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When it Comes to Adaptation, We Need to Think Bigger

This post originally appeared on Insights

Climate change threatens virtually every community on Earth. Increasingly frequent and severe droughts, floods and heat waves will impact agriculture, food security, infrastructure, GDP, and lives and livelihoods. The World Bank estimates that the world should be prepared to spend $70 billion to $100 billion a year between 2010 and 2050 to adapt to a 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree F) warmer world.

Despite the dire impacts of climate change, adaptation efforts thus far have mostly involved small-scale and time-bound projects. These projects often have a strong grassroots focus—which helps address local needs—but they have limited capacity to benefit large populations and to contribute to policy reform. It’s time to start thinking bigger. Truly overcoming the climate change challenge means scaling up adaptation projects across larger geographies to benefit more vulnerable people.

Scaling Up Adaptation

The need for achieving adaptation success at scale can be seen in the case of India’s rainfed regions. Rainfed agriculture occupies about 58 percent of India’s cultivated area, and contributes to 40 percent of its food production. Without adaptation, projections indicate that climate change will stress these rainfed agricultural systems, and farmers will face significantly decreased yields and revenue. Production losses in rice, wheat and maize alone could go up to $208 billion and $366 billion in 2050 and 2100, respectively.

There are many ongoing adaptation projects in India’s rainfed regions but, to date, few have achieved a scale that can be truly transformational. For example, an NGO-run project that makes drought-resistant seed varieties available to farming communities in the rainfed regions of a given state could help farmers be better prepared for more variable monsoon and drought seasons. But the impact of a seed-distribution project is limited only to the small number of communities participating in that one particular project.

However, if that project is scaled up to other drought-prone regions in the same state, or is successful enough to inform an agricultural policy that would institutionalize access to drought-resistant seeds for all farmers in all states with rainfed areas, the scale of positive impact in the face of climate change will be significantly greater. There are different pathways to achieving scale, and each one requires involvement of different actors. For instance, project implementers could gain funding to replicate the project in other similar geographical areas.

The state or country governments could see the benefit of providing drought-resistant seeds to farmers in rainfed areas and introduce a subsidy. Or if the drought-tolerant seed varieties are affordable enough, farmers may spontaneously adopt the adaptation measure by copying their neighbors. And these good practices don’t need to stop at the country level. Droughts will worsen with climate change and plague many rainfed agricultural communities—especially in Asia and Africa. Given the scale of the challenge of climate change and food security, farming communities in rainfed regions around the world should be applying lessons learned and replicating good adaptation practices to reap larger benefits.

A Recipe for Success

At this point, many countries are developing national and sub-national adaptation plans, and many are including adaptation components in their new national climate commitments under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Funding for adaptation, while still limited, is starting to grow, with the Green Climate Fund, national funds, and other new sources of adaptation funding coming online. The time for scaling adaptation success is now: funding agencies, policymakers, practitioners, and the public are seeking large-scale, transformational solutions to adapt to climate change. The challenge is knowing what to scale, and how to scale it.

To this end, WRI will soon release a report entitled Scaling Success: Lessons from Adaptation Pilots in the Rainfed Regions of India, which provides guidance on how to design, fund and support adaptation projects that can achieve scale. The report will be launched at an upcoming International Conference on Scaling Up Good Adaptation Practices in New Delhi on August 24-25, 2015. Now is the time to think bigger on adaptation, and to move the many good, but small pilot projects to a scale that can address the resilience needs of millions.

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