Joseph A. Siegel, Adjunct Professor*

The historic decision on loss and damage last November at the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP27 at Sharm el-Sheikh) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) shined a spotlight on the current and projected toll of the climate crisis and the need for international collaboration to address a wide range of impacts. Although perhaps less dramatic, there were other important developments on climate impacts at Sharm el-Sheikh concerning the ongoing work on adaptation under the UNFCCC and the 2015 Paris Agreement. One such development was an acknowledgement, in a decision document under the Paris Agreement, that transboundary climate impacts are an important consideration in adaptation planning. Addressing transboundary impacts should be an element of a global approach to adaptation and can also serve as an effective conflict reduction strategy.

Transboundary Climate Risk and Conflict

Climate change impacts do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries. Failure to account for cross-border effects of the climate crisis leaves countries exposed to gaps in adaptation planning and vulnerable to conflict. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 Working Group 2 Summary for Policymakers notes that the redistribution of marine fish stocks due to climate change increases the risk of transboundary fishery management conflicts. In addition, climate impacts often have cascading effects, with a climate impact in one country triggering vulnerability in one or more other countries across the globe. For example, a rice exporting country that suffers severe drought might be unable to supply rice to another non-contiguous country that depends on rice imports for its population’s food needs. The food insecurity and economic shock experienced by the importing country creates a threat multiplier for conflict.

Similarly, without adequate cooperation, adaptation responses in one country could have negative impacts on a neighboring country, which could lead to disputes between the two countries. Moreover, entire regions are at increased risk for conflict due to common threats from the climate crisis. This increased risk calls for regional strategies rather than reliance only on individual country action. For example, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Advisor for Climate Action, Andrew Harper, concluded in November 2022 that rising temperatures and extreme weather in the Sahel region of Africa are “worsening armed conflict, which is already destroying livelihoods, disrupting food security, and driving displacement.” A report published by the UNHCR and the UN Office of the Special Coordinator for Development in the Sahel highlights the importance of regional solutions to the combined challenges of conflict and climate change.  More broadly, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has underscored the need for international cooperation to confront the intersecting challenges of climate change, cross-border movement of people, conflict, and human rights. Advancing efforts on transboundary adaptation can therefore not only fill gaps in adaptation planning but it can also serve to offset the propensity of climate change to be a threat multiplier for conflict.

According to Adaptation Without Borders (AWB), a global partnership leading the effort on transboundary adaptation, which Haub School of Law supports, “no country can achieve resilience to climate change by adapting on its own. We need, as [a] matter of urgency, a new kind of global accountability and solidarity on adaptation.” AWB has raised awareness among policymakers, planners and COP negotiators about the importance of effectively identifying, assessing and managing transboundary climate risks. AWB’s efforts, in large part, led to the inclusion of language at Sharm el-Sheikh on transboundary approaches to adaptation in a decision document on the “Global Goal on Adaptation” under Article 7.1 of the Paris Agreement.

The Global Goal on Adaptation:

The Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) is essentially the adaptation corollary to the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal, which is a guidepost for greenhouse gas mitigation. Unlike the temperature goal in Article 2 of the Agreement, which has a clear metric (“well below 2 degrees C . . . and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C”) a global adaptation goal is more difficult to define and assess. The Paris Agreement left the details of the GGA to be fleshed out in future negotiations and provides little guidance about the nature of the GGA beyond the goal of “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change” while contributing to sustainable development. Therefore, in 2019 at COP25, the parties to the Paris Agreement requested that the UNFCCC’s Adaptation Committee review the “overall progress made in achieving the GGA,” and incorporate its findings into a report to be issued by the Committee in 2021.

In response, the Adaptation Committee issued a technical paper in 2021 that provided initial reflections on assessing the global goal on adaptation. Among the many factors considered by the Adaptation Committee was transboundary climate risk. The technical paper acknowledges that the limited assessment to date of transboundary climate risks and associated responses can cause blind spots in assessing the GGA, for example, where climate risks are redistributed to other countries rather than reduced. The paper indicates that “progress towards addressing transboundary climate change risks can add significant value” because it “underscores the international nature of climate change risk” and the importance of international cooperation on the GGA. Although not mentioned in the technical paper, progress on transboundary adaptation can also have the added benefit of reducing the risk of conflict.

