This has posed significant challenges for cities like Hoi An, which have sought to refocus their attention on attracting visitors from closer to home.
In 2019, Hoi An had a total production value from tourism and services estimated at more than VND 8.5 billion ($ 372 million). The city attracted over 4 million international visitors and was hailed as Asia’s top cultural city destination in the same year. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, Hoi An’s share of visitors in the first six months of 2020 was down nearly 70 percent compared with the same period in 2019. The number of international visitors has also decreased by more than 70 percent. Hue city faced similar challenges losing about VND 2.25 billion ($ 97 million) in revenue from tourism in the first six months of 2020, with visitor numbers down by 55 percent. There are also likely to be repercussions throughout the wider population, as gender analysis of the labor divide within the tourism sector shows there to be a high proportion of female workers whose livelihoods may be at risk.
In response to this situation, Hue city decided to move away from its long-term policy position of promoting international tourism and instead is pivoting to encourage domestic tourism. In May 2020, Hue organized the Hue Tourism Forum with the theme “Connecting Tourism: Hue – a safe and friendly destination” to implement actions that would promote domestic tourism and support the local tourism industry. The city is now making greater effort to develop and organize festivals and events to attract more local tourists while costs of sightseeing tickets have been reduced. Hue, Da Nang, and Quang Nam cities have also implemented joint action programs to enhance their cooperation and joint promotion of the different tourism strengths each city has to offer.
“The pandemic gives us many lessons about building crisis funds, the development orientation of walking on both feet, developing international and domestic tourism markets,” said Associate Professor Dr Pham Hong Long – Head of Faculty of Tourism Studies, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Hanoi National University. “In order to revive the tourism industry in the current context, we must focus on the domestic tourism market with attractive and unique products.”
The Tourism Association of Da Nang city has conducted communications campaigns to improve tourist demand. This includes the “Da Nang misses you – Da Nang is back” campaign to emphasize the message that Da Nang is ready to welcome visitors back from early November to late December. Da Nang will target local customers first, domestic customers, and finally, international customers at the end of this year. Dan Nang is now cooperating with other tourism-centered cities in the central coastal region of Viet Nam, including Hue and Quang Nam. Together, they have implemented a program to recover and develop tourism and enhance the cooperation and promotion of the tourism strengths of each city after the COVID 19 pandemic. This is a vital step in the national approach to tourism recovery as more than 80 percent of international visitors to Viet Nam visit at least one of these three cities.
COVID-19 demonstrates the impact of a large-scale, system-level shock on the tourism sector. There are many parallels to be drawn with the impacts that climate change can bring. Viet Nam’s proactive steps to diversify the sources of tourism will help to build the resilience of the industry. Beyond this, cities can plan for a sustainable tourism sector after the pandemic is under control, and simultaneously build resilience to climate change by making improvements to their urban environment. Investments in transport infrastructure that encourages walking and cycling, for instance, can help to improve air quality, reduce the negative health impact of extreme heat events, and make streets safer and more enjoyable for tourists and citizens alike.
The insurance sector has been at the forefront of managing the impact of climate-related risks for many decades. Insurers are well placed to seize the structural opportunities ahead and become stewards of an orderly, whole economy transition to a net zero and climate resilient future. But doing so will require a pro-active and creative approach – a 7-step framework for a strategic climate response. Fortune will favour the risk-adjusted.
In a relatively short time, climate change has moved from an underwriting focused concern of property re/insurers, or matters of corporate social responsibility, to a mainstream set of issues relating to prudential safety and soundness and financial stability across the financial system.
While increasing attention to ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors, reputation concerns and changing consumer sentiment have undoubtably played their part, the system-wide and structural integration of climate-related risks into financial regulation is now the primary driver and moving in only one direction.
The insurance sector has already played a key role in shaping the global regulatory landscape that has now emerged on climate, including leading a revolution in climate data and analytics, responding to Solvency II and supporting the development of a formative framework for climate-related financial risks.
There is a strategic opportunity for insurers to continue to lead. But doing so will require the industry to up its game even more and embed a strategic approach; one that not only integrates climate-related risks into day-to-day risk management but also seeks to steward a whole economy transition to a low carbon and resilient future.
