Evaluating Adaptation: An Analysis of Policy Progress in Coastal Cities and Regions

Submitted by William Lewis | published 28th Jul 2023 | last updated 1st Sep 2023
Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain, 2014 (Source: Asier Aranzadi)

Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain, 2014 (Source: Asier Aranzadi) 


Rising sea levels and extreme weather events threaten extensive areas of the planet, with nearly 11% of the global population, or 896 million people, living in low-lying coastal areas. A study in 136 coastal megacities found that coastal flooding under a high-emission sea-level rise scenario could cause annual expected damages of US$1,600 billion in 2050. The danger looming over them has been and remains a constant source of concern. 

An endless stream of measures of every sort have been applied since 1997, motivated by international commitments and conventions such as the Paris Agreement of 2015. In this line of action, thousands of governments worldwide at different scales have committed to adaptation and are working on strategies and plans to prepare for climate change impacts. For example, there are now over 12,685 signatories of the Global Covenant of Mayors which represents a long-term commitment by cities and regions to adapt to climate change. Despite this policy context, progress to date is poorly understood and tracked. As yet, there is insufficient qualified information and agreement on methods and metrics to evaluate the local and global impact of adaptation initiatives. 

When it comes to large comparative assessments of adaptation progress across nations, regions, or cities, and despite a large consensus on its limitations, the focus on adaptation planning and policy outputs as a measure of progress has been the dominant assessment approach. The attention to (and use of) other means to measure progress beyond adaptation outputs, has been largely theoretical and case-study-focused. However, the reasons behind adaptation assessment require approaches that can cover different spatial and temporal scales including policy design processes, implementation, and impacts in the medium and long term.

This policy brief presents the findings of the CLIC project “Are cities properly preparing for climate change?” and introduces the new European Research Council (ERC) funded project ‘IMAGINE adaptation’ (ERC, IMAGINE adaptation, 101039429). 

This article is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text. 

*For opportunities to be involved in IMAGINE Adaptation and the call for participation for actors working on adaptation in a specific city see the further resources section.

Are cities properly preparing for climate change?

The project CLIC was set-up to explore this question “Are cities properly preparing for climate change?”. Focusing on planning and policy outputs, it aimed to design, develop, and coordinate an experiment on an international scale to assess the quality and effectiveness of public adaptation policies made by cities, specifically in the areas most affected by sea-level rise and under greater pressure from extreme climate phenomena: the largest 136 coastal port-cities over 1M inhabitants.

Figure 1. Number of adaptation policies at national, regional and local levels per city. Orange bubbles indicate the total number of plans; white bubbles indicate the total number of local (city and metropolitan) plans. Sampled countries are shaded gradually indicating the number of national policies. (Source: Olazabal et al 2019b).

Key messages from the policy brief: 

  • Although larger cities seem to be hotspots for adaptation action, more than 50% of larger coastal cities worldwide do not have plans in place (only 59 cities out of the sample of the largest 136 coastal cities worldwide).

  • There is a need to align adaptation policies with climate risks, this can be informed through two assessment frameworks: The Adaptation-Risk Policy Alignment (ARPA) framework and the Adaptation Policy Credibility (APC) framework.

  • The ARPA framework was tested in four early adapter cities. The pilot showed that the gap between adaptation planning and actual implementation still remains.

  • The APC framework was applied in 59 cities worldwide with adaptation policies and was shown to be useful in providing an overall idea of the likelihood of adaptation policies being delivered and sustained in the future.

  • When looking in detail into M&E frameworks of city plans, only 11 of the 59 cities listed adaptation indicators and metrics and the majority focused on outputs (95%), i.e. what is implemented, rather than outcomes - the objectives to be achieved.

  • Although cities are finding new innovative ways to integrate learning and reflect on outcomes, there remains a persistent disconnect between the production of climate science and the implementation of practical and context-specific adaptation actions.

Future research

Conceptual framework for IMAGINE Adaptation
Figure 5. Conceptual framework for the project IMAGINE Adaptation: From the lock in of urban risks to transformative urban adaptation through a paradigm shift in how we conceive adaptation and its evaluation. 

Impacts of climate change are happening as a result of extreme temperatures, sea-level rise, storm surges or droughts. Communities and governments across the globe are preparing through actions to reduce its impacts and increase climate resilience. However, progress made to date to adapt is still poorly understood and tracked due to a lack of a shared understanding of adaptation and the evaluation of how well the world is adapting. 

Our new project ‘IMAGINE adaptation’ addresses the urgent need to evaluate adaptation in urban areas and understand progress across governance levels. It argues that the current focus on policy progress can be a useful first step, but it is not indicative of effective adaptation. A broader understanding of success is required, one that goes beyond technical definitions and considers equity, justice, and maladaptive issues. It departs from the assumption that a paradigm shift regarding how we understand success in adaptation is required in order to move from a potential lock in of urban risks to transformative urban adaptation (see figure 5).

To enable evaluation and learning from diverse understandings of adaptation, ‘IMAGINE adaptation’ will gather expert and local views to reformulate the concept of adaptation success. The project will then explore the trends and needs regarding monitoring and evaluation and how these may enable or hinder adaptation. The findings will be used to inform the development of a comparative case study research across 12 urban areas worldwide. Finally, the project will explore how the evaluation of local progress can be integrated into global goals for adaptation. The outputs of the project aim to be a reference for future adaptation assessment studies and will pioneer the understanding of the ways to enable far-reaching transformative urban adaptation through processes of evaluation and learning.

Further resources