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Interview of Stéphane Simonet by Rahel Laudien
The recently published World Bank report “Turn Down the Heat III” describes future climate change impacts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in a 4°degree warmer world with devastating consequences for development. Therefore, adaptation to climate change is urgently needed to cope with climate change impacts.
In this interview, Stéphane Simonet, consultant on climate change strategies and finance, who was formerly responsible of the UNDP-GEF portfolio of adaptation projects for the Arab States and has been working for the last 10 years on several adaptation initiatives and projects in the Mediterranean region, talks about the situation of adaptation to climate change and challenges in the region.
To what extent are adaptation efforts taking place in the Mediterranean? Are these adaptation efforts sufficient in order to protect the region from most climate change impacts?
During the 21st century, the Mediterranean Basin will be one of the regions more severely affected by climate change, making it a global climate change hotspot. This means that the magnitude, pace and intensity of changes in temperature, precipitation and extreme events are expected to be much higher than in other regions.
Given these severe expected climate change impacts, the region requires strong adaptation efforts to climate change, which will also incur significant costs. The World Bank estimates that the costs of adaptation in the MENA region will be about 4 billion a year (2010-50). We are still far away from meeting the adaptation needs of the region, as current efforts are not sufficient in order to build resilience for the society, economic sectors and natural systems.
Nevertheless, considerable adaptation effort are underway. Adaptation is not confined to environmental issues anymore, but taken on board by policies of all sectors. Countries become more and more aware of the need to accelerate adaptation actions, and adaptation is more visible in the political discourse, which can be seen in several national initiatives, frameworks or adaptation plans. The Moroccan ‘’Agence pour le Développement Agricole’’ (Agency for Agricultural Development) was accredited by the Adaptation Fund and successfully submitted through direct access a 10 million USD project, which is a good example of how Mediterranean countries take the issues of adaptation seriously and make an effort to get a bigger share from international climate finance. Several other Mashreq and Maghreb countries follow the same path for the accreditation by the Green Climate Fund or Adaptation Fund.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP22) being held in Morocco, and the commitment made by the Moroccan Minister of Environment to host the MEDCOP22 in Tangier next year also shows that climate change is put on the agenda and the shared willingness to increase climate change financial flows towards the region.
However, on the implementation and project side, progress is still slow. There is a gap between the political commitment and the actions on the ground. It seems to be difficult to translate strategic frameworks developed by the countries into concrete and transformational changes and investments on the ground, on for instance adaptation projects. It is now the time to move from political commitment to actions.
Let’s move on to challenges in terms of climate change adaptation: Drawing from your experiences in the region, what are challenges in terms of climate change adaptation that can be seen in many countries?
Climate change is becoming increasingly a national priority. Many studies have been published on climate change and we have a good picture on what is at stake. If left unaddressed, climate change will on average lead to a loss of 7% of GDP per capita for a 2.5°C temperature increase and some effect of climate change can already be experienced today. We moved away from skepticism about climate change that could be experienced a few years ago. The question is not anymore if we have to act, but how to act.
The severity and urgency to act is acknowledged by decision-makers and the governments are aware of the situation and are committed to make a difference, which is expressed in several climate change strategies, plan or national frameworks at the high level. Nevertheless, the legislation of several sensitive sectors like the water or agriculture sector is still not adapted enough and sometimes does not provide enough incentives to implement more adaptive strategies and measures on the ground. Climate change needs to be addressed as a cross-cutting developmental issue and mainstreamed in all sectors. It needs to be an intrinsic part of sectorial and local policies. This process needs to be strengthened.
In the aftermath of the Arab spring, the economic, political and security situation in some countries does not represent an enabling environment as there are more urgent and short-term issues to be addressed as compared to long-term climate change. Many countries are still in conflicts, institutional reforms or even wars, which makes a transition toward climate resilience very difficult.
Furthermore, we need to better communicate co-benefits of adaptation, which are not always clear for decision-makers and even practitioners. Sometimes adaptation is, first of all, seen as a cost and the fact that the benefits of adaptation actions and investments exceed the costs is not always understood by stakeholders.
Information and data on climate change are not easily accessible and useable by decision-makers and planners. Therefore, we need to bridge the gap between suppliers of climate change information and those who need the data in order to make policy and investment decisions.
