Researchers develop framework for effective climate adaptation

The framework aims to identify successful adaptation practices and potential maladaptation risks, helping decision-makers identify long-term impacts and interconnected responses of interventions

Adaptation is a critical component of the long-term global response to climate change to protect people, livelihoods and ecosystems. As the global focus on adaptation to climate change intensifies, it becomes crucial to ensure that these efforts are effective and avoid unintended negative consequences. 

In response to this challenge, a team of researchers has proposed a framework called Navigating the Adaptation-Maladaptation Continuum (NAM). Researchers said the NAM-framework could assist decision-making processes for climate adaptation interventions, fostering a more equitable and sustainable future.

What’s in a NAM?

By analysing adaptation efforts through six distinct criteria, the NAM-framework aims to identify both successful adaptation practices and potential maladaptation risks. These six criteria relate to outcomes of adaptation for ecosystems, the climate (greenhouse gases emissions) and social systems (transformational potential) as well as equity-related outcomes for low-income populations, women/girls and marginalised ethnic groups.

For example, options that fail to consider the impact on low-income populations or marginalised ethnic groups often run the risk of being maladaptive. On the other hand, adaptation options that contribute to climate mitigation goals, such as nature restoration and carbon capture, can have significant co-benefits.

The conceptualization of the NAM framework. Adaptation and maladaptation are conceptualised as the two end points of a continuum, with every response undertaken in the name of adaptation located somewhere along the continuum based on six outcome criteria. 

According to the researchers, the continuum approach mirrors the reality of adaptation implementation, going beyond suggesting interventions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and instead highlighting how interventions can in complex ways have mixed outcomes based on a number of assessment criteria.

“The NAM-framework advocates for a shift away from a narrow, short-term perspective that solely prioritises immediate effectiveness. Instead, it calls for a more holistic consideration of long-term impacts and interconnected responses. By adopting this approach, adaptation measures can be better aligned with broader climate goals and contribute to sustainable development,” said one of the researchers Diana Reckien, University of Twente, The Netherlands. 

The framework acknowledged that the outcome of any adaptation response is inherently local and context-specific, and that ecological, socio-cultural and institutional conditions play a decisive role in defining where a response falls on the adaptation–maladaptation continuum. 

In the framework, the six assessment criteria are weighted equally. However, in practice, some criteria will be ‘valued’ more than others based on normative goals that are socially acceptable or desirable at a given local context. In addition, the researchers added, aggregating synergies, co-benefits and trade-offs neglects comparability challenges. For example, is a slightly negative consequence of adaptation for a vulnerable group to be considered as important as a slight positive outcome on ecosystem services? Such discussions could be held on a case-by-case basis and across stakeholders to reach decisions that fit the political, socio-economic and cultural context in which the framework is applied. 

Encouraging decision-makers

This approach could help view adaptation interventions as part of a broader pathway that optimises synergies, trade-offs, and conflicts, while promoting multi-stakeholder decision-making.

“There are currently intense discussions around the first Global Stocktake of the Paris Agreement , which requested governments to ‘review the overall progress made in achieving the global goal on adaptation’. However, reviewing adaptation progress isn’t straightforward. There are growing concerns that current adaptation does not sufficiently reduce risk, and that, in many cases, may heighten the risk of maladaptation. Given this, how do we think about assessing adaptation and pre-empting maladaptation? We start answering this question by providing a framework that focuses on human-ecosystem linkages and equity and justice concerns,” said another researcher Chandni Singh, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru, India.

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