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These may be the best climate investments $1.8 trillion can buy

A new global report identifies five types of projects that could pay off in the future

US-BAHAMAS-CANADA-WEATHER Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes you have to spend money to save money — and a major new report finds that spending $1.8 trillion on climate adaptation projects would result in $7.1 trillion in total net benefits. The report predicts that the most impressive returns will come from investments that strengthen early warning systems for disasters like storms and floods.

“If we delay adaptation, we will pay such a high price that we would never be able to look at ourselves in the mirror,” Christiana Figueres, who previously headed the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change during the adoption of the Paris climate agreement, said in a press call ahead of the report launch. “Either we delay and pay, or we plan and prosper.”

The research was released by the Global Commission on Adaptation, an organization jointly headed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, former United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva. According to the report, “failing to seize the economic benefits of climate adaptation with high-return investments would undermine trillions of dollars in potential growth and prosperity.”

To see those $7 trillion in benefits, the report says, governments and companies will need to funnel money into five areas. The first is to improve early warning systems for disastrous events. Second, it calls for making infrastructure more climate-resilient. It also carves out spending for getting more out of crops while using less water and preserving mangroves that protect coastal communities from storm surge. Lastly, it highlights better management of the world’s water resources. The benefits of spending in all of these areas outweigh the costs by four to one.

The predicted $7 trillion in returns won’t go directly back to stakeholders in the form of cold hard cash. Instead, that number includes all of the damage avoided by better preparing for climate catastrophes (such as storms or heatwaves), and economic, and social and environmental benefits of the projects. “By investing in certain areas, one can reduce risk, one can improve productivity, one can stimulate innovation in ways that could generate other benefits,” Manish Bapna, a lead author and executive vice president and managing director of the World Resources Institute, told The Verge.

The advantages are biggest when it comes to tackling the ways we warn and prepare people for disasters. “Early warning systems save lives and assets worth at least ten times their cost,” the report says. Giving a warning 24 hours ahead of a storm or heatwave can minimize damage by 30 percent by giving people a chance to prepare for the extreme weather. And the authors say that spending $800 million on these systems in developing countries could prevent up to $16 billion in losses each year.

Recent events, including Hurricane Dorian’s deadly toll in the Bahamas and this summer's sweltering heat in France highlight why severe extreme weather events are at the forefront of people’s minds. “There is a sense of inevitability and helplessness in the face of such events, that nothing can be done or that anything that is being done will not be sufficient to stop the devastating consequences of a warming climate,” Ban said on the press call. “I’m here today to tell you that it’s simply not true.”

Bapna pointed to how warning systems can be improved ahead of disaster, thanks to data science and the rapid spread of information and communications technologies. “The ability to process big data more effectively is enabling us to provide more granular weather forecasts,” Bapna says.

John Harding, climate risk and early warning systems secretariat at the World Meteorological Organization, says those advances have prevented storms like Hurricane Dorian from being even more catastrophic. “It is now possible thanks to higher modeling capacity to show the path of the hurricane up to 5 days in advance with pretty high accuracy - thus allowing life saving measures to be put in place,” Harding told The Verge in an email. “This is a key factor behind the relatively low loss of life compared to the scale of physical damage.”

Better forecasts can also be used to pinpoint which groups will be most vulnerable and figure out how to reach them in a more targeted way. “Nobody needs to die in a heatwave,” Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, tells The Verge. Understanding those vulnerabilities will be increasingly important as climate change throws more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030 within developing countries alone, according to the report. Its authors call for prioritizing improvements in early warning systems in the least developed countries and small island developing states.

Ebi adds that figuring out what message to send and how to make people listen can be equally as important as knowing when to send it. “There’s much more investment into setting thresholds for when to declare a warning than there is, in fact, in how do we increase effective response?” she says. “When hurricanes start approaching, there’s always a fair number of people who say, ‘I’ve seen a storm before, I’m going to stay in place.”

Bapna proposed finding ways to finance preparedness and recovery based on forecasts before the disaster even strikes. Traditionally he says, “government or insurance agents go out, they survey the damage, they quantify what the damage has been, shortly thereafter, you get the money.” Instead, he proposes, “If we’re able to actually allocate that money before the disaster strikes, as imprecise as that may be, you can oftentimes use much less money much more effectively.”

Both Bapna and Ban pointed to Bangladesh for a case study on successfully reducing the toll a major storm takes. The death toll of cyclones in the country dropped from 138,000 in the 1991 cyclone that struck the region of Chittagong to 3,363 deaths during Cyclone Sidr in 2007. Cyclone Fani in 2019 killed five people. The report attributes the sharp fall to the country putting in place stronger early warning systems and scaling up its disaster response.

“We’re talking about this in terms of dollars, but there is much more of a human story or dimension to this,” Bapna says. “These are modest investments that can be made that can reduce death and human misery significantly.”