BRACING FOR CLIMATE IMPACT: Renewables as a climate change adaptation strategy

Climate change has multidimensional impacts on human society and on natural systems. Climate change impacts, both direct and indirect and both short and long term, have become more evident – from extreme weather events to gradual changes in climate variables, such as temperature rise or altered precipitation patterns. By putting agriculture, water, human health, oceans, supply chains and infrastructure – all of which are vital to the socio-economic routines of human beings – at severe
risk, climate change poses real threats to local communities and indigenous people. Developing countries in high mountain areas and small islands developing states (SIDS) are already observing visible climate impacts. To address these issues and reduce adverse impacts, the global community agreed a landmark joint pact, the Paris Agreement (2015).

Countries agreed to enhance action on climate adaptation, recognising the increasing urgency of tackling climate change impacts. At COP 16 in 2010, the Cancun Adaptation Framework was adopted and commenced the process of formulating NAPs on a voluntary basis. The establishment of a new climate fund (currently the Green Climate Fund [GCF]) and a separate adaptation committee within the UNFCCC was also decided at Cancun. In the lead up to COP 21 in Paris in 2015, the Parties to the Convention agreed to submit NDCs and a long-term low emission development strategy (LTS), in which countries pledge their mitigation and adaptation targets.

With the establishment of adaptation as an integral part of development planning, countries have taken different approaches to targeting, planning and implementing adaptation measures, documented in NDCs, NAPAs and NAPs. In the first submission of their NDCs, countries outlined their pledges to reduce GHG emissions and had the option to include targets for adaptation. NDCs were originally seen as a way to document GHG mitigation targets (AfDB, 2019a). However, many countries exercised this option and included adaptation targets (Paris Agreement, article 7.11; WRI and UNDP, 2019). By the end of 2020, 190 Parties had submitted NDCs. Of those, around threequarters of the countries had included an adaptation component, and 64 countries had recognised the contribution of renewables in climate change adaptation and resilience building. Renewable energy has come to the forefront of the climate change discussion, with a majority of NDCs including renewable energy as part of their
mitigation and adaptation strategies. The number of countries that have included renewable energy in adaptation strategies within NDCs increased from 47 in 2017 to 64 in 2020. Many countries, especially those most vulnerable to climate change impacts, indicate in their NDCs that renewable energy can improve adaptation implementation measures and broaden the scope of adaptation.


Recently, there has been growing acceptance among academics and policy makers that energy and climate change adaptation are deeply interconnected. The most widely debated topic has been how the energy sector would adapt to climate change impacts. Clearly, energy as a sector itself is affected by climate change, as extreme weather events and gradual climate changes have increased the exposure of power systems to climate impacts. Generation diversification, distributed energy solutions and technical advancement to increase the resilience of physical assets have been the most commonly discussed measures to increase the adaptation capacity of the energy sector. Despite the increasing demand for the energy sector to address climate change impacts, how the energy sector can facilitate and build climate resilience of the societies is a relatively new topic. Energy is a basic human necessity, and energy
supply is an indispensable element in all economic activities. As the impacts of climate change grow, energy demand is expected to increase accordingly. Increases in global temperature have created significant upward shifts in energy demand for cooling, with implications for energy efficiency. For example, the International Energy Agency (2018a) estimates that a 1°C increase in global temperature could bring about 25% increase in cooling demand by 2050.

As can be seen in the left-hand diagram of Figure 3, adaptation measures that lean on extensive energy consumption are inextricably linked to increased emissions; the trade-offs (vulnerability reduced but emissions increased) are shown in the upper-left quadrant. Monocultural plantations for biofuel and increased reliance on hydropower dams (lower-right quadrant) are some examples of consequent environmental degradation that could increase vulnerability through, for example, displacement of
indigenous people, loss of biodiversity and degradation of water quality.

Amongst various energy sources, renewable energy can facilitate climate adaptation actions without resulting in significant GHG emissions. Renewable energy enables “sustainable win-win” solutions, rather than trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation being inevitable, as they have been in the past. Through its net zeroemission impact, renewable energy enables adaptations such as air conditioning and
irrigations systems to move from being increased emissions solutions (upper-left quadrant of the left diagram) to sustainable win-win solutions (upper-right quadrant of the right diagram), where both vulnerability and emissions are reduced. Likewise, the potential environmental effects of renewable energy technology (RET) in the bottom-right corner in Figure 3 can be addressed and minimised by adopting more environmentally sustainable practices, especially by incorporating climate change adaptation into decision-making processes and by making greater efforts to avoid environmentally and socially negative impacts. There is significant potential to build resilience by improving social and environmental practice to avoid unintended outcomes of engineering solutions (Hills et al., 2018). For instance, sustainable hydropower approaches – such as the International Hydropower Association’s
hydropower sustainability assessment protocol and the World Commission on Dams’ guidelines – can reinforce the sustainability of hydropower projects. A properly designed hydropower project can ensure that economic development reduces negative impacts on the environment (IPCC, 2011). Taking into account the short- to long-term effects of climate change in the deployment of renewables is one way
of safeguarding the sustainability of RET. For instance, small and run-of-the-river hydropower are technologically viable options that can evade negative ecological impacts and the need to build large dams.

