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Are we jumping the gun in trying to measure adaptation?

Written by Lindsey Jones


A clear and concise methodology for measuring adaptation to climate change has yet to emerge. But the need for it is clear.

With the impacts of climate change threatening to undermine development objectives and substantial pots of money being committed to support adaptation, evaluating the impact and effectiveness of adaptation interventions is paramount. The UK government for one has committed £2.9 billion for 2011-2015, a balanced proportion of which is thought to be earmarked for adaptation, and many other countries have committed through so-called ‘fast-start climate finance’.

Why is there no agreement?

To start with, we have to realise that assessing and understanding adaptation, and the processes that shape it, is incredibly complex.

Ahead of the fifth Community Based Adaptation (CBA5) conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 28 March, I focus here on measuring the adaptive capacity at the local level. A number of useful early attempts have been made– most maintaining strong links with the sustainable livelihoods framework (SL) and its five capitals (human, financial, social, natural and physical), with many simply measuring the abundance of each capital as direct indicators for adaptive capacity. These make the assumption that the principles of sustainable livelihoods are identical to those needed to adapt to a changing climate.

However, it’s important to realise that there is no agreement about the characteristics and indicators that support adaptive capacity. While true that the SL’s five capitals are, to a large extent needed to facilitate adaptation, this does not give a complete picture of the complex processes that determine adaptive capacity and support adaptation actions.

So have we been too keen in trying to measure something that we don’t yet fully understand?

In some ways the answer is yes, as little empirical research has actually been done to characterise adaptive capacity. This is where the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance (ACCRA) is trying to add clarity to the debate. The project looks to use evidence-based research to explore the characteristics of adaptive capacity at the community level, using Ethiopia, Mozambique and Uganda as case studies. As part of this, we at ODI have reviewed existing methods and built on pilot consultations within the three countries as part of the ACCRA consortium to present the Local Adaptive Capacity framework (LAC).

Preliminary findings from the project point to five common characteristics of adaptive capacity, which make up the core of the LAC framework. These are: a diverse asset base; appropriate and fair institutions and entitlements; access to relevant knowledge and information; an enabling environment that fosters innovation; and flexible forward-looking governance and decision-making processes. These characteristics are thought to be conducive to supporting local communities in enhancing their adaptive capacities. The conceptual basis behind these five characteristics and their applications are explored in further detail in a recent ODI report.

The first thing that’s striking about the five characteristics is that many of them are actually processes, and not simply assets. This contrasts with traditional methods of measuring adaptive capacity and suggests that solely focusing on the SL’s five assets as indicators is unlikely to provide a holistic view of adaptation. It is therefore important to realise that adaptive capacity is as much about what a community does that enables it to adapt, than what a community has that allows it to adapt. The reason that this distinction is important is because how we measure adaptation will ultimately guide how we design interventions aimed at supporting it, and may skew the focus of project interventions.

What can we learn from ACCRA’s research?

Most importantly, perhaps, is that before we dive head-first into trying to monitor and evaluate adaptation at the community level, we must ensure that we base our M&E on a firmer understanding of the characteristics and indicators of adaptive capacity. This would also enable us to see how certain wider development interventions – many of which may not have been designed with climate change in mind, such as social protection or livelihoods programmes – are contributing to characteristics of adaptive capacity. Fortunately, a number of other research institutes are complementing ODI’s work on ACCRA, and attempting to step back and explore these issues in more detail. Through efforts like these, we are gathering a stronger evidence base for measuring adaptive capacity at the community level, and understanding the importance of processes in supporting adaptation. Reassuringly, this knowledge and information not only has uses in refining M&E indictors, but it can also pave the way for better operationalisation of programming for NGO, civil society and policy-makers.

These actions will prove a useful step forwards in improving our understanding of complex process of adaptation, and ultimately aid the delivery of assistance to those most in need and most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate.