Climate change is part of the planet’s natural cycle, and its citizens have always learned to cope. But the increased global temperatures recorded over the last century point to a future where, without common action, the globe may fall – irreparably – out of kilter.
“What makes this period so challenging is that temperatures are increasing much more rapidly than we've ever seen in history, over a short period of time,” explains Michael Marshall, a climate change scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.
When scientists talk about a surface temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, conventionally adopted as the threshold to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, they refer to a global average. This means that while certain areas of the world may become just slightly warmer in the future, arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel are very likely to get much hotter than the rest of the planet, at worst becoming uninhabitable.
Africa is particularly vulnerable as more than 75 percent of the workforce is involved in agriculture, much of it rain-fed. Poor irrigation infrastructure and increasingly erratic rains spell trouble. "When drought occurs they have no means of adaptation nor alternative sources of livelihood," says Marshall.
At the Paris climate talks, UN member states will aim to agree on a global, legally binding strategy for emissions reduction and financial support to vulnerable countries.
BUT AMONG THE MANY PROBLEMS with climate financing is that projects chosen for funding are more likely to reveal the priorities of the donors rather than the needs of the recipients.
So-called climate-smart agricultural programmes, for example, encourage smallholders to adopt practices that sequester carbon. But "African countries don't understand why they should take responsibility for global emission reduction when the world’s big emitters are countries such as China or India,” says Marshall.
He believes that "a disproportionate amount of money" has been spent on carbon credits – which can actually undercut climate change action ¬– and says "you would get much more value by investing in something like water systems, given the huge irrigation problem in the region".
In 2014, 93 percent of traceable global climate investments, totalling $391 billion, was spent on mitigation programmes, and 80 percent of that was on renewable technologies. Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emission of greenhouse gases – the vast bulk of which are produced by wealthy or industrialising countries.
Tracking climate financing is not easy. There are still significant gaps in the data, including private sector contributions, and the boundary between adaptation – reducing vulnerability and building resilience to the impact of climate change – and development can be fuzzy, according to Barbara Buchner, lead author of the Global Landscape of Climate Finance.
BUT DESPITE THE UNCERTAINTIES, a picture is emerging that clearly shows the woeful underfunding of adaptation - which is critical for poorer countries, who are most at risk from global warming. According to Oxfam, the development NGO, climate finance "was around $20 billion on average in 2013-2014 but only around $3-5 billion was dedicated for adaptation – less than the 50 per cent minimum that Oxfam says is needed."
The fact that countries with the money to spend on climate change action are generally developed countries with emission issues helps explain why mitigation remains at the top of the agenda. Risk-averse private companies also tend to invest domestically rather than internationally.
But Buchner believes that building a clear, transparent framework for international climate finance is an important step towards creating a business model that works.
““We want countries to accept only what makes sense to them, what sits comfortably with their vision.”
She suggests there are positive signs that countries are slowly taking action towards a fairer distribution of climate finance. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) draft agreement released ahead of the Paris talks aims to add to that impetus.
The document recommends improving “monitoring, reporting, evaluating, and learning from adaptation plans...” It also stresses the importance of a “country-driven” approach, which should involve local communities as well as be guided by the best available science.
The lack of solutions that work at a local level is one of the main criticisms directed at the UNFCCC through the years. Proposals are put on the table but often go nowhere because they don’t fit the needs of the recipient countries.
THAT'S WHERE THE GREEN CLIMATE FUND (GCF) comes in. Set up in 2011, it aims to boost climate resilient development by mobilising funds from private and public donors.
“Do not tell me that what works for you works for me too,” says Samy Ben-Jaafar, director of the Private Sector Facility at the GCF. As a recipient country, he says, “I am different culturally, economically, and with my own unique risk appetite.”
Ben-Jaafar is adamant that there isn’t a single financial instrument that can uniformly work for all countries. What makes the GCF unique is a culture of country ownership: “We want countries to accept only what makes sense to them, what sits comfortably with their vision,” he says.
The fund has recently disbursed $168 million for eight projects in Africa, the Asia-Pacific and Latin America. It aims at striking a 50-50 balance between adaptation and mitigation finance.
But an effective climate change response should reach beyond this artificial separation. “There are countries whose energy mix depends on hydropower,” notes Ben-Jaafar. “Then their rivers dry up [because of drought], and so does their energy supply. If you build solar panels, are you doing adaptation or mitigation? You are doing both.”
Advocating for an integrated approach to mitigation and adaptation means looking at climate change through a more sophisticated lens, that of ecosystem dynamics. “Everything is connected. Issues such as water, food security, and energy have to be tackled together,” says Ben-Jaafar.
He believes that an international entity shouldn’t be prescriptive; countries should adhere voluntarily because they see the benefits of taking action. $10 billion for climate aid is already pledged, a slow start towards the target of $100 billion per year by 2020, but an asset to build upon in Paris.
HOWEVER, SCEPTICISM REMAINS among those who look for bottom-up approaches based on local knowledge. “In order for us to combat climate change, we need widespread grassroots community level actions. I am not optimistic about [Paris],” says Marshall.
He says that competing national interests make it difficult to trigger real change at the global summit level. “And I think that the key that's missing here is that there are local innovations. People are adapting without any help from outside.”
He points to the Maasai people of Kenya as an example. Traditionally cattle-rearing pastoralists, as a result of drought and reduced grazing, they are turning to camels, which are more adaptable to heat.
“There are opportunities here and things are happening without external help,” he adds.