The UNFCCC National Adaptation Planning Model: A Foundation for Fulfilling Post-2015 Commitments?

by Virginia Wiseman, Thematic Expert for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy, IISD Reporting Services

This article originally appeared as a two-part policy update from IISD Reporting Services (Part I and Part II), providing a technical analysis of the role of the National Adaptation Plan process. 

Part I: Supporting Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 13.1 on Climate Change Adaptation.

One of the oft-cited successes of the UNFCCC is the climate change reporting and data collection it has spurred. However, despite robust national mitigation reporting, other processes, decisions, institutions and legal instruments established under the Convention have not yet been sufficient to stabilize “GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system,” as stated in the Convention’s objective (Article 2). Adaptation, accordingly, has become more prominent on Parties’ agendas as the effects of climate change are increasingly observed.

With temperatures heating to all-time highs in 2015, negotiators hashing out the post-2015 development agenda last year also placed adaptation prominently in the agreed 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN General Assembly (UNGA), 2015). The first target under the climate change Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) (target 13.1) aims to “strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries.”

While under the Convention, all Parties shall “formulate, implement, publish and regularly update national and, where appropriate, regional programmes containing… measures to facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change” and “cooperate in preparing for adaptation to the impacts of climate change,” it is largely developing countries that have been submitting national plans on adaptation. The advances they have made, especially with regard to national adaptation programmes of action (NAPAs) and national adaptation plans (NAPs), will be an important input to measuring progress under target 13.1, as well as a valuable model for developed countries to follow as they begin to integrate strategic adaptation planning into policymaking at the national level.


The Adaptation Architecture Developed under the UNFCCC: NAPAs and NAPs

National adaptation planning under the auspices of the UNFCCC dates back to 2000, when the Conference of the Parties (COP) requested experts to start drafting guidelines for the preparation of NAPAs (UNFCCC, 2000). Recognizing the special circumstances of developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts, the institutional framework has focused on assisting least developed countries (LDCs) in particular.

In 2001, the COP adopted the NAPA guidelines and the LDC (Least Developed Countries) Work Programme, including establishing the LDC Expert Group (LEG), whose original objective was “to advise on the preparation and implementation strategy” for NAPAs (UNFCCC, 2001). Through the NAPA process, LDCs have identified urgent needs and prioritized projects, using existing information and consultations at the grassroots level. The projects defined under NAPAs are eligible for assistance from the LDC Fund (LDCF), which was established specifically to support LDCs in carrying out, inter alia, the preparation and implementation of NAPAs. In 2002 and 2003, the COP requested the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which manages the LDCF, to fund the preparation and implementation of NAPAs with expediency. In 2004, the first NAPA was submitted. Six years later, the LEG’s mandate was renewed and extended, with a request that it update the guidance for NAPAs to help integrate adaptation into LDC development planning.

The year 2010 also saw an evolution in the institutional architecture for adaptation, with the adoption of the Cancun Adaptation Framework and establishment of the Adaptation Committee. The new Framework gave birth to NAPs, inviting LDCs to formulate and implement them, based on their experience with NAPAs. The COP also invited other developing countries to employ the NAP support modalities.

In 2011, the COP adopted initial guidelines for the NAP process, deciding that the following modalities would be employed to assist LDCs: technical NAP guidelines; workshops and expert meetings; training activities; regional exchanges; syntheses of experiences, best practices and lessons learned; technical papers; and technical advice (UNFCCC, 2011). The LEG has led a number of regional training workshops and, since 2013, has been organizing annual NAP Expos. It has also guided the development of NAP Central, a portal where countries developing NAPs can access data, information and knowledge to support their efforts.

While the LEG continues to be the main supporting body, the Adaptation Committee also contributes and provides assistance to non-LDC developing countries. The COP has also invited UN organizations, specialized agencies and other relevant organizations, as well as bilateral and multilateral agencies, to support the NAP process in LDCs and consider establishing or enhancing support programmes (UNFCCC, 2012).

Many organizations have answered this call. Most notably the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) house the NAP-Global Support Programme (NAP-GSP), which offers one-on-one technical advice and promotes North-South and South-South knowledge sharing. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) acts as the Secretariat for the NAP Global Network, which coordinates bilateral support and in-country actors, while also facilitating peer learning and exchange. Other organizations support the NAP process through their own adaptation programmes, such as FAO-Adapt at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the Health National Adaptation Process (HNAP) at the World Health Organization (WHO).

On financial support, outside of the LDCF, funds for adaptation planning have been channeled through the GEF-managed Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF), which is available to all developing countries, funding permitting. In addition, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) has said it may support a voluntary country-driven national adaptation planning process through its readiness and preparatory support programme, and developed countries have also been urged to mobilize funding through other multilateral and bilateral channels for non-LDC developing countries. More recently, under the Paris Agreement, other countries have also been “encouraged to provide or continue to provide” voluntary financial support for adaptation (Article 9.2).

In 2015, the COP once again renewed and extended the LEG’s mandate, adding that it should provide technical guidance on adaptation-related needs that may arise from the Paris Agreement and other decisions adopted at COP 21 (UNFCCC, 2015). The LEG will be up for review in 2020.

