Climate Exchange

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Using Official Development Assistance to Complement Adaptation Funding

by Sirca S. Gogus

This article aims to analyse why and how the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process impedes the holistic adaptation policy and practice, and how integrating Official Development Assistance (ODA) financing to address non-climatic vulnerability is crucial to realising successful adaptation strategies.

Adaptation and funding within the UNFCCC

It is only recently that adaptation achieved prominence as a policy response in international negotiations. Its formal adoption as one of the “building blocks” as part of a comprehensive climate change response under the UNFCCC has also been echoed in the geared up efforts of the international development community to address adaptation needs of the most vulnerable developing nations (Ayers & Abeysinghe, 2013: 486). Prior to this refreshed approach, however, it was noted that in the early 1990s “the first obstacle to adaptation is reluctance to contemplate it” (Schipper, 2009: 364). Even though both mitigation and adaptation strategies were embraced by the UNFCCC, the former seemed to be the main and omnipresent focus around the negotiation table.

The lack of emphasis given to adaptation policies is both reflected in and further triggered by the political perceptions that culminated in the institutional-legal framework of the UNFCCC. Indeed, Article Two of the Convention (1992) states its “ultimate objective” as achieving “the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. As a result, from a legal perspective, the objective of the abatement of greenhouse gas emissions has bolstered mitigation as the primary action to be undertaken. A broader interpretation of the text also yields that the institutional scope of the UNFCCC is limited to addressing the causes of anthropogenic climate change and does not extend to climate variability or non-climatic elements that underlie the vulnerability of developing countries to cope with climate change impacts (Schipper, 2009; Verheyen, 2003).

These elements surrounding the adaptation policy debate both under the UNFCCC, as well as beyond it among the international development community, are relevant because they represent the bottleneck of adaptation funding. Despite being rendered a hitherto marginal policy option, or the “poor cousin” of mitigation, adaptation has indeed come to the forefront of the policy-making agenda (Pielke et al., 2007: 598). Although it was mainly considered as a series of inexpensive, short-term strategies at the local level to assist the high-cost and stakes of scientifically quantified mitigation efforts, adaptation has proved to be neither short-term nor nowhere nearly as inexpensive as was previously thought, since effective application proved inherently costly. (Ayers and Forsyth, 2009). Hence, it would be accurate to state that while the first obstacle to adaptation has been overcome, a new and ever-pressing one has emerged: funding it.

The main premise of this article, then, lies in the argument that the way adaptation has been conceptualised under the UNFCCC has had practical implications on the funding mechanisms available therein. That is why it is argued that a holistic understanding of adaptation, which is attuned with development goals in terms of addressing vulnerability (Schipper, 2007), necessitates the contribution of ODA to complement the UNFCCC framework not just financially but also conceptually. This will be achieved in the following way. First, the question of why ODA should be used will be explored in more detail vis-à-vis the inadequacy of the UNFCCC funding structure. Second, the dynamics between development, adaptation and vulnerability will be discussed in order to draw attention to the ODA’s complementarities to adaptation funding and specific ways in which it can be utilised. Last, the article will be concluded with a synthesis of the arguments made.

Inadequacies of the UNFCCC funding

The IPCC (2007)defines adaptation as the adjustment in ecological, social or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects in a way to offset or moderate potential damages, or to take advantage of opportunities associated with changes in climate. While adaptation can entail any process, action or outcome in a system that makes it better prepared to cope with the changing conditions or risks attributed to climate change (Smit & Wandel, 2006), it also quintessentially encompasses an element of continuity. Adger et al. (2005: 78) posit that adaptation is “a continuous stream of activities, actions, decisions and attitudes that informs decisions about all aspects of life”, thus cannot be isolated to climate change responses alone. Consequently, a holistic approach to adaptation underlines not just the systems’ ability to cope with the impacts of climate change, but also, and more importantly, the factors that cause vulnerability to them which also often include non-climatic aspects (Schipper, 2007).

The UNFCCC context, on the other hand, distinguishes the adaptation mechanisms developed under its umbrella as distinct from adaptation to climatic variability. This is attributed to the political dynamics of historical costs and burden sharing between the high-income, high-emitting developed countries and the low- and middle-income, historically low-emitting developing countries which are the most vulnerable to the impacts of emissions (Ayers, 2009: 231). According to the “additionality” principle that governs adaptation finance in the climate regime, for those most vulnerable, funding “should be over and above what has already been promised . . . in terms of aid that is not related to climate” (Ross, 2009), because climate change causes “additional” burdens to existing development needs (Ayers & Abeysinghe, 2013: 487).

There are three main reasons that render this funding structure under UNFCCC inadequate. Firstly, despite the increased attention given to adaptation policies under the Global Environment Facility (GEF) with the Marrakech Accords in 2001 and the creation of Adaptation Fund (AF) in 2007, estimates of the costs of adaptation stand well in excess of the available mechanisms under the Convention. According to an analysis by Narain et al. (2011) it will cost developed countries between US$70 billion and US$100 billion per year to cover the additional costs of adaptation for the 2010-2050 period to adapt to an approximately 2°C warming. But even with much more conservative estimates, the voluntary pledges for GEF financing or the levies from Clean Development Mechanism that contribute towards AF will simply not suffice. Secondly, the GEF-managed funds are criticized for their unfair and undemocratic decision-making procedures skewed in favour of the already powerful donor countries. This results in a “democratic deficit” in the architecture of adaptation funding and raises questions about equity. Thirdly, the vulnerable low- and middle-income countries have concerns about the bureaucracy involved in the whole process. They are not only subject to high transaction costs before being able to utilise the funds, but are also burdened by unclear guidance as to how to receive them. The lack of expertise and a lack of a functioning relationship with the implementing agencies inhibit the vulnerable countries from accessing funds. It has to be noted that whilst the latter two reasons are less of a concern for AF, this does not change the fact that the UNFCCC funds as a whole are not adequate either fiscally or in terms of accessibility for the developing countries (Ayers & Huq, 2009; Ayers, 2009).

