Integrating Transboundary Climate Risks into the Global Goal on Adaptation

3 Dec 2023 by The Water Diplomat

In a discussion brief produced by Adaptation Without Borders ahead of COP 28, the authors argue that transboundary climate risks need to be incorporated into the global goal on adaptation. This is important for the first ever five-yearly UNFCCC Global Stocktake, in which countries and stakeholders will make an assessment of progress towards the achievement of the Paris Agreement on climate change. According to Adaptation Without Borders, the Global Stocktake is a nationally driven process, but this does not reflect the truly global nature of the adaptation challenge, as climate change does not respect national borders. So far, the authors argue, the Global Stocktake has a significant gap, in that it has accounted for transboundary climate risks either comprehensively, across the entire risk cascade or systematically, across sectors and regions. If this tendency continues, it will lead to an incomplete and inaccurate assessment of progress towards the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The discussion brief draws strongly on a much more detailed Global Transboundary Risk Report produced by the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations and Adaptation Without Borders. This report is a study of different cases of transboundary climate risks which serve to illustrate the deep interconnectedness of the world’s economies, societies and ecosystems and the ways in which climate risks are transmitted over large areas. The report also shows that our adaptation response themselves can have consequences for others.  It identifies ten transboundary climate risks, which include risks to terrestrial shared resources such as water and other water related risks such as agricultural commodities, oceans and coastal resources, and human health.

Cascading cross border risks exist in the water sector. For example, one country’s decision to build a dam to support their energy, water and agricultural policy objectives can jeopardize water supplies for its downstream neighbours. Similarly, the melting of glaciers generates risks by accelerating the flow of meltwater, as well as growing lakes that could burst their banks and flood communities further downstream.  Also, channeling natural river courses upstream to protect or exploit water resources can increase the velocity or rivers, magnifying flood risks downstream.

It is perhaps a bit late, the discussion brief states, to fill the transboundary gap for the first Global Stocktake.  However, it is important to recognize at this stage that we are missing an understanding of the transboundary and cascading nature of climate risk and therefore, we are in danger of overestimating resilience to climate change. Also, it is necessary to recognise that there are scientific barriers, as well as political and institutional barriers, to an adequate incorporation of transboundary risks into adaptation frameworks. For the next Global Stocktake therefore, amongst others, more scientific research is required that can pinpoint and quantify transboundary risks. Also, significant diplomatic barriers need to be overcome to ensure that adaptation measures are ‘just’ and do not enhance the resilience of some at the expense of others. Third, some of the more significant transboundary risks will require higher level diplomatic action, and it may be necessary to utilize other forms of international cooperation beyond national level adaptation planning to manage transboundary climate risks and coordinate between countries on joint adaptation planning.