Adaptation in NDCs: To Include or Not To Include, That is the Question.

You could definitely feel the awkwardness in the conference room during the APA 1-7 agenda item #3 negotiations.This agenda item addresses the mitigation section of the 1/CP.21 decision (where we got the Paris Agreement). What caused such tension? Well, the parties have different positions on what to do with adaptation in NDCs, but were hesitant to speak about it during the session. The draft text for this negotiation issue briefly mentions suggested language for mandatory adaptation commitments within NDCs. But the history of international climate change negotiations hasn’t given much guidance on the issue.


The UNFCCC first mentioned adaptation, but only to build climate change resilience in least developed countries. The Kyoto Protocol essentially ignored adaptation, and favored very stringent mitigation commitments for Annex I countries (a designation, assigned for the UNFCCC, for a party who could provide financial support to other countries). After over a decade of focusing solely on mitigation, the parties at COP21 decided to develop a new agreement with balanced representation of both adaptation and mitigation. As you can imagine, old habits are hard to break. And that was quite apparent in today’s session.

The developed countries tried their best to eliminate adaptation discussions from today’s informal consultations. The general statement in their interventions basically said that talks about adaptation were inappropriate at this session because it was being discussed elsewhere. If a party did decide to speak more on adaptation, the next typical response would reference the history of mitigation priority in previous COP decisions. The history of previous commitments shows an obvious pattern for making mitigation the priority for achieving UNFCCC climate goals. And although COP21 wanted to balance adaptation and mitigation, subsequent decisions did not reflect that goal. Instead, past guidance on NDCs has emphasized mitigation more than adaptation. Furthermore, the language of Article 4 (National Commitments) of the Paris Agreement (the treaty that created the concept of NDCs) outlines the general commitments of the parties without leaving any room for anything adaptation related.

Alternatively, the developing countries–primarily the African countries–(briefly) noted in their inventions the importance of including adaptation into NDCs. Though this issue has its own agenda item, some developing countries expressed their concerns about discussing adaptation at this session. Looking at the language of the Paris Agreement, Article 3 (NDCs) is ambiguous enough to include adaptation into the NDCs. Also, Article 7 (Adaptation) paragraph 11 lists NDCs as a document that may include adaptation communications. The purpose of the Paris Agreement itself is to increase adaptation consideration into climate change action. With such an open door, why not require adaptation commitments within the NDCs?

Negotiations are successful when parties talk through their differences to reach an acceptable compromise. Though today was just an informal consultation, it foreshadowed a rather frustrating next few days. With the constant dismissal of adaptation in this negotiation, it’ll be interesting to see how the advocates for adaptation will respond to the lack of dialogue at the table. Parties won’t be able to ignore the oversized elephant in the room for much longer.