Before diving into how insurers can embrace a stewardship role, let’s start with a reminder of three key inflexion points in the rising tide of climate-related financial regulation. And the leading role the insurance sector has already played in the fundamental reshaping of finance now underway.
The 1990s: An industry in crisis – and a revolution in climate data, analytics and regulation
As many may remember, a series of events in the late 1980s and early 1990s, culminating with Hurricane Andrew in 1992, presented an existential threat to the insurance industry. With losses of over $15bn, Andrew was responsible for the failure of at least 16 insurers between 1992 and 1993. But with crisis comes opportunity. Under pressure from their investors, the insurance industry responded with an analytical revolution in models, methods and metrics to better integrate what has become known as physical climate risks into the heart of pricing and decision making. The catastrophe risk models the industry has pioneered, marrying engineering metrics and actuarial science with human and physical geography, are providing a key analytical building block of the climate-related risk gear box now being employed across the financial system.
As discussed further in Matt Foote’s and Adhiraj Maitra’s article: Insurers can draw on their Solvency II experience to integrate climate risk and resilience, the insurance sector has also been at the centre of one of the first inflexion points in climate-related financial regulation. The introduction of requirements for modelling 1-in-200 year natural hazard scenarios via Solvency II and other regimes around the world, reinforced by insurance credit rating agency requirements, was an early front-runner to the climate stress tests that are now being introduced across the financial system.
It is therefore no surprise that a second pivotal inflexion point had its roots in a prudential climate review of the UK insurance sector, setting the foundation for a financial sector wide approach.
2015: Physical, transition and liability risks and enhanced climate disclosure
In response to a request under the UK Climate Change Act, the Prudential Regulation Authority’s (PRA) 2015 review of the impact of climate change on the UK insurance sector set out the formative framework for climate-related financial risk. The review identified three primary channels; physical, transition and liability as shown in the boxes below. Published alongside a seminal ‘Breaking the Tragedy of the Horizon’ speech by former Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, at Lloyd’s of London in September 2015, the PRA’s review has helped to catalyse the mainstreaming of climate-related risks as a core financial and investment issue. With an ever more powerful chorus reinforcing the same message, including, for example, BlackRock’s Larry Fink in his annual letter to CEOs, it’s a transformation that is here to stay.
Physical, transition and liability risks from climate change
The introduction of transition risk has been particularly noteworthy, broadening the financial risks from climate change from primarily an insurance sector issue to a market-wide concern. The notion of transition risk has also played an important role in establishing the global, private sector Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). By improving transparency in financial markets, enhanced climate disclosure is helping to address financial stability concerns of a future ‘climate Minsky moment’ – a sudden and abrupt re-pricing of assets from a disorderly transition.
TCFD is also transforming the private sector’s response to the financial risks and opportunities that climate change presents. We explore this further in a related article: TCFD: coming, ready or not, including emerging insights of a recent survey of TCFD readiness among UK premium listed companies as the UK moves towards mandatory climate disclosure. As the article discusses, there is now clearly a co-ordinated, cross-sector approach to embedding climate-related risks across the UK financial system and globally; one that will only accelerate ahead of the next major climate change conference, COP26, towards the end of next year.
A new horizon: Climate stress tests to 2050, supervisory expectations and ‘Dear CEO’ letter
The last two years have witnessed a further acceleration in the climate-related financial regulation landscape. This includes the mainstream recognition that climate change not only presents financial risks, but that these risks have distinctive elements (see below), present unique challenges and require a strategic approach.
It is with these challenges in mind that financial regulators are once again raising the bar. For example, developing climate stress tests to determine the viability of banks and insurer’s business models out to 2050 and beyond and requiring firms to assign individual senior manager accountability for managing the financial risks from climate change.
The PRA’s ‘Dear CEO’ Letter published in July this year could well be remembered as a defining moment; one that requires all UK banks and insurers to ‘fully embed their approaches to managing climate-related financial risks by the end of 2021’.