Renewable energy opportunities in adaptation interventions
The water sector consumes 4% of electricity globally, which mainly consists of water supply (42%), desalination (26%), wastewater treatment (14%) and distribution (13%) (IEA, 2018). From new desalination and wastewater treatment techniques to airto-water distillation systems, RETs are drivers of innovative approaches to secure, preserve and manage freshwater resources. Table 2 shows a range of renewable energy options in the water sector.

The climate change risk profile of the food, agriculture and forestry industry is complex. Because of multidimensional climate change impacts on the food sector, the Food and Agriculture Organization has established the “food system”5 approach, which captures the entire range of food-related systems including land, water, oceans and human health (Figure 4).

Overall, climate change is projected to negatively impact crop production globally, especially in tropical and temperate regions with temperature increases of 2°C, while high-latitude regions may benefit from climate change effects. The loss of arable land due to increased aridity, groundwater depletion and sea level rise is likely to aggravate these impacts. Livestock and aquaculture are also vulnerable to climate change. Temperature rise is likely to affect livestock production and reproduction negatively, while increasing both heat stress and water consumption.

General electricity provision for health facilities
Renewable energy solutions can play a critical role in the functioning and quality of health care facilities and service delivery, especially in places where climate change negatively affects human health. In many remote and isolated areas, reliable electricity supply can not only limit sensitivity to climate change but enhance adaptive capacity against harsh climate conditions through the provision of basic health care and power for medical devices (e.g. solar PV-powered refrigerators for samples and vaccines
to replace kerosene-powered refrigerators). The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased the urgency of addressing these issues. Renewable energy can provide the means to operate health care facilities. In addition, improved access to electricity enables enhanced public health education and communication. Box 3 illustrates the various needs for general electricity provision in health facilities.


A renewable energy-based integrated approach between mitigation and adaptation at the international and national levels can bring synergistic effects in tackling climate change (Nordic Council of Ministers, 2017). This section examines, through analysis of international and national documents (NDCs, NAPs, etc.), how countries are including and using renewables in their adaptation planning, beyond their impact on mitigation, and identifies the missing gaps.

Altogether, 64 countries have mentioned RET in the adaptation component of their NDCs as a technological option for climate resilience in various sectors. Figure 7 shows the number of NDCs with an adaptation component (in orange) and the number of Parties that submitted an NDC with an adaptation component that includes RET (in grey) by region. Most developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East and North Africa region, as well as SIDS, have a strong interest in and focus on adaptation. Sub-Saharan African countries and SIDS particularly stand out for their specificity
in needs and plans to use RET. Almost half the countries in these regional groups include RET in their adaptation actions. The countries share common climate change challenges, such as high exposure to climate change impact, lack of local adaptive capacity and dependency on traditional fuels. As such, leveraging synergies between renewables and other sectors has great importance for these countries, and “good examples” can be shared among them.

The landscape of climate finance is rapidly developing and growing in volume. Pledges to support adaptation and resilience have significantly increased in amount, with growing acknowledgement that further delays to adaptation actions will result in increasingly costly measures to adapt to climate change (UNEP, 2021). The climate finance provided and mobilised for adaptation activities rose to USD 16.8 billion in 2018, which accounts for 21% of total climate finance, up from 17% in 2016 (OECD, 2020).
According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, the global investment required for climate adaptation could reach USD 180 billion annually from 2020 to 2030, and investing USD 1.8 trillion globally in just five adaptation areas could yield USD7.1trillion in net benefits (GCA, 2019). Similarly, the United Nations Environment Programme (2018b) estimates that the annual cost of adaptation could be USD 140–300 billion between 2025 and 2030 and USD 280–500 billion between 2030 and 2050 if temperature rise is controlled under 2°C from the pre-industrial level. While financing adaptation has significantly scaled up, these estimations indicate a huge adaptation investment gap that needs to be met by public and private finance.

Establishing a framework provides the basis for adaptation intervention; therefore, it is critical to establish a clear climate rationale by using robust climate methodologies and the best available science. Climate adaptation strategies should build on this rationale, and impact modelling and vulnerability assessment should be used to identify and prioritise the most vulnerable sectors. If a climate rationale is not clearly articulated, an action could be implemented that insufficient to be counted as a climate adaptation action. However, renewables are often included in the planning and project levels without
proper adaptation rationale, and the role of renewable energy in climate adaptation shows considerable variation in each country. This may signify that further studies and good practices need to be established globally. In particular, good practices can be shared with other countries facing similar climate risks in the current context,where renewable energy is becoming more important in establishing the adaptation

The impacts of climate change are being seen with increasing frequency and intensity around the world. Climate change mitigation (action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) remains vital but is just one of the two main pillars of climate change response. The critical importance of the second pillar, adaptation (action to adjust to and protect against the impacts of climate change), has gained significant recognition in recent years, and an increasing flow of finance to adaptation activities is being seen at the international and national levels. Many climate adaptation strategies require considerable energy use, yet the role of reliable, affordable and modern renewable energy services in climate adaptation is not widely acknowledged in policy making or practice.


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