Bringing in the ODA

When the inadequacies of the structure under UNFCCC are taken into account, it becomes apparent that adaptation funding needs to be complemented with more effective sources for the successful realisation of the anticipated adaptation benefits. To this end, using ODA can be highly effective to bridge the adaptation gap not just financially, but also conceptually by applying a more holistic understanding of the concept. In this regard, linking adaptation to development is, in fact, a necessary step that involves two mutually inclusive considerations (Agrawala, 2005). On the one hand, the looming impacts of climate change will be most felt by the poorest people among the most vulnerable developing countries who have the least capacity to cope with them (Ayers & Abeysinghe, 2013; Tanner & Mitchell, 2008). So, ODA becomes relevant to building adaptive capacity especially for those most vulnerable, because the adverse impacts of climate change risk impede development efforts (Klein et al, 2007; Adger et al., 2003).In order to ensure that development efforts are not undone, ODA should be made climate resilient in itself. On the other hand, from a similar indicative standpoint, since “vulnerability depends on factors linked to development”, it makes sense to utilise sustainable development strategies in an effort to reduce vulnerability to climate change (Ayers & Huq, 2009: 676) Whereas the aspects addressed by ODA will be related to mostly non-climatic factors (e.g. lack of resources, poor institutions and governance, inadequate infrastructure, etc.), and therefore outside the scope of the UNFCCC, they nonetheless represent the root causes of vulnerability to climate change.

One of the noteworthy approaches adopted to deliver joint benefits by financing adaptation and development together is “mainstreaming”. Klein et al. (2010: 11) use the term to describe “the integration of policies and measures to address climate change into ongoing development activities”. It is expected that mainstreaming would make more sustainable, efficient and effective use of financial and human resources than by designing climate policy separately. The systematic screening, or “climate proofing” of development portfolios, can help both in detecting the existing threats due to climate change and incorporating it more explicitly into future projects (Ayers & Huq, 2009).

Even though in theory mainstreaming will offer synergies between adaptation and development, linking the two can also exhibit trade-offs between them (Ayers, 2009: 233). This is especially the case when poverty alleviation is concerned. It is important to note that not every ODA funded poverty reduction project will automatically culminate in decreased vulnerability (Adger et al., 2003). An oft-cited case that exemplifies such trade-offs is the clearing of mangroves in fishing villages so as to expand shrimp farming that can provide a major source of income to communities. While these communities are better off economically, they become more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change such as coastal hazards or floods due to the loss of the mangrove ecosystems. In such a case by designing and implementing development agendas that are more attuned with climate-related threats or risks, what mainstreaming can offer is at least ensuring that development activities themselves are not maladapted by enhancing rather than reducing vulnerability (Klein, 2010).


Adaptation as a policy option to tackling climate change has evolved from being a negligible concept to one of the most important on the international climate regime agenda. As the obstacle of contemplating adaptation was overcome and the concept was carried to the forefront of the policy-making agenda, adequately funding it emerged as a new and more pressing concern. A factor that exacerbates this aspect is how adaptation in the context of UNFCCC only addresses anthropogenic climate change and does not extend to climate variability or non-climatic elements that underlie the vulnerability of developing countries to cope with climate change impacts. Accordingly, it has been argued that the institutional precedence of UNFCCC in facilitating adaptation strategies in line with its limited interpretation of what it should constitute is highly relevant to pinpointing its limits. In this instance, the conceptual limitations around adaptation in general, under UNFCCC, pave the way to practical limitations in pooling adequate adaptation funding in particular.

All in all, this article has argued that insofar as the UNFCCC context defines adaptation through the lens of the “additionality” principle, ODA should be utilised to complement the former’s efforts in providing adequate funding. Since under the current climate regime such an approach is necessary to ensure that developed countries fulfil their historical obligations in meeting the costs of additional stresses caused by climate change, ODA indeed has a considerable role to play in sourcing and managing funding. That is why, until the UNFCCC can redefine what adaptation should entail in a more holistic manner, ODA is crucial to realising adaptation in a way to complement the UNFCCC structure, but not replace it.

© Sirca S. Gogus

Suggested citing:

Gogus, S. S., 2014. Using Official Development Assistance to Complement Adaptation Funding [Online]. Available at:  [accessed + date when the website was accessed].


About Sirca S. Gogus

Sırça believes that living in an ever-connected globe, at the age of Anthropocene, not only yields opportunities in front of individuals, but also bestows certain responsibilities on them. That is why she has made the very conscious decision to devote her academic and professional career to the climate-development-energy nexus. With a background in social and political sciences, which she complemented with European governance and public affairs, she's been trotting the globe for the past six years. Sirca’s greatest ambition is to be a life-long learner. Her favourite pastime is being on the beach. She might or might not be daydreaming frequently the day she can engage in both simultaneously. In the spirit of fairplay, she thinks all fields of sport are equal as football being the most equal one.

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