Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Climate change adaptation and mitigation


Adapting to climate change

A2 – 2.1. Key concepts and approaches

Adaptation and maladaptation

Adaptation to climate change refers to the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects (UNFCCC, 2017). And more specifically, as indicated in the fifth assessment report of the IPCC Working Group II (IPCC, 2014a), in some natural systems, human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effects. In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. 

Agricultural adaptation is tightly linked to many other cross- or multi-sectoral adaptation issues. Cross–sectoral issues, such as early warning systems, disaster risk management (see module C5), and education and capacity development, are particularly relevant for agricultural stakeholders. It is critical as well to avoid proliferation of any action or process that would increase vulnerability to climate change-related hazards – also known as maladaptation.

Maladaptation is the result of sector-based development policies and measures that deliver short–term gains or economic benefits but increase vulnerability in other sectors and/or in the medium to long term (Olhoff and Schaer, 2010). The agriculture sectors are the main users of land and water, and therefore interact closely with other economic sectors competing as well for accessing these increasingly scarce resources. To address some of these issues in medium- to long-term planning and budgeting, countries may choose to formulate and implement National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). The NAP process is conducted under UNFCCC and aims to ensure inclusion and effectively address both complementary but also sometimes competing adaptation needs between different sectors. In that respect, it is meant to be an on-going, progressive and iterative process, following a country-driven, gender–sensitive, participatory and fully transparent approach (for further information on NAPs and related policy frameworks, see module C3). It is also meant to be a cross-sectoral and multi-stakeholder process. It requires to engage all relevant stakeholders, including from all the agriculture sectors, to identify and prioritize adaptation actions, and the allocation of financing pertaining to both development and climate change.

Vulnerability, exposure, adaptive capacity, resilience, and adaptation to climate change

Climate change adaptation should enhance and build on healthy and functional ecosystems, as they provide a variety of benefits and services on which agricultural production systems and rural livelihoods depend. Sustaining these ecosystems is critical to achieving lasting food security and nutrition. The following concept are key to understand and approach climate change adaptation: vulnerability, exposure, adaptive capacity, resilience, and climate change adaptation itself. For these concepts, this sourcebook is adopting either the UNFCCC definition when available (UNFCCC, 2017), or the definition of the fifth assessment report of the IPCC Working Group II (IPCC, 2014b). 

  • Vulnerability refers to the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes (UNFCCC, 2017). The fifth assessment report of the IPCC Working Group II defines vulnerability as “the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected” (IPCC, 2014b). Therefore, vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate variation to which a system is exposed (exposure), its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity. This refers to the ability of systems, institutions, humans, and other organisms to adjust to potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to consequences (IPCC, 2014b).
  • Exposure is the presence of people, livelihoods, species or ecosystems, environmental functions, services, and resources, infrastructure, or economic, social, or cultural assets in places and settings that could be adversely affected.
  • Sensitivity is the degree to which a system or species is affected, either adversely or beneficially, by climate variability or change", but it is not "how affected a system is after the exposure. 
  • Adaptive capacity: In the context of assessments of impact and vulnerability (sometimes termed as outcome vulnerability) that adopt a top-down approach, adaptive capacity is meant as the system’s ability to avoid potential damages, take advantage of opportunities, and cope with the consequences of damages. See also module C5 as the terms also often appear in disaster risk reduction. In the resilience framework (see chapter C8-1.1), adaptive capacity is the capacity of people in a given system to influence resilience. A system may be made more resilient in a number of ways, including: managing human and environmental components in a manner that maintains the system’s status quo (e.g. managing water resources to better cope with drought); or transforming into a new system when the current system becomes untenable (e.g. eliminating irrigation and agricultural production if drought risk is too extreme) (Engle, 2011; Walker et al., 2004; Walker et al., 2006; Folke, 2006).
  • Vulnerability: Similarly, the factors considered to influence vulnerability vary according to the approach used. In top-down approaches, vulnerability is considered to result from biophysical drivers. In bottom-up and contextual approaches the vulnerability of social and environmental resources is assessed in consideration of biophysical factors in context with social, economic, political, institutional and technological factors and processes. Module C8 and specifically chapter C8-1.1 describe the approaches for climate impact assessment including vulnerability and chapter C8.2 on vulnerability assessments.
  • Resilience: With respect to the term resilience, several definitions are being used in development and humanitarian work, and accordingly in the climate-smart agriculture sourcebook, which tend to share three common elements: (i) the capacity to bounce back after a shock; (ii) the capacity to adapt to a changing environment; and (iii) the transformative capacity of an enabling institutional environment (FAO, 2014). In the specific context of climate change, resilience is the capacity of social, economic, and environmental systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function, identity, and structure, while also maintaining the capacity for adaptation, learning, and transformation (IPCC, 2014a).