A Foundation to Build on

As policymakers turn toward implementation of the 2030 Agenda, two important overarching observations can be drawn from one and a half decades of institutional development to support national adaptation planning in developing countries under the UNFCCC. First, there is no need to start from scratch on target 13.1. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his recent report on follow-up and review, emphasizes the importance of building on existing intergovernmental forums and mechanisms, including UN treaty bodies (UN, 2016). For target 13.1, that means building on the current national adaptation planning architecture, expanding its resources to more countries, considering ways to further bolster it, and ensuring adequate funds are delivered to its financing channels.

The second observation is that developing countries’ experiences with adaptation planning might hold valuable inspiration and examples for developed countries. Since 1997, developed country Parties have been submitting national GHG inventories, as well as National Communications (NCs) that could include information on vulnerability assessment and any other activities undertaken to implement the Convention (For a full description of all Parties’ reporting obligations under the Convention, as well as how Parties’ obligations will change under the Paris Agreement, see Kosolapova, 2016). While the Convention’s references to adaptation and the flexibility built into the reporting guidelines leave ample room for developed countries to report on their adaptation measures, they have been slow to incorporate adaptation into their NCs, with some studies demonstrating initial progress from NC3 (2002) to NC4 (2006) as an increased number of developed countries reported establishing adaptation frameworks (Gagnon-Lebrun & Agrawala, 2007) and more recently, a significant 87% uptick in reported adaptation policies and measures of 41 high-income countries from NC5 (2010) to NC6 (2014) (Lesnikowski et al, 2015). Even with the recent increase in reporting on adaptation, when Parties decided to put forward intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) in conjunction with the process to negotiate the Paris Agreement, very few developed country Parties chose to include adaptation. This perhaps stems from an outdated view that adaptation is primarily of concern to developing countries. Or it may arise from the local nature of adaptation and a relative lack of pressure to report on how obligations in this area are being fulfilled (more on this below).

Whatever the reason, and considering the universal nature of the 2030 Agenda, SDG target 13.1 cannot be seen as applicable to developing countries only. There are vulnerable populations in every country, and no country will escape the impacts of climate change. Developed countries have begun to recognize this, and some have begun adopting national adaptation initiatives (and at least one, Japan, has started a NAP process) (UNFCCC Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI), 2015). However, large-scale, integrated adaptation planning is still largely uncharted territory. As many developing countries (at least 39 LDCs and 25 other developing countries (UNFCCC SBI, 2015)) have taken up the task well ahead of developed countries, the latter might benefit from looking to the resources and best practices garnered during that head start.

Part II: Supporting Implementation of the Paris Agreement

When considering some of the key features of the Paris Agreement that was adopted by the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the UNFCCC, in December 2015, it is striking how well-suited the UNFCCC’s existing national adaptation framework, described in Part I of this Policy Update, is to serving the Paris Agreement. Among these features are a global adaptation goal and the bottom-up, country-driven and forward-looking nature of contributions.

The existing institutional framework, built around supporting national adaptation programmes of action (NAPAs) and plans (NAPs), can serve as: 1) a resource for all countries, including developed countries, to fulfill their obligations under the Agreement in pursuit of the global adaptation goal, and 2) a model for the support system required to assist developing countries in formulating nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

Developed Countries to Embark on the NAP Process?

The new global goal on adaptation is defined in Article 7 of the Paris Agreement as “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the temperature goal referred to in Article 2.” The goal aligns with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 13.1 (Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries). Part I of this Policy Update suggested that the adaptation institutions developed and refined under the UNFCCC since 2000 can serve as a starting point for implementing SDG target 13.1.

Besides the clear links between the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda, the two documents also take very similar approaches to distinguishing between that which is global and that which should be national. For instance, under the 2030 Agenda, the SDG “targets are defined as aspirational and global, with each government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances. Each government will also decide how these aspirational and global targets should be incorporated in national planning processes, policies and strategies.”

This relationship between the global and national is very similar to that expressed in the Paris Agreement, which in many areas, including adaptation, takes a “country-driven” or “bottom-up” approach. For example, while the Paris Agreement establishes a global goal, it also recognizes the “local, subnational, national, regional and international dimensions” of adaptation, and, provides that “each Party shall, as appropriate, engage in adaptation planning processes and the implementation of actions, including the development or enhancement of relevant plans, policies and/or contributions…” This obligation could be read such that, in essence, all countries, including developed, that become Party to the Agreement will need to put forward adaptation plans. Thus, the NAP process originally designed for developing countries is now likely the richest source of information for developed countries embarking on their own national adaptation planning.

NDCs – Bottom-Up Commitments from All Countries

Communications on adaptation under the UNFCCC have, thus far, been primarily forward looking. Given the local nature of adaptation, there is little outside concern, in terms of compliance, for verifying whether a party is meeting its national adaptation needs. However, precisely because the benefits of taking action accrue to the country in question, it is in a Party’s strong self-interest to prepare and plan for climate change impacts. As a result, “reporting” on adaptation has mostly taken the form of communicating a country’s plans and needs through NAPAs and NAPs.

