The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is a critical institution in the climate policy landscape. This is partly due to its size: the fund approved 23 projects at its most recent board meeting that are collectively valued at over USD 1 billion. At the same time, the GCF is also important because of its unique mandate, which is to “promote a paradigm shift towards low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways.” So, not only is the GCF is an important player in mobilising climate finance, but also in guiding the international policy discourse around climate action and envisioning the future of low-carbon, climate-resilient societies.

Unsurprisingly, this lofty aim is easier written than realised. In the pursuit of a paradigm shift, two important questions are raised about the differences between development-as-usual and climate adaptation, as well as how one should conceptualise and encourage transformational change.

Question 1: Lines in the sand – adaptation versus development?

Woman hands connecting two jigsaw puzzle pieces against sunset sky.
What’s the difference between development efforts and climate adaptation? Funders puzzle over how to separate the two. Photo: baona / Getty Images.

For a long time, one of the central issues in the climate adaptation debate has been the relationship between adaptation efforts and traditional human development activities. In the context of the GCF, this conversation becomes particularly salient because the fund finances the climate adaptation components of projects, though not development works. How, then, can these efforts be reliably separated in order for funding decisions to be made?

Somewhat counterintuitively, experts at the workshop suggested that perhaps they cannot be, or at least they should not be. Instead, it was broadly agreed that adaptation and development exist along a continuum: while there are undoubtedly cases that are purely adaptation or development, a great many interventions exist somewhere in between, making it counterproductive to draw thick lines of difference between the two.

With the understanding that for decision-making purposes some differentiation is necessary, many argued that the devil is in the detail, and each project should be considered on an individual basis and in light of particular contextual factors in the applicant country. Such an approach means that guidance for project preparation becomes critical, ideally based on an inclusive set of guiding principles. In practical terms, applicants would be required to demonstrate the adaptation rationale for their planned project, which would then be evaluated by the GCF to determine funding eligibility.

Finally, it was also suggested that there is a need to take a systematic perspective on climate adaptation, moving beyond the project-based approach that currently dominates the GCF and other similar institutions. Instead, proposals should be encouraged that approach adaptation from a cross-sectoral, multi-scalar, and transnational perspective, as well as that highlight synergies with broader efforts to support human development.

Question 2: The way forward – towards transformation?

In parallel to conversations about the delineation between adaptation and development, the GCF is interested in understanding how it can encourage adaptation that fosters paradigm shifts in society.

One obvious answer, particularly from a financing perspective, is to increase the role of the private sector in funding adaptation. While this is attractive from the point of view of resource mobilisation, several experts expressed scepticism that the private sector can be a panacea for all adaptation needs, especially when it comes to reaching the most vulnerable and marginalised communities. While the private sector undoubtedly has a role to play, it must work alongside well-designed and targeted public interventions to be truly transformational.

A strong case was made for implementing a broad evidence-based approach at the GCF. In line with a narrower take on evidence-based policy-making, this view contends that the GCF should avoid funding projects that experience suggests would be ineffective, but should also leave room for new and innovative ideas that are not yet tested and proven. A true pursuit of transformational change requires willingness to take risks, to support the development of new ideas, and to invest in communities and their capacity to make change. The GCF is capable of fostering a paradigm shift by supporting novelty and innovation and helping actors test their ideas and bring them to scale. Participatory monitoring may play a key role here, as it can help to closely involve impacted communities in adaptation efforts and begin to answer difficult questions about what effective adaptation means in practice.

Overall, the GCF has an opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants – building on insights from what’s come before – while helping the adaptation community to push further and support a global paradigm shift toward low-carbon, climate-resilient futures.