Often decision making in the face of uncertainty of climate change impacts represents a difficulty. What do you do in the case of uncertainty? Do nothing, wait for certainty or take the best possible decision now? Oftentimes, the costs of inaction are too high and we do not know at what time, we can expect certainty – will there ever be 100% certainty? Given these difficulties, we have to take actions now, even though there is uncertainty. We have to support our decisions with risk assessments and methods and tools to identify robust, flexible or low-regret adaptation measures. These tools are increasingly available and the use of them should be strengthened in the Mediterranean.
What is lacking is a fast transition from business as usual towards more innovative and transformative climate change resilient societies. This transition is emerging, but we are still at the beginning. We struggle with the question where to start and how to finance the adaptation actions, as there are so many things that need to be tackled at the same time.
What role can cooperation play in order to strengthen efforts that have been taken on adaptation?
Especially due to the Arab spring and the public call for transparency and participation, in several countries of the Southern part of the Mediterranean, the dialogue between the civil society and the governments has improved. The role of the civil society is more and more important in the political discourse and is also reflected in adaptation to climate change, for instance in community based adaptation. NGO’s in the Mediterranean are more and more recognized and perceived as a valuable partner for the governments. Therefore, the dialogue between national and local level is improving, but again, this process still needs to be solidified and supported.
The role of climate finance will be a crucial one in the coming negotiations at the COP21 in Paris at the end of this year. What do you think is the situation of climate finance in the region? According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Heinrich Böll Foundation, only 2% of climate adaptation finance goes to the MENA region. What are the reasons for the low uptake of adaptation funds in the region?
The region is not benefitting from international climate finance at a level it should do. The reasons are complex and are mostly of institutional nature. First of all, climate change has long been perceived by MENA countries as the sole responsibility of the North, which delayed the implementation of adaptation in those countries. Recent political instability in the region is also hampering the uptake of climate finance. Furthermore, accessing the funds is a complicated process that takes much time and needs to be accompanied by capacity building from the international climate finance community. For example, the concept of additionality, where beneficiary countries have to demonstrate that their projects address the ‘’additional’’ impact of climate change, is sometimes difficult to prove and makes the whole process quite complex.
Adaptation policies and actions in the countries in the Mediterranean region were so far largely dependent upon international climate finance – meaning that most of the adaptation projects are supported by climate funds and climate finance can, therefore, be seen as the main driver of adaptation investments in the region. International finance is necessary and needs to be taken up more quickly, but it is not sufficient. Domestic finance needs to be mobilized and supported by the involvement of the private sector and private investors.
International finance should have a catalytic role in helping to initiate national adaptation mechanism that will be used with long-term strategic visions for long-terms actions and investments and operate in a country-driven approach. It means that in the long-term adaptation projects supported by international climate finance should be further developed and maintained by the countries itself – so that the benefits are sustained and are not one-shot investments.
Therefore, we have to see international funds as a catalyst that provides a strategic push in order to help the countries to build their own capacities for climate adaptation and not as an exhaustive source of funding.
Drawing on your experiences, what recommendations can you give in order to improve the situation in terms of adaptation in the Mediterranean region?
With climate change being one of the biggest challenges of our times, there are many things that need to be considered to move to a more climate-resilient development. I want to draw attention to two aspects that seem to me of particular importance. First, I already mentioned the bottlenecks that hinder an efficient uptake of climate finance and the necessity of capacity building. The region needs to be supported to overcome constraints in terms of accessing funds and to develop its own domestic financial mechanisms.
My second point is dedicated to local authorities and the private sector. Local authorities and territories are at the forefront when it comes to change. Sometimes, they can act better and quicker than national governments and play a key role in pushing towards adaptation mainstreaming. Local authorities can be seen as the engine for change and, therefore, local authorities need to be empowered and their role in policy-making should be reinforced. In recent years, many countries in the Mediterranean region have been engaged in active decentralization reforms and have given more responsibilities to the local level. This is a good step in the right direction and needs to be encouraged. Similarly, private companies and investors are also increasingly at risk from the impacts of climate change on their resource base and profitability. There is an increasing recognition amongst the business community of the need to act quickly on adaptation and to increase the resilience of their activities. Helping big and small enterprises of Mediterranean take actions to adapt to the new climate conditions will be critical in transitioning toward a more climate resilient economy and society.
 European Investment Bank 2008: http://www.eib.org/attachments/country/climate_change_energy_mediterranean_en.pdf