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Unveiling the adaptation label: insights from implementation in the North and the South

Open Panel

Abstract

Adaptation to climate change is no new subject, and theoretical research dates back to over twenty years ago. Although the practice lagged behind the conceptualisation, a decade of implementation has already moved adaptation from an innovation in development practices to a “must-do” in sustainable development initiatives. Projects in the South and the North have flourished, through a great diversity of channels, actors and modi operandi, and with little available knowledge on what to do and how to do it. We are now entering an uncertain phase where on one hand there is a need for a critical review of what has been done so far in terms of adaptation projects and programmes, and on the other hand a very strong push is being felt to rapidly scale up the current initiatives, in part in response to much more financing. It is the precise aim of this paper to contribute towards this requirement for re-evaluation. The objective of this paper is to draw a picture of what adaptation is in practice. It spurs from the observation of a gap between theoretical ‘normative’ approaches on what adaptation to climate change should be, and the practice, i.e. what projects, plans and measures labelled as adaptation are. In order to do so, we review how the scientific literature addresses the implementation of adaptation to climate change, in particular by creating typologies of potential actions. We then review adaptation practices and demonstrate that the implementation of adaptation is overwhelmingly made up of “no-regret” actions (i.e. that are beneficial even if the climate was not to change), research on potential impacts of climate change, climate services, and awareness-raising. We review adaptation practices in developed countries through national and urban adaptation plans, and developing countries through international development cooperation. We finally analyse the difference between the theory and the practice and argue that the current implementation falls short of the possible range of actions.