Climate change adaptation actions can be incremental when they aim to maintain the essence and integrity of a system or process at a given scale, or transformational when they change the fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate and its effects. Incremental changes improve the response to changing conditions little at a time and can be made iteratively, for example adapting planting dates. Transformational adaptation, for example, may involve shifting the system from crop production to a forage based livestock production. Climate-smart agriculture strategies may prompt both types of adaptation actions, which will however require different measures for integration into policy planning and resource mobilization. 

With respect to the scope, climate change adaptation options can be grouped broadly in structural/physical, social and institutional categories with a number of sub-categories underneath each.

  • Structural and physical options are concrete adaptation actions on the ground, at the local or landscape level, for example improved technologies in farming practices or engineering irrigation infrastructure, and integrated natural resources management. These options represent the bulk of the approaches described in the modules in section B.
  • Social adaptation options reduce vulnerability of social systems and populations, for example that of poor agricultural households by addressing their insufficient access to education, financial services, assets, information, and/or social safeguards. These options are discussed in the modules in section C, and especially in module C5 on disaster risk reduction, module C6 on gender, Module C7 on social protection and decent rural employment.
  • Institutional adaptation options address the institutional, governance and policy context, for example by improving the laws and regulations that govern sustainable use of resources and facilitates adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices. These options are specifically discussed in module C1 on institutional capacity development and module C3 on policies and programmes. 

To identify and implement the most appropriate set of structural, physical, social and institutional climate change adaptation options, two major approaches are available: community-based and ecosystem-based.

  • The Community-based adaptation approach is a locally driven process of designing and implementing adaptation actions through assessments of impacts and vulnerabilities, and further screening and appraisal of possible adaptation strategies in a participatory manner. This approach involves relevant stakeholders from different spheres, but always with inclusive local representation, especially of the most vulnerable people. The process aims to empower communities to plan for, and cope with, the impacts of climate change.
  • The ecosystem-based adaptation approach is looking at building and sustaining healthy and functional ecosystems, as they provide a variety of benefits and services on which agricultural production systems and rural livelihoods depend, and are critical to achieving lasting food security and nutrition. This approach ensures that biodiversity and ecosystem services are considered when designing an adaptation strategy, taking into account nature’s capacity and adaptability to environmental changes (IPCC, 2014a). It involves stakeholders from various spheres with relevant knowledge, interest or influence to develop and implement adaptation strategies that address the pressures on ecosystem services and resource users, and increases or maintains the resilience of ecosystems and people to climate change. 

Both change management and risk management play roles in adaptation to climate change.

  • Disaster risk management focuses on preventing, mitigating, preparing for and responding to shocks in short- and medium-term scales. Disaster risk management serves to handle threats such as increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and changing patterns of pests and diseases. Strengthening disaster risk management calls for improving local processes and practices for risk reduction and enhancing emergency response and rehabilitation operations;
  • Change management adds a strategic, long-term objective to policy, legal and research frameworks. Both perspectives are interrelated and mutually complementary, providing incentives to modify behaviors and practices over the medium to long term. Change management in the agricultural sectors consists of several elements, such as legislation, social and institutional development; policies and planning covering cropping, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture; land, water and genetic resources; livelihoods; integrated farming systems and ecosystems; and linking climate change adaptation and mitigation processes.