And while the UK is clearly at the vanguard, it is certainly not alone. The mainstream integration of climate-related risk has become a global endeavour for insurers and across the entire financial sector. For example, since the beginning of September this year:
The European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA) has published a consultation on the use of long-term climate scenarios within firm’s Own Risk and Solvency Assessment (ORSA) as part of Solvency II;
The International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS) has published its draft Application Paper to support supervisors around the world in their efforts to integrate climate-related risks into supervisory frameworks, including those relating to supervisory review and reporting, corporate governance, risk management, investments and disclosures;
In a similar vein to the PRA’s letter, the New York Department of Financial Services has written to insurers requesting firms to integrate climate-related risks into governance frameworks, risk management processes and business strategies.
And, more broadly, the Central Bank and Supervisors Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS) continues to go from strength to strength, expanding from eight founding institutions in late 2017 to now over 80 participants across five continents.
When considered together, these latest developments define a third inflexion point – the mainstream implementation of strategic, Board level responses to the financial risks from climate change. Importantly, this third phase will require firms to not only demonstrate they are pro-actively managing near-term climate-related risks but are also taking action to pre-emptively reduce future financial risks, including those that may not fully crystallise until the second half of the century.
This third phase represents an important shift; responding to climate-related risks can no longer be considered as a spectator sport. It requires a much more participative, strategic and creative approach, one that seeks to steward a whole economy transition to a low carbon and resilient future.
Stewarding a whole economy transition
While there’s clearly overlap between embedding the near-term physical and transition risks into every day financial risk management with those required to manage future financial risks today, there’s also some important nuances. For example, insurers can manage their near-term risks by reducing their individual exposures, such as divesting carbon intensive assets to reduce transition risks. Pre-emptively reducing future financial risks requires a wider lens and a more strategic approach. As highlighted in a speech by Sarah Breeden, Executive sponsor of the Bank’s climate work, published alongside the PRA’s Dear CEO letter: ‘given the scale of change required, we will simply not be able to divest our way to net zero’.
While recognising climate as a financial issue and embedding, and disclosing, near-term climate-related risks and opportunities (steps 1, 2, 6 and 7 shown by dotted blue line) is clearly important, a strategic approach requires a deeper shift (steps 1 through to 7 shown in purple).
This includes assessing the impact of long-term climate scenarios, out to 2050 and beyond, and considering the unique system-wide challenges that climate change presents (step 3). Adjusting time horizons to the long-term provides an opportunity for Directors to reflect on the Board’s responsibilities to manage future financial risks today and to set a strategic ‘climate intent’, such as agreeing to align a firm’s strategy with the goals of the Paris Agreement, or committing to a Net Zero target (step 4). This, in turn, can inform a more strategic, pro-active and creative approach; one that embraces the need for stewardship of a whole economy transition to a low carbon and resilient future (step 5).
While the PRA’s letter, and our own recent TCFD readiness survey, clearly flag multiple areas where additional progress and capabilities are required, many financial firms are already starting to embrace a more strategic, pro-active approach. The PRA/FCA convened Climate Financial Risk Forum also evidences the strong appetite for cross-sector collaboration to advance thinking and practice. With this in mind, we are delighted to be supporting the Forum’s scenario analysis working group and helping to facilitate cross-sector dialogue more broadly. For example, through recent events bringing together financial regulators with senior industry leaders and our international work chairing the Coalition on Climate Resilient Investment.
Clearly solving a collective action problem requires a collective and collaborative approach. While the insurance sector alone will not drive the transition to a low carbon and climate resilient future, with trillions of dollars under management and billions of dollars in transaction volumes, it can certainly influence the outcome, and it is in its own enlightened self-interest to do so.
Fortune favours the risk adjusted
The good news is that a more comprehensive, strategic response has many benefits. It can provide assurance to all stakeholders, including investors, that climate-related risks, and opportunities, are fully understood and are being managed appropriately. It can also help attract and retain talent, particularly among younger colleagues who are increasingly seeking purposeful careers aligned with their values. Indeed, the integration of climate-related factors into talent and reward strategies is increasingly being viewed as an important source of differentiation and advantage.
Perhaps most importantly a strategic approach can also support insurers in orientating towards the transformative and structural opportunities presented by the low carbon, climate resilient transition. Having helped shape the landscape that is now emerging, there is no industry better placed to seize the opportunities that lie ahead.
