Delivering successful adaptation – how can we tell what works?

Kathryn Brown, the CCC

Kathryn Brown

Head of Adaptation, Committee on Climate Change

15 April, 2019

Kathryn leads the secretariat to the Adaptation Committee of the Committee on Climate Change. The CCC is the independent advisor to the UK government on climate change. Over the coming two years, the Adaptation Committee will publish its first report on the second UK National Adaptation Programme, and the Evidence Report for the next UK Climate Change Risk Assessment.

Measuring the success of adaptation actions is challenging. It is often very difficult to identify and quantify the impact on risk of a specific action, particular given future uncertainty and the lack of national or regional adaptation targets. But showing the outcomes of adaptation is crucial for securing the attention and finance from funding bodies. The job of the Committee on Climate Change is to measure progress in adaptation in the UK. We have just celebrated our ten year anniversary, so what have we learned over the last decade?

Measure changes in vulnerability, not impact

Disaster risk reduction programmes often measure how impacts on people are changing over time. But this does not work for adaptation.

The impacts of severe weather, such as the number of people flooded or deaths in heatwaves, vary hugely from year to year and are driven by a range of things, including population growth, development, and natural variability in the climate. Because of this noise in the data, it would take decades to show that adaptation measures have reduced climate change impacts.

Instead, we measure changes in vulnerability and exposure to climate change, as we can see an immediate effect and monitor it over time. For the flooding example, this is things like the number of people living in areas at risk of flood, and how many properties have their own resilience measures installed.  We have over 100 indicators that we update every year, to check on progress.

Process indicators remain valid, if limited

For physical adaptation measures like flood defences, it is relatively straightforward to quantify the reduction in risk through changing vulnerability or exposure. But this is difficult for other actions, particularly those aimed at building capacity or raising awareness. We therefore also try to measure process indicators such as the number of people that take up flood warnings and the number of people who are aware of heatwave alerts, even though we can’t say exactly what the reduction in risk has been. Process indicators tend to be widely used for measuring changes in human health and the natural environment, where studying physical effects is highly complex. While we can see an effect, process indicators remain limited because they don’t tell us how exactly well prepared we are for the future. Will awareness or greater capacity prepare people adequately for a 1.5°C, 2°C or 3°C+ world?  It is impossible to know.

Set out targets and outcomes at the start of a project

Some of the best examples of adaptation projects and measures have included some serious thinking up front about what the intended outcome is. This allows projects to be designed to meet that outcome, and their success in doing so can be evaluated afterwards. There are various examples of these projects in our research reports on ‘what works’ in adaptation for cities and the natural environment, commissioned last year.

More often than not, long-term outcomes are not thought about or articulated by governments. We have done some of our own thinking about preparing for long-term change in land use, housing, and coastal change in England over the past year. In all cases, much more thought needs to be put into adjusting to inevitable change, and thinking about when transformational adaptation will be needed this century. See our reports for more details on why trying to maintain the status quo may not be the best long-term option.

What about the next ten years?

The CCC is looking  to update and improve its assessment framework this year.  The focus in the climate change mitigation world on 1.5°C has started us thinking about whether the time has come to set a minimum ‘target’ level that we should start measuring progress against.  For example, should all organisations or governments be able to prove that they are prepared for at least a 1.5°C or 2°C world, plus additional planning for higher warming scenarios?  We’re looking into how we could apply an approach like this for our next progress report, due out in the summer.

What do you think? Do you know whether communities, organisations and countries are more or less prepared than ten years ago? How? Where do we want to be in ten years time? We would love to hear from you!