Adaptation to climate change is a vital discussion we need to have

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Australia’s political voice has largely been absent from the annual summit of world leaders in recent times. But it was announced that Australia’s Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Senator Jenny McAllister, is set to facilitate consultations to reach outcomes on adaptation at the upcoming COP 28 summit in Dubai.

While it may seem drastic to discuss adapting to climate change impacts when we’re still pursuing effective mitigation, we’ve moved beyond the point of no return for many nations. We’re now set to talk about the efficacy of coastal protection and range-shifting plants which can better tolerate the “new normal”.

These conversations are now, sadly, vital, and Australia can lean on its own experience in climate change to start the ball rolling on these discussions.

Australia facing the prospect of significant adaptation

One of the most exposed sectors in Australia in the immediate term is the agricultural sector, due to crops and livestock being highly vulnerable to both acute and chronic climate events. There are ways the sector can look to adapt, including using new variants of crops (that are more tolerant of the newer climate) or adapting practices to maintain plant survival rate (for example increasing irrigation precision). Agrivoltaics – a technique which consists of mixing the production of photovoltaic electricity and agricultural production in the same area by raising the solar panels above the cultivated ground or cultivating crops in between rows of PV panels – may become more commonplace as a solution to overcome intersecting land use barriers.

As a land proudly girt by sea, in the longer term we may have to consider coastal protection, such as mangrove plantations to provide coastal defence against extreme sea levels and cyclones. In worst case scenarios, we may need to consider relocation as a coastal defence.

Meanwhile, widespread exposure in the immediate term will be felt acutely by the financial sector, which stands at arm’s length to the companies facing the physical impact from climate change. It faces a daunting task to grapple with widespread impact and inability to drive or finance direct adaptation measures on the ground.

Yet Australia’s role at COP 28 is not to talk solely about its own challenges; its role will be to facilitate discussions about the world and what measures need to be taken to both adapt and to finance those adaptation strategies.

 Complexity of climate-related risks

The UNFCC Global Stocktake report highlighted several climate adaptation actions from coastal defence to disaster risk management. With the underinvestment in adaptation measures, public and private sector need to find a way to prioritise efforts.

It’s first important to understand how the complex array of hazards will impact particular communities, economies, and ecosystems and determine criteria for assigning higher importance to specific areas. Factors like systemic social vulnerability, intersecting social risk determinants, population density, net asset value, environmental significance, and cultural importance are some considerations. Uniting around a common set of facts will help bring stakeholders together.

When safeguarding vulnerable populations is the focus, the most immediate adaptation actions can revolve around establishing recovery strategies for climate-related impacts.  A major cyclone’s impact, for example, can extend beyond direct consequences such as casualties and asset damage to include indirect effects like road, electricity, and telecommunication disruptions which can pose significant obstacles to providing disaster relief to affected populations. Therefore, it becomes imperative to devise measures that enhance the resilience of critical infrastructure systems to withstand various climate hazards.

It’s expected that adaptation finance will be a key one within COP negotiations, particularly focusing on compensating developing nations for their losses and damages due to climate impacts. There are mechanisms in place to access funding through “green finance” institutions like the World Bank.

However, due to the urgent need to mitigate the extent of the climate crisis, these investments do see a relative prioritisation.

Mitigation remains the best adaptation strategy

However, I hope that amid all the discussions around adaption that we don’t lose sight of mitigation. Mitigation and adaptation are not mutually exclusive ideas, and the most effective long-term adaptation strategy remains mitigation; the sooner we reduce emissions, the less extensive adaptation will be required. And some investments can serve both purposes.

For instance, the Adelaide Coastal Wetlands Restoration project has the potential to sequester 20,000 tons of CO2 for every 250 hectares restored, and there are many other projects across the nation with similar mitigation potential. Furthermore, recommendations for neighbouring nations and financing them to restore their own rainforests and wetlands can also drive carbon sequestration while supporting biodiversity wellbeing.

Enhanced understanding and valuation of our natural ecosystems will support the incorporation of these resources into decision making for businesses. Frameworks such as the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) are supporting thinking on how to evaluate nature and biodiversity while contextualising the financial impact that businesses would feel should these resources not be managed.

Conversations around adaption strategies are now, sadly, vital. But no matter the long-term strategy, we can’t take our eyes off the ball. And while solutions such as desalination, coastal defence and crop selection will likely become more urgent as the years progress, we should be focusing first on preserving and restoring the ecosystems that already protect us from both chronic and acute climate impacts, which are often the most cost-effective measures.

Mitigation has been and remains the best adaptation strategy, and we need to continue to do everything within our power to rapidly achieve Net Zero.

Amy Steel is a climate risk expert and the Western Australia leader of Engie Impact, the sustainability consultancy arm of Engie.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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