Innovative Adaptation

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co-authored with Arun Agrawal

Everyone agrees that innovation and its diffusion of innovations are key to managing climate change. Meeting the climate challenge in the coming decades will be fundamentally more difficult if we fail to come up with new, more cost-effective technologies.

But global efforts to innovate and share existing innovations fall woefully short of what is needed.

Nowhere is the gap between need and reality more glaring than for innovations related to adaptation. Members of climate change community who care about innovation have had their sights firmly fixed on technological innovations on the mitigation side: to reduce and capture emissions, to geo-engineer climate, to make energy use more efficient, to meet global energy needs through alternative and advanced renewable sources ... the list goes on.

The focus on technology and mitigation is necessary. But it has been so wholehearted that adaptation-centered innovations and institutional changes necessary to meet climates challenges have received short shrift.

It is not even that examples of such innovations do not exist. There are many success stories of on farm innovations by farmers to increase productivity and carbon sequestration. But these have not been studied systematically for greater generalization and are ineligible for carbon finance under existing mechanisms.

Community-based forest conservation has great promise for sequestering carbon and providing livelihoods. But governments have limited incentives to adopt them broadly, and financial support for such policy efforts has declined substantially in the past decade. These examples point to how existing knowledge  can be used to create effective institutions and innovations for adaptation.  They also raise major questions and challenges:

How can we design institutions that align public and private incentives to adapt- from the global to the local level? What are the lessons for climate change of policies that have successfully achieved very long term goals? How do we encourage the mega-improvements needed to protect ecosystems and simultaneously increase the productivity of agriculture and insure reliable water supplies? On what basis do we begin to compare the relative costs of different forms of adaptation?

Even as we grope towards answers to these questions, a major infusion of creative energies and financial incentives is necessary even to ask many of the other right questions about adaptation and institutional innovation. Focusing on and investing in better knowledge of appropriate adaptation and institutional innovations is a fundamental need today - we must meet this need now to reduce the misery and damage that committed levels of climate change will otherwise inflict upon humanity.


Rosina Bierbaum

Co-Director, World Development Report 2010

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