When optimizing current conditions and minimizing vulnerability to future changes, trade-offs may occur. For example, converting mangroves into shrimp farms may increase incomes and food supply, but it also may increase vulnerability to climate extremes and climate change. Diversifying agriculture or rural livelihoods builds long-term resilience, but it may decrease income in the short-term. For developing countries, short-term challenges, including immediate climate risks, are often so great that long-term climate risks cannot be given sufficient attention. Designing responses that acknowledge both short- and long-term food security usually requires parallel processes – phased and iterative planning alongside introduction of short- and long-term measures. 

Adaptation is not accomplished in a single intervention. Rather, it is a continuum, requiring an overarching approach that incorporates interventions that range from those that address underlying drivers of vulnerability to those designed exclusively to respond to climate change impacts. The vulnerability of a system depends on its exposure and sensitivity to changes, and on its ability to manage these changes.

Climate change adaptation can thus be enhanced by i) altering exposure ii) reducing sensitivity of the system to climate change impacts and iii) increasing the adaptive capacity of the system. Adaptation processes need to be location- and context-specific, integrated and flexible. This is accomplished by basing them on climate monitoring and location and context-specific impact and vulnerability assessments and, at the same time, engaging and working with stakeholders to develop institutional capacity and identify, evaluate, prioritize and select available adaptation options and tools.

In a larger view, adaptation needs to be made an integral part of sustainable development, with climate change implications factored into all development planning, decision-making and implementation. To achieve this goal, the following means and channels can be used to support adaptation in institutions, ecosystems, livelihoods and production systems.

  • Mainstream and integrate adaptation fully into agriculture, forestry, fisheries, food security, biodiversity and natural and genetic resource policies, and strategies and programmes at the sub-national, national, sub-regional and regional levels. The goal is to ensure synergy among food security, sustainable development, adaptation and mitigation by raising awareness of links, screening existing development and sectoral policies, strategies and plans through a climate lens, and determining whether they might lead to maladaptation or miss important opportunities arising from climate change.
  • Reduce adaptation deficits through development activities in order to reduce vulnerability and lay the foundation for long-term food security through, for example, sustainable increases in agricultural productivity.
  • Climate proof all future development plans and interventions by determining whether they are climate sensitive. If so, a more detailed climate risk assessment may be necessary to pinpoint whether they should be amended or if new actions, such as infrastructure development, should be taken to make them more sustainable.
  • Enhance adaptation by investing in advocacy and normative work. This can include developing and piloting tools and methods; collecting, analysing and utilizing data and statistics; facilitating information exchanges and communication; advocating and contributing to global, regional and national processes; mainstreaming gender and social considerations in adaptation; preparing manuals and guidelines; and establishing networks and partnerships.
  • Promote adaptation through prevention or removal of maladaptive practices, such as those that promote monoculture at the cost of biodiversity. These practices address specific development or short-term adaptation needs and end up being counterproductive with respect to adapting to long-term climate change.
  • Work through stand-alone adaptation projects and programmes designed to address specific climate change-induced problems in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors, such as building climate monitoring and impact assessment capacities, diversifying livelihoods, developing entirely new production systems, and promoting urban agriculture.
  • Include adaptation as a distinct component of larger programmes, such as multidisciplinary research programmes or institutional capacity development programmes that contain a climate change focus.
  • Build the type of capacities institutions need to implement adaptation practices. Adaptation and development are needed in both smallholder and commercial agricultural systems, but they will have significant differences in their priorities and capacities. Commercial systems are chiefly concerned with increasing resource efficiency and reducing emissions. In agriculture-based countries, where agriculture is critical for economic development, adaptation in smallholder systems is important for food security and poverty reduction, as well as for growth and structural change.

A2 – 2.2. Adaptation gaps and needs

A2 – 2.2.1. Enhancing livelihood resilience of smallholder farmers under a changing climate

Most of the world’s poor and hungry are rural people who earn their livings from agriculture. Some 900 million of the estimated 1.2 billion extremely poor live in rural areas. About 750 million of them work in agriculture, 475 million of which as smallholder family farmers (Olinto et al., 2013). While 200 million of the rural poor may migrate to towns and cities over the next 15 years, most will remain in the countryside. In that period, the rural population in less developed regions is projected to increase slightly, and an estimated 700 million rural people would be living in poverty. Without great efforts to improve rural livelihoods, the eradication of poverty by 2030 will be impossible (FAO, 2016b). 

