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Independent Evaluation Group Assesses World Bank Group's Climate Adaptation Activities

The World Bank Group continues to play a leading role in international development, assisting less developed and developing nations build the organizational structures and institutional frameworks, as well as the physical infrastructure, that serve as a foundation for social and economic development. As is true for intergovernmental organizations more generally, sustainable development continues to emerge as the centerpiece of the World Bank Group's strategic policy and investment framework.

Climate change mitigation, and to a lesser degree, adaptation, have in turn emerged as the predominant aspects driving intergovernmental organizations' sustainable development strategies. In a new report, the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) assesses “how, and how well, the World Bank Group has incorporated climate change risks into the design and appraisal of long-lived infrastructures,” whether they be physical or institutional in nature.

Climate change adaptation and the World Bank Group

Having experienced a historic drought and Superstorm Sandy here in the U.S. this past year, you don't have to look to developing countries or small island states to get a sense of the impacts climate change is having around the world, or a sense of the critical importance and need to enhance resiliency to climate change.

With their focus on quarterly results and earnings, investing in climate change adaptation isn't the kind of investment for which corporations, investment fund managers and institutional investors are geared for, much less willing to take on. Nor are they necessarily those that politicians—dependent on funding from private interest groups and focused ever earlier on the next election—are well-suited, or even willing, to take on. Nonetheless, both businesses and politicians are directly and ultimately dependent on the availability of natural resources and the health and well-being of the societies in which they operate for their own survival and sustainability.

Capable of wreaking untold havoc in developed nations, less developed nations will experience the brunt of climate change impacts to an even greater degree, however. Charged with financing international development efforts among the world's less developed nations, the World Bank Group--the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the International Development Association (IDA), the International Finance Corp. (IFC), the Multilateral Investment Guaranty Agency (MIGA) and the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID)--is at the forefront of assisting them to develop socially, not just economically, as well as in such a way that the natural environment and biodiversity are conserved for generations to come.

In its report, “Adapting to Climate Change: Assessing World Bank Group Experience,” IEG “reviews the impact of the Group's longer-standing efforts to deal with climate variability, for instance via drought relief, sustainable land management and flood control.” It also assesses the degree and extent to which climate change risks have been incorporated into the Group's decision-making processes, drawing lessons “from a new crop of activities that explicitly grapple with climate change adaptation at the national level.”

Enhancing climate change resiliency

People, societies and nations need to be resilient to emerging climate risks as well as those being experienced today. There are three ways of enhancing resiliency to climate change risks, IEG asserts, two of which are desirable.

One type of climate change adaptation is actually “maladaptation, a trap to be avoided,” according to IEG—initiatives that help cope with today's climate risks but can backfire in the longer run. An example of this is planting exotic trees in China's Loess Plateau in order to counter desertification and erosion, IEG points out. While this did succeed in raising farmers' incomes and reducing “terrible soil erosion problems,” it also wound up drawing down scarce groundwater resources on which the farmers and local economies critically depend.

Investment capital would be much better directed toward efforts aimed at “closing today's adaptation gap,” according to IEG, by assisting poorer countries “adapt to today's challenges in a way that makes them more prepared for tomorrow's.” Among these are agricultural research and extension services, disaster risk management systems and river basin management organizations. Making these kinds of investments in building resiliency would “help right now, and will lay the foundations for the sophisticated organizations that will be needed to confront the unprecedented climate situations of the 2030s and beyond.”

The second type of desirable climate change adaptation investments IEG calls “anticipatory adaption.” Such involves taking actions now to avert severe, long-term threats, as well as keeping future options open. “Shaping land use patterns will be critical for this,” particularly in light or ongoing rapid urbanization, according to IEG.
“Urban populations will swell by hundreds of millions this century, and it would be better if settlements expanded away from the coastal lowlands and floodplains most exposed to risk. To conserve biodiversity, plants and animals will need to be able to migrate upslope and polewards to cooler ground, and it would be better if their escape routes are not blocked by swathes of intensive agriculture."

Climate change adaptation and the World Bank Group: A report card

Reviewing the World Bank and its clients' climate change adaptation activities, IEG found that they “indeed focused much more on here-and-now climate variability adaptation than on anticipatory adaptation.” IEG noted that there are exceptions, however.

One example is the South African Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development Project. Located in South Africa's Western Cape province, “a sophisticated approach to long-term spatial development planning” was designed and implemented “in order to maintain the region's rich and globally distinctive floral biodiversity.” Similarly, a “generation-long plan to reconfigure development patterns threatened by the rising seas” is a core element of a technical assistance project in India's Sundarbans.

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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