Climate Action

7 ways to harness technology for climate adaptation

What is climate adaptation and why should leaders think about it?

What is climate adaptation and why should leaders think about it? Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Valentin Golovtchenko
Lead, Climate Technology, World Economic Forum
Hamid Maher
Managing Director and Partner; Global Leader, Climate & Sustainability, BCG X, Boston Consulting Group (BCG)
Andrew Shao
Senior HPC & AI Research Scientist, Hewlett Packard Enterprise
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Climate Crisis

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • While there is no substitute for swift mitigation of GHG emissions, the world is already experiencing the effects of climate change.
  • Data-driven and digital technologies provide a unique set of capabilities particularly well-suited to support adaptation to the changing climate.
  • To be effective at scale, these technologies need to become more standardized, transparent and equitable.

It is undeniable that the world has entered a new era of climatic risk. The effects of climate change permeate every facet of society, with chronic and acute weather events already displacing vulnerable communities and endangering precious ecosystems, particularly in the Global South. These local human impacts reverberate globally, disrupting entire value chains and heightening the risks of food crises and shortages in essential materials.

While the urgent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (climate mitigation) remains an absolute priority, historical and future emissions still have climate consequences that must be addressed. That is the purpose of climate adaptation, which the UNFCCC describes as actions taken to adjust “processes, practices and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change”.

All industries are exposed to some level of climate risk through acute and chronic hazards.
All industries are exposed to some level of climate risk through acute and chronic hazards. Image: World Economic Forum; BCG Analysis

What’s the role of tech in aiding climate adaptation?

Crafting effective adaptation strategies demands a convergence of diverse approaches ranging from economic incentives and robust policy frameworks to locally-driven interventions. While there is no technological silver bullet for climate change, data-driven and digital technologies can equip leaders and communities with unique capabilities particularly suited to support climate adaptation efforts, across the three stages of the “adaptation cycle”:

The climate adaptation cycle.
The climate adaptation cycle. Image: World Economic Forum

Comprehend risks: Technology has allowed us to observe the Earth and its climate at unprecedented scales. Satellites, drones, and IoT allow for the collection of planetary intelligence from the global to the individual level. Emerging research in coupling AI to these systems shows promise for improving prediction systems and providing tailored insights for specific regions, equipping local authorities and businesses with valuable information about impending climate risks.

Build resilience: AI models, when integrated with real-time Earth observation and IoT data, contribute to early warning systems, mitigating the loss of life and infrastructure during extreme weather events. These models also play a crucial role in informing supply chain management systems, limiting economic disruptions in regions affected by such events.

Respond dynamically: Earth observation is a critical source of truth for post-crisis mapping and damage assessments. Additionally, field-deployable AI and drones emerge as vital allies in authorities' responses, offering recommendations for resource allocation and mitigating traffic congestion during evacuations.

What can be done to unlock this potential?

Despite the immense promise held by these technologies, significant challenges persist, hindering them from realizing their full potential. These seven priority actions aim to overcome these obstacles, providing a roadmap to unlock the maximum capabilities of data-driven and digital technologies and propel them towards their intended impact.

1. Generalise open-source data & tools
Open-source principles foster a more inclusive and transparent approach to addressing the challenges posed by climate change, encouraging a wider community of users and contributors to feed a virtuous cycle of innovation and discovery.

2. Increase standardization, inter-operability and transparency
Establishing common standards and fostering compatibility among diverse technologies and data sources is necessary to create a cohesive ecosystem for seamless collaboration and data exchange between diverse stakeholders. Moreover, building transparency into this ecosystem (e.g. peer review processes) will ensure that technologies are geared toward shared insight, rather than the interests of a single actor.

3. Improve access to technology in underserved areas
The world’s most vulnerable communities to the impacts of climate change are also the ones with the least access to climate data, analytics and computing power. Addressing this gap is key to empowering marginalized communities, especially in Global South geographies with the tools needed for informed decision-making and sustainable resilience in the face of climate challenges.

4. Increase funding for adaptation technology
Climate adaptation funding efforts are largely falling short of the levels needed to prepare for new climate risks. This financing gap needs to be bridged to support continued innovation in new technologies and implementation of systems to enhance resilience.

5. Increase collaboration between technology leaders and governments
Too many of these technology applications languish at the pilot stage. While part of this challenge is rooted in the inherent risks associated with developing new technology, another significant factor is the misalignment of incentives between governments and businesses. Governments need to send stronger demand signals and industries need to adopt longer time horizons for returns on investment.

6. Develop more regulation focused on climate adaptation
Climate intelligence has no impact unless it translates into climate action. Policymakers need to leverage these insights to develop and implement policies that will better protect their populations from climate risk.

7. Address potential bias in AI solutions for adaptation
AI, as with other technologies, is susceptible to various forms of implicit bias. Recognizing and rectifying these biases is crucial for ensuring fair and equitable outcomes in climate-related applications. These emerging solutions need to be validated and deployed across a diverse group of stakeholders to enhance their reliability and inclusivity.

Looking ahead

To overcome these challenges and accelerate the widespread implementation of these technologies, the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group has convened close to 40 leaders and experts from technology, industry, the public sector, academia and civil society to form the Tech for Climate Adaptation working group.

This group has been a key contributor to a recently released report that delves deeper into the technology applications and key unlocks mentioned earlier. An Action Toolkit is also being developed and will provide decision-makers with practical tools to operationalize key insights from the report and formulate their own climate adaptation strategies supported by state-of-the-art technology.

The World Economic Forum invites all leaders committed to driving climate adaptation with technology to join this global community and contribute to its efforts towards a more resilient world.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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