Global Adaptation Governance: Why It’s Weak In Precision And Obligation

In Paris in December 2015, states established a new ‘global goal on adaptation’ at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This goal was cited as one of the positive elements of the Paris Agreement, alongside the breakthroughs on mitigation. In fact, it was part of a broader trend in the early 2000s adaptation has become a more significant part of the international climate negotiations at the UNFCCC.

In an incremental fashion, states have established many adaptation rules and commitments under the UNFCCC – ranging from knowledge-sharing guidelines, through to new climate adaptation funds. However the legal force of these adaptation initiatives is not entirely clear, and scholarship has not fully explained nor analyzed the nature of global adaptation governance.


A recent study by Hall and Persson examines the degree of precision and obligation of global adaptation governance. It analyses the rules and commitments states have established in the UNFCCC, the principal international institution governing climate change, and compliments this analysis with interviews with experts and negotiators, and participant observation at climate negotiations. It finds that there are a growing number of attempts under the UNFCCC to govern states’ adaptation actions. However, this nominal increase does not correspond with a higher legalization of rules and commitments. Rather, adaptation governance is low in precision – rules are typically ambiguous – and low in obligation – rules are not usually legally binding. In short, while there appear to be many adaptation governance rules they are not particularly binding on states but are expressed rather as recommendations, expectations or understandings.

Take the global adaptation goal for example. Some African states, led by South Africa, pushed for a precise, quantitative goal. They wanted to establish a formula on adaptation that would lead to clear financing targets for developing states. However, many other developing and developed states were opposed. Other developing states thought that a universal equation to determine adaptation financing was not feasible, as it would be difficult to set vulnerabilities and needs, and also would mean some states would lose out. In the end, states at Paris agreed on a broad, qualitative goal lacking in precision and obligation.

The final agreement stated that: ‘parties hereby the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the temperature goal referred to In Article 2” (Article 7.1). States also agreed to review their progress towards this adaptation goal during the global stocktakes mandated by the Paris Agreement, starting in 2023 (Article 7.14).

So why do we have global adaptation governance that is lacking in precision and obligation? Hall and Persson suggest this is for two reasons. Firstly, adaptation is a contested global good and secondly, because ‘package deals’ are between states over adaptation and mitigation commitments. States have divergent views on whether adaptation should be viewed as a global public good.  While mitigation is clearly a global public good (lower atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration results in a more stable climate system), many adaptation initiatives will lead to excludable private benefits. Thus many states (and scholars) do not see adaptation as a public good.  Furthermore, in the cases where adaptation may be considered a public good, it been questioned whether it is a global public good requiring international rather than national level response. Given the contestation around adaptation, it might be surprising that we see any global adaptation initiatives.


Hall and Persson suggest that adaptation governance has also been a ‘side-payment’ from developed countries to incentivize developing countries to make mitigation commitments. Although developing countries have consistently called for higher legalization, in particular, greater obligation and precision around financial commitments, developed countries have been reluctant. Developed states have been more willing to include broad, vague non-binding commitments on adaptation – such as the adaptation goal. Global adaptation governance must be understood as part of a wider ‘package deal’ between developed and developing countries in the climate regime.

This study, Global climate adaptation governance: Why is it not legally binding? was recently published by Nina Hall and Åsa Persson in the European Journal of International Relations. Nina Hall is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.



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