Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

The Benefits of Climate Adaptation for Food Systems Outweigh the Costs — and We Can’t Afford the Costs

This post is written by Jennifer Frankel-Reed, USAID.

Recent reports are taking an economic view of climate impacts, making a clear case for acting early rather than reacting late. The Global Commission on Adaptation’s 2019 report, Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience, warns leaders around the world that we simply cannot afford the costs of inaction on climate change.  

The report avoids creating yet another analysis of what may happen as a result of climate change and estimating the impacts associated with inaction — instead, it assesses the benefits of adapting to what we know is likely to happen.  The report finds that investing in adaptation often provides a triple dividend: avoided economic losses, positive economic opportunities, and additional social and environmental benefits. 

What does the triple dividend look like for food systems?

  • Losses can be avoided when actions are taken to protect lives, livelihoods, and assets from climate shocks and stresses based on early warning systems. For example, making on-farm decisions about planting, inputs, management, and harvest timing based on weather information can help to avoid crop failure, loss or wasted inputs and prevent the spread of pests before an outbreak occurs.  

  • Economic opportunities can result when high value agriculture areas and access to markets are protected from climate shocks and stresses by flood management systems. Additionally, investing in or managing inputs more efficiently results in increased productivity and/or cost savings in good and bad years.  

  • Social and environmental benefits can accrue through nature-based solutions to managing risks of climate shocks and stresses. Examples include agroforestry practices that support soil health and conservation as well as diverse income-generating options for farmers, when mangroves are protected to safeguard critical habitat for fisheries, or watershed management that maintains local water supplies. 

The report finds the return on investment for improved resilience ranges from $2 to $10 for each dollar spent. So investing $1.8 trillion globally in five areas: early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture, mangrove protection, and resilient water resources from 2020 to 2030 could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits.  For example:

  • Investing in drought-resistant crops and irrigation could help protect small-scale farms from higher temperatures and drought, whereas yields could decline by 30 percent by mid-century without action.

  • Investing in water infrastructure and watershed protection could improve resilience to droughts and support expanded access to clean water, whereas an additional 1.4 billion people could be at risk of water shortages at least one month each year by 2050 without action.

  • Early warning systems and infrastructure investments could help protect hundreds of millions of people from sea level rise and storm surges. Just 24 hours warning of a coming storm or heat wave can cut ensuing damages by 30 percent. Early warning systems save lives and assets worth at least ten times their cost.

The report concludes with commitments by international actors launching a bold set of Action Tracks. The food security Action Track takes on the goal to build the resilience of 300 million small-scale farmers around the world. Priorities include increased investment in agricultural research, expanding access to farmer advisory services and information, and access to improved risk management and financial services that farmers need to adapt to climate change.

What does this mean for USAID and international development partners? 

Climate adaptation is critical to everyone’s self-reliance, from farmers and coastal communities in the U.S. to multinational companies with international supply chains to agricultural communities and people who live in slums in developing countries. We will all feel the effects of extreme weather, shifting rainfall patterns, and rising seas, but our capacities to access the information, skills, and resources to adapt differ widely, making adaptation central to USAID’s mission to promote resilience among vulnerable populations and helping countries to avoid backsliding on development gains.

USAID invests in many of the systems covered by recent reports about the urgency of adaptation like agriculture, ecosystems, water, and vulnerable populations.  In our dialogues with partners about everything from long term planning to early warning to getting ahead of internal displacement, USAID can help look ahead and prioritize “no regrets” strategies that help people increase their resilience to shocks and stresses today while also preparing for future climate impacts. 

USAID can be a part of the culture shift from thinking about risk management as a cost to thinking of it as cost saving.  We can identify partners that are promoting adaptation action aligned with our goals for self-reliance and resilience, and join in the effort.

To learn more, check out some of the background research for accelerating climate action in seven key systems and transforming development along the way.

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