While no timeline or milestones for the GGA were established in the Paris Agreement, the parties decided at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 to launch the two-year Glasgow-Sharm el-Sheikh Work Programme (GlaSS) on the Global Goal on Adaptation, which is intended to build upon the 2021 technical paper and other prior work of the Adaptation Committee. The objectives of the GlaSS include, among other things, enhanced understanding of the GGA and the “methodologies, indicators, data and metrics, needs and support” required to assess progress toward the GGA and help inform the global stocktakes under Article 7.14 of the Paris Agreement starting in 2023. To achieve these objectives, the parties decided that eight workshops would be held on the GGA; four in 2022 and four in 2023.

Although transboundary climate risk was not officially on the agenda, it arose as a point of discussion in each of the four 2022 workshops. The UNFCCC Secretariat’s annual report, which summarizes the 2022 workshops, notes the view of workshop participants that the GGA should “reflect the transboundary and cascading nature of climate impacts and risks.” Unfortunately, reference to conflict reduction was not included in the annual report or the summaries of the four 2022 workshops, so it appears that it was not recognized in any significant manner during the workshops as a potentially positive outcome of addressing transboundary climate risk.

After holding the first four workshops, the parties to the Paris Agreement met at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, during which they decided to conduct the remaining four workshops in 2023 and initiate the development of a “framework” for the GGA. The framework is to be adopted in Dubai when the parties to the Paris Agreement meet during COP28 in November 2023. It is expected to outlive the two-year GlaSS and inform future global stocktakes, and could be an important driver of progress toward the GGA.

The GGA decision at Sharm el-Sheikh lists: (1) specific “elements” for the parties to consider in developing the GGA framework due in Dubai and (2) themes to be taken into account in designing the four remaining GGA workshops this year. The decision states that transboundary approaches should be among the themes considered for the four remaining workshops in 2023, but does not list transboundary approaches as an element of the framework. The first GlaSS workshop of this year was held on March 20-22, 2023 and it did include a session on transboundary adaptation as part of a broader theme on “changing mindsets toward transformational adaptation.” However, the transboundary discussion did not incorporate the linkage between transboundary adaptation and conflict reduction in any specific manner.

From Sharm el-Sheikh to Dubai: How Can We Advance the Incorporation of Transboundary Approaches into the GGA?

While inclusion of transboundary adaptation among the 2023 GGA workshop themes was a step in the right direction, an early draft of the GGA decision at Sharm el-Sheikh had also included transboundary approaches as an element of the framework to be developed by COP28 in Dubai. It is disappointing that transboundary climate risk was not carried forward into the final decision as one of the GGA framework elements.

However, the decision does leave the door open for transboundary impacts to be added as an element of the framework in Dubai. In particular, paragraph 10 of the decision at Sharm el-Sheikh states that the framework “may” take into consideration a rather long list of specifically identified elements, but does not limit the framework to those elements. Thus, transboundary climate risk could be added as an element in Dubai. In addition, paragraph 10(d) states that the development of the framework can also be based on specific sources of information including “reports from relevant constituted bodies and forums and other institutional arrangements” under or serving the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC. One such report is the Adaptation Committee’s 2021 technical paper which includes extensive reference to transboundary climate risk.

Although it remains unclear how significant a role the GGA framework will have in driving adaptation under the UNFCCC or how it will relate to the existing 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework, the parties have an opportunity in Dubai to elevate the importance of transboundary climate risk by specifically incorporating it as an element of the GGA framework. Otherwise, we risk a significant gap in global adaptation planning and a missed opportunity for conflict reduction.


*Joseph A. Siegel teaches Climate Adaptation and the Law at Pace Law School and is an expert and consultant on the intersection of climate change law and policy and conflict resolution/prevention.