'Now we're into delivery': Adaptation and resilience champion Anne-Marie Trevelyan on her COP26 priorities

The UK has singled out adapatation and resilience as a critical priority for the COP26 Climate Summit it will co-host in Glasgow this autumn, amid calls for the government to use its platform to significantly increase the flow of cash to help poorer nations adapt to escalating climate impacts. Developed nations are falling far short of delivering the climate finance they have promised for the most climate vulnerable nations under the Paris Agreement, and redressing this questionable track record is likely to be a major flashpoint between negotiating teams at the conference.

There are also growing calls for the COP26 Summit to ensure a more even split between support for mitigation measures that tackle the root causes of climate change and adaptation measures that can boost countries’ longer-term resilience to inevitable climate change trends. A growing body of bleak reports and analyses published recently have chronicled the devastating impact storms, floods, heat waves, and other climate-related extreme weather events are already having on nations across the world, and it is clear that an approach that focuses solely on tackling emissions ignores the very real risks countries, and especially poorer countries, will face over the coming decades.

As such, the UK government recently beefed up its plans to make climate adaptation a priority at the conference. Not only is adaptation and resilience one of five key focus areas selected for the summit, in October Number 10 appointed Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the former Secretary of State at the now-axed Department for International Development, to the role of International Champion on Adaptation and Resilience. The appointment made her one of just four ‘champions’ appointed by the Prime Minister to lead the vital conference, alongside former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, COP26 President and Cabinet minister Alok Sharma, and former We Mean Business CEO Nigel Topping.

In an interview with BusinessGreen last week, Trevelyan – who quickly returned to government following the dissolution of DFID when she was appointed as Energy and Clean Growth Minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in January – set out her priorities for the coming months as she and her fellow COP26 champions gear up for the largest and most significant climate event the UK has ever hosted, and all amidst a pandemic which has already led to the postponement of the event once and continues to pose questions as to how the Summit will be delivered this autumn.

Trevelyan explains that her work is focused on how countries most vulnerable to escalating climate risks can access the finance, innovation, and technology required to prepare their economies, citizens, and infrastructure in response to increasingly frequent and intense climate impacts. This involves liaising with both the countries that will be the primary recipients of climate finance, as well as the donor nations. “We want to drive forward global ambition and action on adaptation, resilience, and loss and damage, working with those countries that are really on the front line of those climate shock risks,” she says. “[This involves] being able to work with them to learn from their experiences, and to be able to really implement effective and targeted action, to help them to adapt to climate impacts, and, really importantly, to build resilience.” 

But that action goes far beyond simply mobilising increased levels of climate funding, Trevelyan argues. Shoring up economies and infrastructure in the face of worsening climate shocks will also involve embedding climate risks into insurance markets in order to ensure that the changing climate is factored into major investment and planning decisions, as well as encouraging nations around the world to make climate adaptation a core priority for all parts of government, not just environment ministries, she says. 

As such, Trevelyan’s remit as COP26 champion involves travelling the world via Zoom to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing different countries and industries around the world. “I’ve been jetting around the world without leaving my office,” she says. “African countries, South American countries, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan – [I’m working] with countries where primary impacts are critical and are being felt absolutely now, to really help to champion their voices, and to make sure that they’re front and centre, at the heart of all COP26 conversations and negotiations.”

She reflects that policymakers growing familiarity with teleconferencing could enable more players to take part in the conference than ever before, although she insists that the plan remains to go ahead with an in-person conference. “It’s going to be an ongoing conversation,” she says of the questions around how the government intends to deliver a covid-secure international event at a time when the pace of vaccine roll outs globally varies massively, “but absolutely the intention and the focus is on being able to deliver an in person COP. But interestingly, having developed our Zoom world, there is now an opportunity to have a level of hybrid activity which will be able to genuinely increase the reach of COP26 in a way we would have never thought to do it before.” Her team is also working on how this “hybrid” approach can draw more women to the conference that would otherwise have been the case, she adds.

Beyond the logistical planning, the government is also focuing on how the climate negotiations can offer a major opportunity to galvanise international development agendas and boost economic growth around the world in the wake of the pandemic. Trevelyan notes that many of the governments she is liaising with in her role as COP26 champion she had already been in contact with through her role International Development Secretary. “The climate change agenda is a hook to help them take on the challenges of development and economic growth in a number of ways, to technologically leapfrog and pick up and run with both the human capital and their own natural assets to really help their countries to grow,” she says.

A large part of Trevelyan’s role is encouraging nations around the world to bring forward adaptation strategies – known as Adaptation Communications in the UN jargon – ahead of the vital conference, in line with nations’ obligations as signatories of the Paris Agreement. The UK was one of the first countries to submit its strategy last December, setting out its plans to boost flood defence spending, expand so-called nature based solutions, and introduce new planning requirements to make buildings and infrastructure more resilient in the face of heatwaves and storms.

However, Trevelyan acknowledges that barriers preventing poorer nations from accessing adequate amounts of climate finance has resulted in a reticence from a number of countries to submit their Adaptation Communications. “There’s a lack of ability to sense what they should be putting down with many countries, this sort of slight sense of powerlessness,” she reflects. “I feel very passionately that we need to encourage them to [deliver these plans], to write down all the things you need to do. I know we can’t see the access to finance yet, but let’s really think about what [those plans] look like.”

Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, richer nations have promised to mobilise $100bn in climate finance, split evenly between climate mitigation and adaptation projects in countries more vulnerable to climate shocks by 2020, yet official figures from the OECD for 2018, the last year for which figures are available, found that developed nations had provided just under $80bn that year, of which a mere $16.8bn went to adaptation. Furthermore, an analysis Care International has warned that systematic overreporting of adaptation funding in recent years means the true amount provided to adaptation projects in 2018 might be closer to $10bn.

Trevelyan concedes there is work to be done in encouraging richer nations to deliver on their goals, but she notes that the climate plans set to be unveiled by the US over the coming months could help encourage more developed nations to deliver on their climate finance promises. “I think everyone agrees that it has been too low, and that everybody needs to lean in,” she says, while emphasising the UK had doubled its international climate finance commitment to £11.6bn over the next five years. “Between us all we are encouraging those who are able to make contributions to do so, but I’m dealing really with those for whom recipiency might be the key issue.”

The government has so far resisted calls to match its plan to broadly focus on climate adapatation and resilience at the COP26 Summit with a more targeted effort to establish a clear goal at the conference to mobilise more climate fianance for poorer nations. But in January the Prime Minister launched the Adapatation Action Coalition with a clutch of other nations geared at translating international political commitments on adaptation into on-the-ground support for countries threatened by escalating climate impacts, for instance through early warning systems for storms and investment in flood drainage and drought-resistant crops.

Pushing fellow nation states to publish Adaptation Communications is a key way the UK is aiming to support this coalition and help raise the global bar on adaptation ahead of COP26, Trevelyan argues, noting that such strategies establish a cohesive, cross-governmental approach or framework to adaptation and resilience. At present, the climate resilience agendas of many nations most vulnerable to climate change remain underpowered, of siloed to one particular department, she notes. “In the UK, we’ve got a whole of government approach to net zero and to how we move our nation to a more sustainable way of living and thinking in a more resilient way,” she says. “It’s taken us 13 years to get here. But many of the more vulnerable countries don’t have the level of government capacity, either to draw that together or to think in a whole-of-government way.”

Of course, others would give the UK a far less glowing review for both the cohesiveness of its domestic climate policy and the generosity of its climate funding commitments in the wake of the controversial recent decision to ditch its promise to provide 0.7 per cent of GDP in Overseas Development Aid. Various recent reports from parliamentary committees have warned the UK government suffers from a lack of joined-up thinking on climate, noting that environmental policies designed by the two departments charged with climate and environment related issues – BEIS and Defra – are often at loggerheads with proposals spearheaded by other government ministries. Measures designed to bolster short term economic activity, such as plans to encourage domestic flights or freeze fuel duty, are clearly at odds with the government’s net zero agenda, for instance. And the long saga of the Cumbrian coal mine – which was put on pause again last week after the government finally intervened to review the project –  suggests that climate action is not yet a top priority for all departments. 

But Trevelyan counters that the UK is leading by example through the steep emission reductions it has made in recent decades and the new measures set out in the 10 Point Plan for Green Industrial Revolution and Energy White Paper which were both released towards the end of 2020. “We set out very clearly before Christmas –  both in the PM’s 10-point plan and then in more detail in the Energy White Paper –  exactly what we know and have assessed we need to do in order to get that the next stage,” she says. Attention will now shift to “drawing out that big picture and strategic direction into streams of delivery programmes”, with input from business and citizens, she adds.

However, the recent decision to slash funding for the government’s flagship green housing retrofit programme has further fuelled criticism of the UK’s decarbonisation plans, while the government’s approach to shoring up climate resilience has barely advanced since Climate Change Committee chair Lord Debden slammed the UK’s adaptation preparations as “ramshackle” and likened them to being “run by the government like Dad’s Army” in reference to the incompetent members of the Home Guard in the popular TV sitcom. Similarly, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee recently warned the government was failing to adequately protect UK homeowners from floods, or make flood insurance accessible to the increasing number of households impacted by downpours. Property development is still taking place on flood plains across the UK, it warned, pointing to Environment Agency figures that there could be a 50 per cent increase of homes bought on flood plains over the next 50 years.

Trevelyan insists considerable progress is being made, while acknowledging that the development of a net zero emission and climate resilient economy was never going to happen “overnight”. Although she concedes it is understandable that observers will be looking keenly at the UK’s delivery of climate measures as co-host of a conference designed to encourage countries all around the world to adopt their own net zero emissions goals and climate resilience programmes.

“[COP21 in] Paris was setting out the framework everyone agreed with, and now we’re into delivery [with COP26],” she says. “But it isn’t possible to deliver overnight; we are literally throwing all the plates up in the air and looking to take both our country – and asking other [nations] – to move to a world where we are not putting carbon dioxide emissions back into our atmosphere. There’s a huge amount to do, but we are genuinely world leading in both the commitments we made and the demonstration of efforts coming in.” She also reiterates more plans are in the pipeline, including in areas where the government is currently facing flak, such as domestic energy efficiency programmes. Repeating the government line, she emphasises the soon to be scaled back Green Homes Grant was always intended as a “short-term fiscal stimulus”, but she also notes that it is “part of the first iterations of helping people to consider how they might decarbonise their homes”.

Overall, Trevelyan says she is energised at the potential for COP26 as a launchpad that should provide inspiration and impetus for countries to advance their own decarbonisation agendas. “It’s a spring board conference for countries to really crack on,” she says. She also touts the conference as a unique opportunity to engage citizens across the UK with climate action and help them start their own net zero journey. “COP is an opportunity to engage the whole country, the whole of the UK, in what this is about,” she says. “We’re engaged [on climate] we get it, it’s important – but what do we have to do? What does that look like?”

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