More than 200 technologies have been chosen to illustrate innovation and technology’s potential to contribute to climate change adaptation. We conclude with some general observations and recommendations.
This publication provides an overview of the role technology can play in adapting to climate change. It showcases more than 200 technologies that provide much needed solutions, but many more exist which to our knowledge are not inferior to the ones included here. Technology cannot solve climate change nor can it be seen as quick fix. But it can provide solutions that together with other initiatives, policies, instruments, projects, programs and new ways to live, work, produce and consume may bring about the increasingly urgent changes needed.
By sifting through the many sources, technology descriptions and analyses that have gone into the making of this publication, it is possible to draw out some observations and recommendations. It is hoped they may be relevant for those who have a say on how to increase the development and deployment of innovative technologies in support of climate change adaptation.
Adaptation technologies are available: Probably the first and most important conclusion of this publication is that there are technologies available for almost any challenge. They are not necessarily a full solution, nor are they necessarily cheap and simple to deploy. But the magnitude and diversity of innovation – and, frankly speaking, ingenuity – is in our opinion simply impressive. This gives hope. It gives grounds for optimism. It means that we may be able to live with climate change impacts we cannot mitigate against. Or at least some of the impacts. It will cost us. It will demand sacrifices. And it will force us to change and make compromises. But there is a way. And in the end, the cost of not acting now may be so much higher. And there is a further challenge and that is to ensure uniform access across all solutions, including for those most in need.
Bias toward “hard” technologies: In general, there seems to be more hard structure-based solutions than there are solutions that actively exploit the beneficial forces within nature, namely nature-based solutions. The technology landscape here may change, as increasing attention, as well as formal recognition, is now being directed at nature-based solutions. Many are also no-regret solutions, meaning they will provide benefits even if the climate change impact they address turns out to be less than expected.
Distinction between mitigation and adaptation not always clear cut: Many technologies effectively blur the dichotomy between mitigation and adaptation. The conceptual division between the two can be a practical one when it comes to classifying, organizing and understanding climate action. But oftentimes this is more concept than reality, as many technologies effectively contribute to both mitigation and adaptation rather than either one or the other.
Many technologies effectively blur the dichotomy between mitigation and adaptation
Therefore when it comes to the deployment of technologies and solutions, it may be less relevant or useful to maintain this division. And they should certainly not be seen as two opposing or even competing concepts. Mitigation and adaptation are both necessary when dealing with climate change risks.
Mitigation prioritized, but adaptation funding is increasing: That said, there is a marked difference between mitigation and adaptation with respect to innovation level, technological solutions, funding and attention. In every case mitigation comes out in front. This should not necessarily be seen as wrong, as it makes good sense to prevent an impending threat rather than have to find ways of living with it. Financial flows can be seen to be heavily focused on mitigation solutions but also increasingly going into adaptation. If this process continues there is reason to believe that adaptation will stop being overshadowed by mitigation to the same extent as now. Benefits from adaptation technologies and projects may be harder to quantify compared, for example, to measured emissions reductions from mitigation technologies.
Making adaptation projects more measurable may help drive investment in adaptation technologies
This may deter private sector investment. Making adaptation projects more measurable may help drive investment in adaptation technologies. But indicators should avoid over-simplification and the monetization of adaptation to a point where it fails to address vulnerability.
Adaptation technologies are often multipurpose: We have seen how adaptation technologies, from nature-based solutions to hardware, can be incredibly multifaceted. For instance, a simple tree offers multiple adaptation benefits, from cleaning air and filtering water to sun and wind protection. Meanwhile, drones are being creatively used for monitoring, sowing mangrove seeds, nurturing corals, monitoring soil, crop, insect and forest data, spraying fertilizers, controlling forest fires and guiding livestock through sustainable grazing patterns. Combining functions can save money while at the same time providing adaptation co-benefits. An example is the technology field of early warning, where multi-hazard warning systems are reporting on multiple threats.
