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Tackling cascading climate risk to meet global adaptation challenge: which countries have the interest, capacity and responsibility to act?

In order to achieve the Global Goal on Adaptation, we need urgent leadership and action to address transboundary and cascading climate risks. Our latest analysis suggests potential coalitions of countries that might ignite a new era of global climate diplomacy on adaptation.

Magnus Benzie, Frida Lager / Published on 2 March 2022
Scenic view of palm trees by lake against sky, Georgetown, Guyana

Small Island Developing States like Guyana are facing greater climate risks and vulnerability, and in urgent need of practical action on global adaptation. Photo: Tem Kuda / EyeEm / Getty Images.

COP26 was the first event of its kind since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Covid dominated most delegates’ experiences: from overcoming barriers to international travel to daily testing, mask requirements and other restrictions, but also the joy of reconnecting in person after so long.

Covid also shaped our mindsets at COP. Wherever we live, it has forcibly reminded us that our fates are intertwined in very practical and direct ways. Risks that originate in one part of the world cascade rapidly and indiscriminately across sectors and borders. That is now our lived experience.

As a result, the implications of climate change in a deeply interconnected world were much more prominent in discussions in Glasgow than ever before. They arose in the context of discussions on how – and also why – to operationalize the Global Goal on Adaptation. How are cross-border and cascading climate risks relevant to the achievement of the goal and how do we measure progress towards it? The challenge is now to leverage this growing awareness into practical action on global adaptation.

Who will be the frontrunners?

Looking at climate risk through a cross-border lens can fundamentally change adaptation planning and politics. Even though climate change impacts are location-specific, a far broader range of actors may have a stake in adaptation than was previously understood. This means adaptation is not always just a local or even national matter as is typically assumed. When climate risks transcend borders, it can be complex to determine who should pay, who stands to benefit, where those beneficiaries are located and whose needs should be taken into account.

Adaptation Without Borders, co-led by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Overseas Development Institute and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, with partners around the world, has been building the evidence base on transboundary climate risks through research, data analysis and policy engagement.

At COP26, we launched a new partnership with the EU to promote international cooperation on cross-border climate risks by engaging with EU partners, international actors and multilateral processes such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) while going deeper in our research and building capacity among national and regional adaptation planners to start managing these risks.

We are excited that the EU has chosen to be a frontrunner in tackling this urgent issue. Many actors around the world have at least equally strong reasons to step up and foster bilateral and multilateral action on shared climate risks. Looking at the data, we have identified several countries that may – or should – lead such efforts based on three key rationales:

  • Self-interest. Countries that are highly exposed to climate risk, particularly cross-border and cascading risk, will benefit from the implementation of internationally coordinated adaptation.
  • Capacity. Countries that have the political and financial capital to invest in adaptation to cascading risk are best placed to initiate, support and co-lead international efforts.
  • Responsibility. Countries that have contributed historically to climate change and benefit most from their deep entanglement in global networks have a greater duty to act.

Our analysis indicates potential new coalitions of countries that could lead global climate diplomacy on transboundary and cascading climate risks and by doing so, fill an important gap in efforts to achieve the Global Goal on Adaptation.

Looking at the numbers

We looked at four metrics to gauge countries’ relative exposure to climate risks as well as their relative responsibility for climate change and capacity to finance adaptation:

  • Exposure to cross-border and cascading climate risks. Countries are more or less exposed to transboundary risks depending on the nature and extent of their connections to other countries facing serious direct climate change impacts. The Transnational Climate Impacts (TCI) Index examines nine indicators of exposure across four “climate risk pathways”: trade, biophysical (such as through shared river basins), finance (from international investments to remittances) and people (travel and migration). We have applied the TCI Index, which combines the nine indicators, to 152 countries, ranking them on the basis of their overall exposure to cascading climate risks. Countries with high TCI scores will have a high interest in leading international action on adaptation to cascading risk.
  • Vulnerability to domestic climate risks. Most discussions of adaptation to date – including in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement and in National Adaptation Plans – have focused on reducing vulnerability to climate risks occurring within countries’ own borders. Several indicators and indices have been developed to measure this and to compare countries; we use the ND-GAIN Country Index, which uses 45 indicators to rank 181 countries annually. Countries with high vulnerability to domestic climate risks will have a high interest in leading or participating in international action on adaptation in general.
  • Consumption-based CO2 emissions. Under the UNFCCC, countries report their territorial emissions or the emissions that occur within their borders. However, a better measure of countries’ real contribution to climate change, accounting for the role of trade, is the total emissions associated with their consumption. It is also important to measure not just current emissions, but countries’ historical contribution to the current stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We therefore use cumulative consumption-based CO2 emissions since 1750. Countries with high cumulative emissions have a high responsibility for leading international action on adaptation.
  • GDP per capita. Countries have startlingly different capacities for climate action – both mitigation and adaptation – reflecting large differences in wealth. This is why the UNFCCC not only recognizes countries’ “common but differentiated responsibilities”, but also their varying capacities and why developed countries are expected to provide climate finance to developing countries. These differences may also affect countries’ ability to lead in global climate governance. We use GDP per capita as a simplified measure of a country’s capacity to act. Countries with high GDP per capita will have a higher capacity to lead international efforts to adapt to transboundary climate risks.

