The numbers are staggering: Carbon dioxide concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere were higher in 2019 than at any time in at least 2 million years, and those of methane and nitrous oxide higher than at any time in at least the past 800,000 years. As a result, weather and climate extremes are affecting every region of the world—witness the seemingly endless onslaught of heat waves, heavy rainfall, droughts and tropical cyclones—and exposing millions of people to food and water insecurity.
So it was hardly surprising when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its 2023 synthesis report, reiterated that Earth’s climate is changing because of human activity and that rapid, economy-wide reductions in emissions are necessary to avert the worst impacts. The IPCC reported that 3.3 billion to 3.6 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate change.
Although governments have taken some needed steps to address this monumental challenge, much more work is needed, and it should start at the 30 November-12 December U.N. climate negotiations in Dubai (COP28). The meeting provides a key opportunity to evaluate progress on commitments by Parties to the Paris Agreement, including on adaptation and resilience.
As scientists have said for years, the most important thing governments, industries and all other stakeholders can do to counter climate change is reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Concurrently, the global community must also take steps to adapt and build resilience to climate change—that is, prepare for climate impacts and improve the ability to recover from climate hazards today and into the future.
Governments at COP28 will negotiate a response to several items, including the outcomes of the first global stocktake (GST), which evaluates collective progress towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. The GST, which was conducted over the past two years, considered adaptation and resilience among other elements.
In addition to their discussion of the GST, negotiators at COP28 are expected to focus on the global goal on adaptation, which commits Paris Agreement Parties to enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change worldwide. Over the past two years, Parties have been discussing what this goal should look like in practice, with participants in dedicated workshops calling for it to measure progress across a broad range of themes, including: food and agriculture; cities, settlements and key infrastructure; and health. The goal could establish a set of quantitative and qualitative global targets for adaptation and resilience across those themes, akin to the Paris Agreement’s mitigation goal, which states that global temperature increase should be kept below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and ideally not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels. COP28 provides an opportunity for parties to make further progress on developing the adaptation goal in light of the outcomes of the GST. At the heart of the negotiations should be the means of measuring progress on adaptation and the ultimate goals of that work.
There is also the question of how to effectively finance adaptation efforts at the enormous scale required, including through new and existing sources of financing for developing countries: the new collective quantified goal on climate finance, the Green Climate Fund, the Global Environment Facility and a dedicated Adaptation Fund. And because mitigation and adaptation will help only so much—that is, they won’t prevent all costs to people, economies and nature associated with climate change—COP28 parties will consider the adoption of a loss and damage fund for particularly vulnerable developing countries, based on recommendations from a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Abu Dhabi on 4 November 2023.
COP28 negotiators must seize this opportunity to confront the urgent climate adaptation and resilience needs the world is facing. Failure to do so would be a stark abdication of responsibility to the people, communities and ecosystems worldwide that are suffering as climate change worsens.
Ellen Ward is an officer and Courtney Durham Shane is a senior officer with Pew’s conservation support team.