Spotlight: NATIONS–Poorer countries move more quickly to adapt to climate change

Reproduced with permission, copyright 2012, E&E Publishing LLC.

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Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter

Some of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries have made steady progress in protecting themselves from the impacts of disaster, according to a sweeping new index.

The once war-torn country of Rwanda and the small island nation of Cape Verde top the Global Adaptation Institute’s (GAIN) list of countries that have substantially improved their ability to adapt to climate change over the past five years. Meanwhile, densely populated and vulnerable countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh also are described as places where climate adaptation efforts are likely to succeed.

Others, meanwhile, have shown steep decline. Some countries, like Ireland, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom, while suffering the fallout from the financial crisis, are still industrialized nations relatively able to protect themselves from disaster. Bolivia, Zimbabwe and North Korea remain some of the worst performers and, experts agree, face severe threats from climate change.

"The overall message that we get from looking at the index is that the poorer countries are actually improving more quickly than the wealthier countries," said Ian Noble, chief scientist for the nonprofit group that released the index this week.

"Things are happening where it most needs to happen, but we’ve got a long way to go," Noble said.

The GAIN index comes as the Green Climate Fund board gathers for its second meeting in Songdo, South Korea. While the fund is still an empty shell and its leaders are focused on basic questions — like where it will be headquartered — the board will eventually have to grapple with the politically explosive matter of which countries are most vulnerable and where to prioritize dollars. If the fund indeed handles billions of dollars annually as it is meant to, questions of which nations are most vulnerable will be critical.

A guide to disaster-averse investors

The academic research in this area has grown slowly. Earlier this month, the humanitarian aid group DARA released an index finding that failure to stem greenhouse gas emissions would hit China hardest, with economic losses of $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years, and that there would be serious gross domestic product losses in the United States and India.

Most deaths, however, are likely to occur in vulnerable nations like Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the World Bank and the Center for Global Development think tank have been looking at how the nations most at risk — which also are often the countries with the weakest institutions — might access funding despite governance problems.

But the GAIN index, which came on the scene last year, is focused primarily on offering the private sector a window into what countries might make for smart adaptation investments. Going back to 1995, it tracks both vulnerabilities and “readiness,” the latter of which is measured by economic policies touted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. They include everything from adherence to free-market policies to whether a country has paved roads.

The 2012 index measures two additional sectors, “human habitats” and “ecosystem services,” as part of 36 aspects of potential vulnerability and 14 readiness measures.

"Basically, the idea of the index is to get people asking questions about why is it that some countries appear more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, that some appear more ready to respond to those challenges," Noble said.

Financial crisis slows adaptation

Formerly the World Bank’s lead climate specialist, Noble noted that allocation formulas are rarely straightforward because so many factors come into play, but that this index is primarily a tool for potential donors and countries themselves to track their ability to use climate finance effectively.

MaliThe new measure with updated elements finds that most U.N. member nations have fallen for the first time since 1995 in their ability to adapt to climate change, which GAIN officials attribute to the financial crisis. European countries as well as the oil-rich states of Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya are among the biggest losers.

Still, the authors noted, 128 countries are improving and more than half have improved both in readiness and in vulnerability. Those that improved significantly, like Rwanda, brought about major economic reforms, Noble said.

Frank Lowenstein, the climate adaptation strategy leader for the Nature Conservancy, called the index an important tool both because it goes back several years and because GAIN makes all of the data transparent and publicly available. In the future, he said, sub-national data will be of even more help to organizations trying to do adaptation work.

"GAIN is attempting to do a very difficult thing. They are attempting to provide a global look at vulnerability and readiness with consistent measures across countries, across cultures, across political and social systems," Lowenstein said. "That’s really, really valuable."

Meanwhile, climate finance officials said conversations about allocating dollars from the Green Climate Fund are a long way off.

"I don’t think we will start to address those issues until 2013," said Derek Gibbs, chief economist in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs of Barbados.

Photo courtesy: Ferdinand Reus (Creative Commons)