The smallholder farm families in developing countries face an urgent need to establish livelihoods resilient to impacts of climate change. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate global poverty and end hunger without building resilience to climate change in smallholder agriculture through the well-planned adaptation through sustainable land, water, fisheries and forestry management practices. 

There is an urgent need to scale up adaptation actions to reduce key vulnerabilities of smallholder farming systems to climate change risks, and assess and implement the options for enhancing resilience through sustainable intensification, diversification and risk management strategies. The costs of inaction exceed by far the cost of interventions that would make smallholder farming systems resilient, sustainable and more prosperous.

With other enabling factors in place – such as adequate access to credit and markets, but also action to eliminate legal, socio-cultural and mobility constraints on rural women – those practices have been found to yield significant productivity improvements. However, improved management practices may not be enough to sustain farmer incomes. 

Farmers can further enhance their resilience through diversification, which can reduce the impact of climate shocks on income and provide households with a broader range of options when managing future risks. One form of diversification is to integrate production of crops, livestock and trees – for example, some agroforestry systems use the leaves of nitrogen fixing leguminous trees to feed cattle, use manure to fertilize the soil, and grow pulses to provide extra protein during periods of seasonal food insecurity.

For farm households with limited options for on-farm diversification, livelihood diversification through non-farm rural employment or migration to cities may be essential. Adaptation through sustainable intensification and agricultural diversification may have to be combined, therefore, with the creation of off-farm opportunities, both locally and through strengthened rural-urban linkages. Gender issues may need to be addressed – social norms often prevent women from pursuing off-farm activities. Social protection, education and active labour market policies are needed to mitigate many of the risks associated with diversification and migration.

Adaptation to climate change requires making anticipatory adjustments to prepare for expected climate variability and changing average climate conditions, in order to moderate harm and exploit beneficial opportunities. Climate vulnerability is commonly interlinked with poverty and food insecurity, and many synergies can be found between them through climate change adaptation, although not all poverty alleviation efforts constitute effective reduction in climate vulnerability and not all adaptation will automatically lead to immediate improvements in food security.

A2 – 2.2.2. Enhancing adaptive capacity and addressing adaptation deficits

Most ecological and social systems have built-in adaptive capacity. However, the current climate variability and rapid rate of climate change are imposing new pressures that have the potential to overwhelm existing coping capacity. The indigenous knowledge of farmers, forest-dependent people and fishers can be a valuable entry point for localized adaptation. This means recognizing the advantage and capitalizing on locally adapted crops, fish and livestock, farming systems, soil, water and nutrient management, agroforestry systems and vegetation fire management. Nevertheless, in efforts to address complex and long-term problems caused by changing climate, indigenous knowledge often needs to be complemented by scientific know-how.

Adaptation efforts must create the capacity to cope with more frequent, increasingly difficult conditions and gradual changes in climate, even though it often is not possible to anticipate their precise nature. This requires focus on capacity development that strengthens institutions dealing with monitoring, research and extension, as well as social learning, innovation and development processes.

When localized projections of climate change impacts are not available, this will require a “no regrets” approach, which means taking adaptive actions that will be beneficial even if climate change threats do not occur exactly as anticipated.

Production systems with low productivity and high production volatility that make them chronically vulnerable are said to have “adaptation deficits”. Even under existing conditions, these systems produce less, meaning there is a yield gap between their average yields and those of demonstration farms using best practices (FAO, 2016b). They also are less efficient and less resilient to shocks than they could be. Adaptation deficits have arisen, for example, where investments in agriculture have been repeatedly neglected. In such systems, impacts of climate variability and extreme events already reinforce poverty and slow development. That is why it is critical to develop policies and programmes for agriculture, forestry, fisheries and food security that reduce annual climate risk by increasing productivity in a sustainable manner, diversifying rural livelihoods, and increasing local control over resources and decision-making. In this way, they serve current development needs while also preparing ground for the future adaptive capacity.