While the characteristics of adaptation make planning for it a naturally bottom-up process, mitigation was long approached through a “top-down” paradigm. While mitigating emissions is presumed to cost the one taking action, the benefits accrue to everyone. Unsurprisingly then, developing countries had a strong interest in ensuring transparent reporting under the Convention to know whether developed countries are meeting their obligations. Under the Kyoto Protocol especially, these obligations took the form of top-down requirements, negotiated and agreed to by all Parties. As a result, reporting on mitigation has focused greatly on demonstrating progress achieved (actual emissions cuts) and projections based on policies and measures already in place.

With the new bottom-up approach manifested in the Paris Agreement, Parties will set their own national targets through the (obligatory) submission of NDCs. In addition to communicating emissions reduction targets and demonstrating progress in implementation, countries will now have to link their targets to future plans on how they will cut emissions, i.e. “domestic mitigation measures.”

The NAPA/NAP Support Architecture: A Model for Supporting Developing Country NDCs?

With the Paris Agreement binding all Parties to the Agreement to submit NDCs, developing countries, the least developed countries (LDCs) especially, will need assistance in crafting these communications, in particular for their mitigation components. The support system created over the course of 15 years for NAPAs and NAPs may serve as a model, or take on a partial role itself, in aiding countries in the development of NDCs. Creating this architecture under the UNFCCC and partnering with others experienced in supporting NAP(A)s, would also advance SDG target 13.b, which aims to “promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States….”

In 2013, the COP initiated a process of submitting intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), in preparation for COP 21, under which 189 countries have submitted INDCs. A country’s INDC will serve as its initial NDC when entering into the Paris Agreement, unless it decides to revise it and submit the updated version upon ratification or acceptance of the Agreement. During the INDC submission process ad hoc support was made available to developing countries, both through new initiatives undertaken by various organizations and through recalibrating existing programmes (UNFCCC, 2014). For instance, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and UNDP created a guide to designing and preparing INDCs (Levin et al, 2015). The International Partnership on Mitigation and MRV [measuring, reporting and verification] also issued process guidance for INDCs (Höhne et al, 2014). The LEDS [low-emission development strategies] Global Partnership and the Global Support Programme for National Communications and Biennial Update Reports adjusted their work and applied their strengths toward INDC preparation. Additionally, individual countries turned to any number of organizations offering support to complete their INDCs.

In its decision accompanying the Paris Agreement, the COP “reiterates its call to developed country Parties, the operating entities of the Financial Mechanism and any other organizations in a position to do so to provide support for the preparation and communication” of INDCs of Parties needing support (UNFCCC, 2015). However, neither the Agreement nor the decision say much more about the support developing country Parties will receive for NDC preparation. The decision establishes the Paris Committee on Capacity-Building and the Capacity-Building Initiative for Transparency—perhaps the support system could be housed under one of these—but regardless of where it lives, robust infrastructure for supporting NDC preparation is important for aiding developing countries joining the Paris Agreement.

As the process supporting national adaptation planning in developing countries shows, it can take years to build such infrastructure. But perhaps taking some ideas from that process can shave a few years off of creating a similar one for NDCs.

First, the most obvious link is using the progress countries have made in formulating NAPs toward the optional adaptation component of their NDCs. Second, the public registry of NDCs that the Secretariat will maintain could be fashioned after NAP Central, which, as opposed to the current INDC portal that only contains a simple listing of INDCs, is both home to submitted NAPs and chock-full of useful resources. Third, a Global Support Programme similar to the one created for NAPs by UNDP and UNEP could be established as the go-to institutional home for technical expertise and coordination of NDC support. Fourth, perhaps in addition to NAP Expos, NDC Expos could be organized, in the spirit of showcasing NDC best practices and facilitating a race to the top. Finally, with a view toward implementation of NDCs, forming a link like that established between projects identified by NAPAs and available funding under the LDC Fund (LDCF) could be explored. In other words, the NDC formulation process could feed directly into project proposals eligible for funding under the LDCF and Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF).

In sum, the Paris Agreement, upon entry into force, could catalyze two relatively new phenomena: national adaptation planning from developed countries and nationally determined mitigation contributions with optional adaptation components from developing countries. In both instances, the UNFCCC’s existing national adaptation planning framework could be a source of inspiration – to get developed countries started in their planning, and to create a support system to help developing countries craft their NDCs.

The author wishes to thank Alice Bisiaux, Stefan Jungcurt, Elena Kosolapova, Delia Paul, Nathalie Risse and Lynn Wagner for their valuable input to this Policy Update.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is pleased to bring you a series of policy updates on national reporting and implementation processes within the multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) processes that we have been tracking for over two decades. Decisions taken in 2015 by intergovernmental policy makers have sought to change the approach to implementing sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change are universal agendas, with implied implementation obligations for all countries. Our Earth Negotiations Bulletin writers and thematic experts for our Policy & Practice knowledgebases have monitored discussions on the successes and shortcomings of national planning and reporting processes within the MEAs and other processes we follow. Our hope is that this series will help all concerned with implementing the new sustainable development directions of 2015 to build on lessons of the past.


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