Clusters of countries that could lead on transboundary adaptation

Based on these metrics, we have identified four distinct clusters of countries that have a particular interest in and/or capacity to lead international cooperation to tackle cross-border and cascading climate risks:

  • Self-interested adaptation financiers. These countries have high exposure to transboundary climate risks, low vulnerability to domestic climate risks (due to low exposure and/or high adaptive capacity) and high GDP per capita. Based on their domestic risk profiles, they might not see themselves as vulnerable, but they might want to invest political and financial capital in adaptation upon learning about their high exposure to climate risks in other, lower-income countries.
    This group includes small, but wealthy and globally integrated European countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, as well as wealthy globalized Middle Eastern states, such as Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Supporting adaptation in developing countries will have positive outcomes for these countries. We may therefore expect them to play a much more proactive role as initiators and convenors of global adaptation governance. This group may be motivated not only to raise and invest additional international finance for adaptation, but also to ensure that it is spent wisely and effectively and that global governance is oriented towards reducing systemic risk globally.
  • The compensators. These countries have relatively low vulnerability to climate risks at home or abroad, but they have high historical responsibility and GDP per capita. It includes a number of moderately wealthy European countries and the US, as well as some Latin American countries like Brazil. For them, financing adaptation in developing countries is less a matter of self-interest and more a matter of global solidarity and taking responsibility for their high cumulative emissions. Most are already expected to make significant contributions to global adaptation finance under the UNFCCC and could play an important role in financing action to address cross-border and cascading climate risks as well.
  • The highly vulnerable. These countries are highly vulnerable to climate risks within their own borders despite having low responsibility for climate change. They are also relatively poor and have low capacity to adapt. This group includes a range of countries facing significant direct impacts of climate change, such as many Latin American countries1, Ethiopia, Laos and Madagascar and many SIDS. They urgently need stronger support from the international community and can be expected to be actively engaged in ongoing efforts to scale up adaptation finance.
  • The triple-worthy recipients. These countries are highly vulnerable not only to climate risks at home, but also transboundary climate risks. They also have low historical responsibility for climate change and adaptive capacity. This group includes many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania, Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Togo, as well as some SIDS like Fiji, Bahamas and Guyana. Not only do these countries face a mammoth challenge to adapt to direct climate change impacts, but their dependence on other high-risk countries and on global systems means that they will need new and additional support to adapt to transboundary risks as well. Indeed, they have very high stakes in the success of international resilience-building efforts. For these countries, the adaptation challenge is even bigger than previously recognized and they may be willing to co-lead new coalitions to advance international cooperation to address cross-border and cascading risks.

What these four clusters demonstrate is that a large number of very different countries have novel, additional and compelling reasons to engage urgently, meaningfully and in good faith to cooperate and invest as necessary according to their capacities and responsibilities in an entirely new era of global cooperation on adaptation.

Climate risks across countries

Countries with different interests, capacities and responsibilities to act, based on exposure to cross-border and cascading climate risks (y-axis), vulnerability to domestic climate risks (x-axis), consumption-based CO2 emissions (size of bubble) and GDP per capita (not shown). Countries positioned near the midline margins (dotted lines) have been hidden from the visualization (shaded in gray) for clarity. Click here for full-size image.

The old “us vs them” dynamics need to be overcome and replaced with an altogether more realistic approach that reflects the true nature of interdependence in a globalized world.

What does this mean for climate diplomacy?

If climate negotiations and international efforts to manage cascading risk are going to advance in the next two or three years, the old “us vs them” dynamics, which have until now pitted developed countries that see adaptation as a marginal concern “against” developing countries that see adaptation as a domestic and localized challenge, need to be overcome and replaced with an altogether more realistic approach that reflects the true nature of interdependence in a globalized world. Among other things, this will require political leadership from a number of individual countries. But which ones?

Our analysis suggests that countries with a combination of self-interest, high capacity and high responsibility should lead the way and that others will join. This invites wealthy, globalized, influential and high consumption-based emitters to step up, particularly those with the requisite levels of trust and influence on the global stage.

However, it is unlikely that a movement led by self-interested rich countries alone can generate the level of political momentum needed to transform global adaptation governance within the timescales and extent that the looming threat of cascading climate risk requires. It is also unlikely that a one-sided drive to shape a new global approach to adaptation would be received with trust and enthusiasm by vulnerable countries who already struggle to make their voices heard within existing global governance institutions.

New coalitions of countries that bridge the “developed-developing” divide can emerge from this web of interdependence to ignite and sustain a new era of global adaptation.

The “good news” is that a plethora of countries face cascading climate challenges and the interests of very different types of countries overlap to such a significant degree that enhanced cooperation is foreseeable. While their capacities and responsibilities vary, many emerging and developing countries share the self-interest of many much-richer countries in building systemic resilience to climate change. New coalitions of countries that bridge the “developed-developing” divide can emerge from this web of interdependence to ignite and sustain a new era of global adaptation, one that addresses cross-border and cascading climate risk and in so doing delivers shared benefits by achieving the vision for adaptation articulated in the Paris Agreement.

At COP26, the Parties launched the two-year Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh Work Programme on the Global Goal on Adaptation (GSESWP), “with a view to enhancing adaptation action and support” and “enhancing understanding” of the goal in preparation for the first global stocktake in 2023. The GSESWP calls on Parties to invest significant political resources, but no specific guidance on how to move forward. Leadership and action are needed right away: the results of our analysis can provide important new perspective and motivation.

The memory of the “Covid-COP” will remain with all of us – whether we attended or followed it from afar. Let that reminder of our interdependence add momentum to international efforts on adaptation in the coming years. Time is short to transform the way we approach adaptation in order to ensure the resilience of global systems for the benefit of all.

Governments and others interested in creating, initiating, joining and supporting these new coalitions are invited to contact Adaptation Without Borders to find out more about a series of global dialogues on global adaptation cooperation that will take place in 2022 and beyond. Please email Katy Harris, Director of Adaptation Without Borders, at [email protected].

Written by

Profile picture of Magnus Benzie
Magnus Benzie

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Oxford

Frida Lager
Frida Lager

Research Associate

SEI Headquarters


Katy Harris
Katy Harris

Senior Policy Fellow

SEI Headquarters


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