There is still much to do to manage climate-related risks, and many questions that still need to be answered as methods, models and metrics continue to evolve. Developing a pro-active, strategic and creative approach now will be sure to pay dividends; fortune will favour the brave, well-prepared and risk adjusted.
The desert locust outbreak requires several levels of response from national and regional governance structures.
We know that environmental disasters are a function of our disregard for the environment we have been entrusted to steward. The current desert locust plague is a timely reminder that the consequences of climate change enables environmental disasters beyond just extreme weather. The warming of the Indian Ocean, caused by anthropogenic heat, has helped increase the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, creating favourable conditions for desert locust breeding and mutation.
In 2019, the North Indian Ocean experienced its most active cyclone season ever recorded. This created ideal locust breeding and survival grounds across the Arabian Peninsula. Desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) occur in swarms due to a particular combination of weather, soil and vegetation conditions that complement their reproduction and mutation from an otherwise solitary creature into one that matures and develops into speedy swarms (gregarisation) of up to 150 million locusts. This mutation makes the desert locust one of the most destructive insect groups when met with cropland.
The very nature of a desert locust disaster calls for a policy approach that must intersect with many levels of governance. Disaster risk management (DRM) for desert locusts requires early reaction, efficient control and monitoring and, fundamentally, a prevention approach. What makes desert locusts such a devastating pest is their ability to rapidly develop into swarms, migrate across regions and states, quickly destroying cropland. A swarm the size of Paris can eat as much as half the population of France in one day. East Africa is currently experiencing the worst desert locust outbreak in decades. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that over 42 million people are facing acute food insecurity in the ten affected countries.
Despite early warning by The Desert Locust Watch agency during the 2019 cyclone season, the invasion could not be stopped in time. Knowledge on the ecology of desert locusts has developed considerably over time, but without international policy and implementation cooperation, understanding the species is not enough. National governments must domesticate the procedures and strategies agreed upon at the regional level. In 1962, the Desert Locust Control Organisation for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA) was established to unify cooperation between the governments of Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. The DLCO-EA hoped to ensure cooperation in the control of desert locust plagues across the region. Despite having the necessary scientific understanding of how to deal with the locusts, the organisation has struggled to deal with the magnitude of the current outbreak.
The desert locust disaster is an example of the disconnect between the actions of regional organisations and the preparedness of national locust control units. Ria Sen, Disaster Risk Reduction expert with the World Food Programme, asserts that although quantitative risk modelling is an important aspect of preparedness, grasping the context-specific scenario within affected states will ultimately determine the success or failure of a disaster risk management plan.
In the case of Ethiopia, policies do exist to ensure preparedness and risk management planning for disasters affecting the country. The federal agency responsible for their implementation has lagged and only half of the districts across the country have obtained the DRM plans and profiling since 2009. Coupled with the current political disputes between the Tigray Region and the federal government, the ability of the Plant Protection Division and Crop Protection Departments to support the implementation of local-level systems is highly constrained. Ethiopia continues to battle the recent upsurge of swarms in the north. If tensions continue to escalate between Tigray and the national government, the impact of the locust invasion will worsen.
Like most other environmental disasters, the desert locust outbreak requires several levels of response from governance structures both regional and national. Transnational governance response to environmental issues cannot act as a substitute for strong state-based governance. Strong national environmental policies create incentives for state and non-state actors to cooperate. The DLCO-EA should be complemented by member state investment into national and local level locust control policies so that they can work in synergy.
Countries and regional bodies must invest in further research and technology to improve the ability to predict and potentially prevent desert locust disasters.
Improve the early warning communication pathway between regional bodies like the FAO’s Desert Locust Watch and the affected countries.
Strengthen cooperation and engagement between the member states of the DLCO-EA, the Central Desert Locust Commission and the regional environmental centres.
Enhance coordination and prioritisation at a local and national level of prevention and control actions.
Increase resource allocation for disaster risk management bodies in advanced to avoid costly emergency response actions.
The implementation of these recommendations will help align existing regional and national governance structures to avoid prolonging the current outbreak and help prevent future related environmental disasters.