A2 – 2.2.3. Adaptation costs and finance gap

The costs and benefits of adaptation to climate change have been extensively analysed (e.g. Watkiss, 2015). Estimates vary for many reasons, including differences in regional coverage, climate change scenarios, methods and models, as well as in the time period, adaptation measures and sectors that were considered. Several global studies suggest that the costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of adaptation to climate change (OECD, 2015). Some country-level analyses provide estimates of the costs of inaction side by side with costs of adaptation. For example, a study from Uganda estimates the cumulative economic impacts of climate change on agriculture, water, energy and infrastructure at ranging between US$273 billion and US$437 billion between 2010 and 2050, depending on assumptions about socio-economic development and the severity of climate change (Markandya, Cabot-Venton and Beucher, 2015).

More climate financing and agricultural investments are needed to facilitate the transition to sustainable agricultural practices to enhance adaptation. However, available climate finance for investment in agriculture falls well short of needs. Smallholder producers in developing countries face major hurdles in accessing credit for investing in new technologies and practices, and female farmers even more so. The shortfall in finance limits investment in agriculture and food security and, with it, the capacity of smallholders to adapt to climate change. More climate finance needs to flow to climate-smart agriculture to fund the investment cost associated with the required large-scale transformation of its sectors and the development of climate-smart food production systems. Additional finance from public sources, as well as customized financial products, will be needed in two areas of financing.

More upfront support is necessary for increasing farmers’ productivity, building capacity to adapt to climate change. This will require a significant increase in the amount of finance available, and more flexible conditions, such as repayment schedules adjusted to cash flows. This approach would allow farmers to make the investments that maintain current yields using fewer resources, and apply adaptation practices and technologies that increase resilience while reducing emissions. However, for this to be successful, a second area requires financing – building capacity through appropriate institutions and policies, so that farmers are enabled to undertake relevant adaptation actions. Improving the enabling environment is especially needed for the vast majority of smallholder farmers, who are effectively disenfranchised from climate financing and denied opportunities for investing in productive activities that would improve their livelihoods, productivity and incomes.

The assessment of national and sector studies shows that adaptation costs in the period around 2030 are likely to be in the range of US$140-300 billion per annum, whereas international public finance for adaptation in 2014 was around US$22.5 billion. The total finance for adaptation in 2030 would have to be approximately 6 to 13 times greater than international public finance today. Moreover, the potential adaptation finance gap in 2050 would be much larger – in the order of between twelve-to-twenty-two times current flows of international public adaptation finance (UNEP, 2016). The costs of adaptation in the agriculture sector have been receiving increased attention, but there is a gap in assessment that needs to be addressed. Climate finance can also act as a catalyst to leverage larger flows of public and private funding for sustainable agriculture, provided policies and institutional frameworks that promote transformative change are in place. 

Climate finance could help address the funding gap by demonstrating the viability of agricultural investments, and designing and piloting innovative mechanisms to leverage additional sources of investment. Climate funds – if used strategically to build the enabling environment essential for adaptation, to ensure that public agricultural investment is climate-resilient, and to leverage private finance – could become an important catalyst for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

By filling the financing gap and catalysing investment, climate finance can strengthen risk management mechanisms, foster development of appropriate financial products, and address the capacity constraints of lenders and borrowers. It is crucial, therefore, to strengthen the enabling environment for investments in agriculture, mainstream climate change considerations in domestic budget allocations and implementation, and unlock private capital for climate-smart agricultural development.

A2 – 2.2.4. Addressing the capacity gap

This “capacity gap” in policy-making and institutional development, which can manifest itself at both funding and receiving ends, hinders support for adaptation. Closing these capacity gaps should be made a priority by funders and countries alike, so that climate finance – if countries ramp up funding as planned – can serve its transformative role for food and agriculture. The capacity gaps include both the institutional level and technical level. 

Institutional capacity building and strengthening of organizational networks across all levels and sectors are basic preconditions to making adaptation work. Since adaptation to climate change is a multi-sectoral work, the institutional responsibilities need to be clearly defined. Mechanisms should also be established to coordinate the functions of various agency activities such as planning, communication and operations at field level. Furthermore, it will be crucial to improve links and factor adaptation into other on-going development activities, and to determine clear roles such as who should do what in order to make adaptation effective.