Perspectives from COP27 | Tracking Climate Adaptation and Resilience at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh

  • Ira Feldman Senior Fellow, IGS
    Founder & Board Chair, Adaptation Leader

Understanding the COP Experience

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convened this year’s installment of the Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Over 40,000 attended the COP27 event, a sprawling affair that (as always) encompassed three components or “rings”—the official negotiations, the official and unofficial side events, and demonstrations by activists and protesters.

The negotiations among country delegations occur in a separate limited access zone with sessions largely off the record. While some countries offer daily briefings and a few journalists are granted permission to observe working groups for anonymized reporting, this inner ring of the COP suffers from a lack of transparency. In Sharm El-Sheikh, as compared to the prior year in Glasgow, the outer ring of protests was quite muted given the secluded logistics and the sheer expense of travel to the Red Sea resort town.

The experience for most attendees, therefore, is the “middle ring”—which is akin to a major trade show at a convention center, with numerous pavilions, hubs, and booths showcasing the activities of countries, regions, cities, initiatives, NGOs, academic institutions and others. In addition to an official side event list, many of these hubs—such as the Resilience Hub and the Global Innovations Hub—offer their own panel sessions, and, at hotels and other venues off-site, other events and conferences proceed in parallel.

Distinguishing Mitigation, Adaptation, and “Loss and Damage”

There have already been numerous post-COP reports and debriefs, and I have listed some of the better ones below for those seeking details beyond the headlines. The overall consensus is that COP27 will be best remembered for the creation of a facility to address “loss and damage.” Unfortunately, the negotiations did not result in much progress on other key topics.

In brief, “loss and damage” refers to the destructive impacts of climate change that cannot be avoided either by mitigation (avoiding and reducing greenhouse gas emissions) or adaptation (adjusting to current and future climate change impacts).

I attended COP27 anticipating that climate adaptation and resilience might receive long overdue attention—some thought this might be the “Adaptation COP.”  Instead, however, while there were numerous adaptation and resilience side events (many presenting interesting cases and anecdotes) real progress in reaching consensus on metrics or best practices for adaptation was difficult to discern. And finance for adaptation still lags badly behind funding for mitigation (GHG reduction) projects.

The surprise at COP27 was the attention lavished on “loss and damage,” which had been added to the agenda but for which hopes were low. The establishment of a facility is a significant accomplishment, but enthusiasm must be tempered with the understanding that, at this point, the facility has no mechanism in place and remains unfunded. Moreover, in my opinion, the focus on “loss and damage” actually detracted from the urgency surrounding adaptation and resilience.

There is a real danger that, after lagging behind “mitigation” for years, the adaptation space might now be overlooked with the new attention to “loss and damage,” which some have now labeled the third pillar of climate action, joining mitigation and adaptation in the UNFCCC framework. At this point, it should be clear that the “loss and damage” category is a consideration distinct from and beyond adaptation and resilience, i.e., severe and catastrophic losses from climate-related damage to which we cannot adapt.

Perhaps the more important theme at COP27 was the strong possibility that the Parties might abandon the existing commitment to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In the end, there was no backsliding on that commitment, but the science is warning us to expect a less pleasant reality without expedited climate action.

The Promise of Emerging Digital Technologies for Climate Adaptation and Resilience

One area within the scope of climate action where I can express some optimism is the potential use of emerging digital technologies (such as blockchain, the internet of things (IoT), and artificial intelligence) to develop innovative solutions for adaptation and resilience. Several sessions at COP27, notably those presented by the Climate Chain Coalition (CCC), sought to advance the awareness of and the structures to facilitate the use of emerging digital technologies for adaptation and resilience.

The CCC is an open global network to join and interact with different stakeholders (digital companies, project developers, service providers, users, NGOs, academia, government, international organizations) to learn, connect, and engage with related initiatives.

The CCC has grown remarkably, from the founding 12 organizations in 2017 just after COP23 to 361 members by COP27 in 2022.

CCC members can self-organize to cooperate on shared interests (research, case studies, policy, governance, infrastructure) and develop partnerships. CCC leaders can join “Climate Chain Labs” to structure and manage joint activities in collaboration with partners to define and develop resources and innovations.

Tom Baumann, the chairman of CCC, noted that the organization’s newly-released strategy document, the Stocktake Report of the CCC, “illustrates our diverse global multi-stakeholder network and priorities. Our new strategy also describes new initiatives including the Digital Innovation Pavilion at COP27 and Labs intended to advance the state of play in certain climate domains.”

Regarding adaptation and resilience, Baumann explained, “In tandem with COP27 highlighting the rising importance of Adaptation & Resilience in response to impacts of a changing climate and in support of sustainability, our survey of CCC member priorities reports a 109% increase (COP25 to COP27) for Adaptation & Resilience as a ‘priority’ while 40% of CCC members overall report Adaptation & Resilience as a ‘top priority’.”

One of the Climate Chain Labs launched by CCC at COP27 is the Climate Chain Lab for Adaptation & Resilience (A&R). My not-for-profit, Adaptation Leader, has been tapped to help lead and coordinate the A&R Lab, which will provide a structure for the development of tools, frameworks, processes, and the like. For example, this will support the assessment, management, and coordination of projects proposed by teams of CCC members relating to the use of emerging tech to advance adaptation and resilience solutions from proposal to proof of concept and beyond. Among other tasks, the lab will seek to liaise with other adaptation and resilience organizations and initiatives, which to date have not necessarily been aware of the potential benefits of emerging technologies for innovative adaptation and resilience solutions.

At COP27, on the digital tech panel at the Global Innovation Hub, I introduced the lab for A&R: “When the CCC talks about climate action, it must include both mitigation and adaptation activities. Indeed, mitigation and adaptation are inextricably linked—the more successful we are at reducing GHGs, the more manageable will be the inevitable need to adapt to impacts of climate change.”

Because adaptation is more complex than mitigation, Adaptation Leader believes that digital solutions are essential to accelerate resources for adaptation and to deliver effective adaptation solutions. Not only will emerging tech such as blockchain and IoT be needed to manage the more complex range of factors and multiple data streams involved in adaptation, the development of innovative solutions for adaptation will also require new approaches that only digital tools and processes can facilitate.

Among the organizations partnering with the new lab for A&R is ARISE-US, which is focused on disaster risk reduction under the UNDRRR Sendai Framework.  Peter Williams, the ARISE-US chair, explained the rationale for this partnership: “Emerging technology has a huge amount to offer resilience and adaptation, from framing, monitoring, and validation of mitigation activity, through risk monitoring, warning systems, “resilience advisors” for communities, and empowering community members, to enabling emergency management, triage, and post-event recovery.”

ARISE-US is also concerned about the potential downsides of these emerging technologies, including equity of access, system fragility, privacy, cyber-security, the tendency to usurp human judgment, and the possibility of amplifying risk just by connecting devices and systems.

For additional COP27 details and outcomes, I can recommend the following post-COP summaries:

Ira Feldman, a Senior Fellow at the Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability (IGS), is a US-based sustainability leader with an interdisciplinary skill set and a global reach. He is the Founder & Board Chair of Adaptation Leader.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability.