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A person carries a globe model during the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 8, 2021.YVES HERMAN/Reuters

One of the pivotal sources of tension at COP26 took centre stage on Monday, as focus turned to bracing for consequences of climate change that are already unavoidable – especially in poorer countries that will face the worst of those impacts.

Amid an array of speeches and panel discussions on the subject, which was the day’s featured theme at the United Nations summit in Glasgow, Britain committed about US$370-million toward vulnerable countries’ climate resilience. That built off similar commitments by other countries, including Canada and the United States, last week.

But a vexing overarching question hanging over this week’s negotiations toward a final agreement at the conference is how to set compelling global targets for adaptation to climate impacts. In other words, in order to give urgency and focus to a global effort to build infrastructure as a bulwark against the inevitable effects of climate change, many COP26 delegates believe there needs to be some kind of internationally recognized goal, and a way of measuring progress toward it.

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At the urging of an African group of countries, the 2015 Paris Agreement committed to setting a “global goal on adaptation.” The idea at the time was that it would be akin to that landmark deal’s other, better-known target: reducing emissions enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels – a level at which there will still be significantly increased risks of floods, droughts and other natural disasters.

But there has since been little progress on figuring out what the adaptation goal should look like, nor on developing a coherent and comprehensive plan for richer countries to help meet the developing world’s adaptation needs. This has been a considerable source of frustration for delegations from Africa, Southeast Asia, island countries and others among the most at risk from climate change.

“Not having a clear goal that helps us to actually build our resilience is going to mean we’ll be caught unawares by the next impacts that will be hitting us,” said Mohamed Adow, the founding director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa.

Part of the challenge has been that there is no widely acknowledged metric to rally around, along the lines of the temperature threshold that has driven countries’ national emissions-reduction commitments.

“In terms of setting a quantifying goal like 1.5 degrees, or tonnes of GHG emissions, it’s difficult to set one for adaptation,” said Chizuru Aoki, who manages funding programs for developing countries at the Washington-based Global Environmental Facility.

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A report released during COP26 by the United Nations Environment Programme shed some light on the scale of financing needed. It found that the annual global cost of adaptation to irreversible climate impacts is on pace to be as high as $300-billion by 2030 and $500-billion by 2050, and that in developing countries the cost will be “between five to 10 times greater than current public adaptation flows.”

But there are few clear or comparative metrics for how well countries are preparing their infrastructure for the wide range of climate-related dangers they face. That’s something even richer ones, such as Canada, are grappling with. The federal government is in the midst of preparing its first national adaptation strategy.

It’s also difficult to set collective international goals for outcomes. As Ms. Aoki noted, emissions reductions are fungible, because any country’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases benefit the entire world, and similar strategies can be employed in different places. By contrast, adaptation needs vary significantly by region, and progress in one place does not directly help anywhere else.

Nevertheless, there is a common sense here that rich countries have dropped the ball on – and, in some previous rounds of COP, actively thwarted – attempts to give adaptation equal billing with mitigation.

Those familiar with this week’s negotiations toward Glasgow’s final agreement say there are active debates under way about how much more priority adaptation will get here, with developing countries worried that it will again receive little more than vague wording about the importance of resilience investment.

There are a few relatively immediate adaptation-related wins that some of those countries’ representatives are seeking in the negotiations.

One of those would be a firm commitment that at least half of all climate finance provided from richer governments to the developing world – which is currently supposed to total $100-billion annually, although that number has not yet been finalized – be devoted explicitly to adaptation, as opposed to emissions reduction. The share of the funds currently being spent is believed to be less than 25 per cent, which is considered particularly problematic because it’s more difficult to raise private capital for adaptation than for reducing pollution. (Canada has pledged at COP26 to commit at least 40 per cent of its future climate aid to adaptation.)

Another adaptation measure being debated relates to the creation of an emissions credit-trading system under the Paris Agreement’s yet-to-be-implemented Article 6. The idea is that, when countries that are not meeting their emissions-reduction targets buy credits from those exceeding theirs, a small share of the transaction costs would be hived off and placed into a global adaptation fund.

But some advocates here are also hoping for progress on more comprehensive, long-term goal-setting. While there is no expectation that clear targets will be set within a matter of days, there is some optimism about the process of developing them being started in a more serious way than in Paris.

“What we need to do is launch a work program that is going to invite parties to submit their views on what the global goal on adaptation is going to cover,” Mr. Adow said.

The idea, he said, is to convene countries over the next year to figure out how to set measurements of adaptation that could drive future planning. He’s calling for that to be done in time for the results to be factored in to the UN’s so-called global stocktake – a measurement of countries’ progress toward meeting Paris Agreement goals that is to be completed by 2023.

He added that pressure around adaptation will be higher at the next edition of COP, in a year’s time, which is expected to be held in the Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

That will be where “the rubber hits the road,” he said, because the conference will be hosted by the continent “least responsible and most vulnerable” when it comes to climate change’s consequences.

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