Context-specific implementation critical to avoid maladaptation: Technology solutions can be more or less complex. They range from large advanced installations demanding specialized technical and managerial skills and large investments to simple techniques requiring no additional equipment whatsoever. They are all relevant. Their feasibility is determined to a great extend by context. Indeed, adaptation planning is most often highly localized, diverse and its success depends on several factors.
While technology may offer many viable and feasible solutions, these may not always work as expected. Very few technologies are plug and play. Planning for adaptation is complex, and many risks hard to predict or estimate, or even understand. This can result in a wrong choice of technology; or if not that, the capacity to implement and maintain a particular technology is not present. Maladaptation is a term that unfortunately often applies. Indeed, it is by studying cases of maladaptation that we may learn what the risk factors are that led for instance to an unwanted increase in a target group’s climate change vulnerability instead of a reduction as planned. Thorough and high-quality Environmental and Social Impact Assessments, which in most countries are mandatory for larger projects and as such are already mainstreamed, may help prevent maladaptation.
Highly advanced technologies are not reserved for developed countries but can have a transformational impact in low-income countries as well
Hi-tech can have global relevance: We see that highly advanced technologies are not reserved for developed countries but can have a transformational impact in low-income countries as well.
Mobile devices, possibly powered by off-grid electricity supply, may tap into sophisticated data from satellites and advanced sensors. Many devices may also be used as sensors or reporting tools and themselves able to improve early warning systems and provide critical information about an ongoing extreme weather event. Such technologies are paving the way for new safety nets such as weather-indexed crop insurance.
Make a solution good business: As we have said, there are many solutions out there, some more fanciful than others. For many it is too early to say whether they will survive real-world deployment and deliver what they promise. Economic feasibility is in many cases of crucial importance. If a technology solves a critical issue, and maybe even lowers greenhouse gas emissions, but also makes good business sense, then deployment can be fast and widespread.
One emerging technology area that we will continue to watch closely is the advanced technologies promising to optimize farming. These include drones, self-driven equipment, artificial intelligence and others grouped under the term precision agriculture.
Innovation patents for adaptation technologies concentrated in few developed countries: So where does all this innovation and technology come from? Patent analyses indicate that it originates in a few developed countries and that innovation transfer is modest and far below the level of mitigation technologies. This could lead to a discrepancy between where technologies are developed and where they are needed most. But patents do not always reflect innovation on the ground. Adaptation technologies from developing countries seem to be far less visible. This may be because they are simpler, less commercially oriented and developed with a local context in mind. However, such solutions may be exactly what is needed in many other places. Therefore there may be a need for a stronger exposure of adaptation technologies from developing countries.
The innovation ecosystem enables technology receivers to adopt and adapt technologies to their specific context
Support the innovation ecosystem: Innovation ecosystem is a convenient term under which to group all the many factors that make it possible for an inventor to develop, finance, publicize, market, protect and benefit from an innovation. The innovation ecosystem, or rather the many factors that lie behind it, benefits not only technological development. It also enables technology receivers to adopt and adapt technologies to their specific context.
Intellectual property right is an important factor here. And patent systems generate an enormous amount of publicly available technology information. This information enables authorized use of inventions in countries where a patent has been granted, free use in countries where a patent has not been granted, and further development into new patentable inventions.
Climate change adaptation is global: Finally, it is important to keep in mind that climate change adaptation is not solely a developing country phenomenon. Neither is it limited to civil society nor the private or public sector. Instead it needs strong involvement from every stakeholder. Every country faces a serious challenge from climate change. But developing countries are often more vulnerable than others, either because of they lack a strong foundation for implementing adaptation measures, or because they are most exposed to impacts, which is the case for some small island states. Access to adaptation solutions may also be highly unequal. Gender, education, social status, ethnicity and poverty are among the many factors that may present barriers to obtaining and deploying solutions.
The very complexity and diversity of adaptation means that communities have to be prepared for more than just increasingly frequent floods and hotter weather. There are many other disruptions, some hard to predict. To a large extent, being adaptation-capable means being part of a community that has the resources, power, institutions, capability and knowledge to act, develop and adapt.