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Integrated assessment and adaptation

Ferenc Toth outlines the potential use of integrated assessment at the regional level for more effective adaptation analysis.

The author is an economist and policy analyst with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Potsdam, Germany.

One biasin the integrated assessment literature is that the term has been largely associated with global-scale analyses. This article strives to show that the tools and techniques of integrated assessments are indispensable in conducting policy-relevant regional climate impact assessments, especially when these studies intend to systematically explore adaptation options.

Global integrated assessment models provide useful information to orient decision- making processes at the global level. Global- scale analysis and decision making, though, crucially depend on regional analyses. What are the regional impacts under specific global scenarios? What are the regional adaptation possibilities? What are the regional mitigation options and the associated costs? There is obviously a need for regional integrated assessment models of climate change addressing mitigation issues and impacts and adaptation options, plus a combination of these two.

For analytical purposes, we can separate adaptation assessments from mitigation-oriented studies, but adaptation is impossible to treat without a framework involving impact assessment as well. Integrated assessments in impacts and adaptations offer the advantage of going beyond limitations of sectoral impact assessments on the one hand, and imposing future climate on current socio-economic conditions on the other.

In a conventional climate impact assessment, regional equivalents of global climate change scenarios are used as inputs to sectoral biophysical assessments (for example, crops, forests, hydrology). The initial state of these exposure units reflects present-day conditions and ignores any change that might occur between today and the time when climatic conditions described by the climate scenarios will arrive.

Another deficiency is that single sector impact studies such as this cannot take into account indirect impacts of climate change on the exposure unit they investigate. Indirect impacts might hit as a repercussion of impacts on another, closely-related sector. One example is the response of crop models to climatic conditions under no assumed changes in soil characteristics and hydrology.

The first necessary improvement of sectoral biophysical assessments is to superimpose climate change scenarios on the expected future state of the exposure unit. Changes could both increase or decrease the future climate sensitivity of the exposure units. Impacts of the same rate and degree of climate change are likely to cause much more harm to a degraded ecosystem than for a healthy one.

Beyond this, sectoral assessments should be extended in two directions. First, a regionally integrated biophysical assessment could accommodate all direct and indirect impacts of climate change across interlinked exposure units (for example, hydrology, vegetation, soils). Second, sectoral biophysical impacts should be superimposed on expected socio-economic and technological conditions to provide a sectoral integrated assessment. This is important for two reasons. In the first instance, the primary sensitivity of a sector depends on future development patterns. In the second instance, assumptions about future institutional and technological conditions are indispensable for assessing adaptation potential. A truly integrated regional assessment of impacts and adaptation options would then combine results of both the integrated biophysical and the integrated sectoral assessments.

Designing an integrated assessment study of regional impacts and adaptation options is a complex and demanding task. Funding requirements and demand for coordination are huge. These are the main reasons why climate impact assessments in the past have largely remained partial and fragmented exercises. Ex post integration of sectoral results remains difficult due to different assumptions used in different studies that constrains the usefulness of the results. Nevertheless, assessing adaptation options and deriving policy-relevant insights for “no-regrets” adaptation measures are virtually impossible without truly integrated regional assessments.

Integration across sectors even in a regional context is not an easy task. Scale problems represent one difficulty. Regional water resource/hydrology issues typically require larger scales as they are linked to river basins that stretch across greater regions, often several countries. Another problem is illustrated by agriculture. Regional biophysical impacts are one part of the issue but the ultimate implications depend on biophysical impacts in other regions that will influence prices and demand across shared markets, as well as adaptation measures undertaken in other regions. Openness to trade can be an important mitigating factor. Closed, self-sufficient, mono-crop regions are much more vulnerable to climate change than diversified regions with substantial trade linkages.

An early policy-oriented climate impact assessments project provides an example of the kind of approach that can be used in adaptation-oriented integrated assessment. The study was conducted in three countries of Southeast Asia – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand – in the early 1990s. The main objective of the policy analysis phase of the project was to develop and evaluate strategic policy responses with a view to how societies in Southeast Asia might respond to the potential impacts of climate change identified in the biophysical assessments in order to protect their environmental and natural resource base, their economic vitality and prosperity. What are the possible short-term adaptive moves and what are the longer-term strategic responses? What are the potential gains and losses involved in those alternative policy responses?

The IPCC Second Assessment Report emphasized the potential for “no-regrets” measures on the mitigation side. Some of these remain highly debated. Much less attention was given to “no-regrets” adaptation measures, although there is considerably less ground to debate their existence and potential contribution to solving prevailing problems. Perhaps the most important of these “no-regrets” adaptation measures are those that eliminate the root causes of resource degradation that increase sensitivity to climate change and undermine adaptive capacity as well.

A participatory integrated assessment approach, known as a policy exercise, was used in the Southeast Asia study. A policy exercise is a flexible but structured process designed as an interface between academics and policy makers. Its function is to synthesize and assess knowledge accumulated in several relevant fields of science for policy purposes in light of complex management problems. It is carried out in one or more periods of joint work involving scientists, policy makers, and support staff. A period consists of three phases – preparations, workshop, evaluation – and can be repeated several times.

At the heart of the process is scenario writing of “future histories” and scenario analysis via the interactive formulation and testing of alternative policies that respond to challenges in the scenarios. These scenario-based activities take place in an institutional setting reflecting the institutional features of the problem at hand.

The approach, taken to make the impact assessments more relevant to senior policy makers, proved to be highly successful. The strategy was to link climate impacts to four major sets of issues in current policy making.

  • To link impacts of climate change to current problems and strategies to solve them. The objective was to identify long-term, large-scale, and complex social and economic problems (equivalent in scales to those of climate change). Then to evaluate whether the proposed solutions and strategies remain valid under plausible impacts of climate change and explore how they could be enhanced according to the newly-emerging threats and opportunities resulting from climate change. Are the strategies robust with respect to different patterns of climate change and variability?
  • To link impacts of climate change to ongoing or planned long-term government programmes to clarify whether the objectives remain valid if climate is changing and the strategies are robust to those changes. What are the perceived needs to modify these programmes according to the new threats and opportunities emerging from impacts of climate change?
  • To link impacts of climate change to the long-term objectives for overall socio-economic development to identify components and areas that might be threatened by those impacts.
  • To assess new economic or social problems that might arise as a result of climate change.

Issues in these four areas are closely interrelated and in some cases they overlap. Nevertheless, the approach seemed to provide a useful framework to focus policy makers’ attention on the relationships between their strategic objectives, current endeavours and the slowly-evolving but long-term threats of climate change. Policy participants were asked to formulate responses on behalf of their own organization in five major categories: economic, technological, institutional, research, and monitoring policies.

Based on experience with policy exercises and other participatory techniques of integrated assessments, these approaches can be recommended for use in regional assessments of climate change impacts and adaptation options.

These tools have proven to be sufficiently flexible so as to be adopted to the actual problem setting, social, cultural, political conditions and the appropriate policy context characterizing the region at hand.

Further information

Ferenc Toth, PIK, PO Box 601203, D-14412 Potsdam, Germany. Fax: 49-331-2882600. Email:

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