Publications Adaptation

Adaptation: putting the reference trajectory into law

6 July 2023 - Blog post - By : Morgane NICOL

The French decision to define a reference warming trajectory for adaptation to climate change (TRACC) is good news. There is an urgent need for public and private actors to examine the resilience of their investments and activities in a changing climate, including if the target of limiting global warming to below +2°C – a target that must remain a priority – is not met. Going beyond its inclusion in the PNACC (French national climate change adaptation plan) will nevertheless be essential to ensure actors rapidly take up this trajectory and to prevent a single euro more being spent on assets that are not adapted to climate change. The cross-cutting and normative scope of the TRACC now needs to be guaranteed by making it an inter-ministerial issue and putting it into legislation, then progressively tailoring the implementation requirements to the different actors and sectors concerned.


For several months now, France’s adaptation to climate change has (finally) ceased to be a taboo. Elected officials, citizens and economic actors are beginning to agree: adapting our territories to the impacts of climate change is no longer optional. We now need to not only “avoid the unmanageable” by getting on a warming trajectory of below +2°C through mitigation actions, but also “manage the unavoidable” by preparing today for the climate of tomorrow. The impacts of climate change are already evident – as seen in last summers – and will continue to worsen in all cases for at least the next 20 years. We also need to anticipate the case where the actions implemented worldwide are not sufficient, and lead us to global warming of more than +2°C.


The reference warming trajectory is a step in the right direction

In May, the government launched a consultation on the definition of a reference warming trajectory for adaptation to climate change (TRACC). Beyond the form of the questions asked in this consultation, the definition of a reference trajectory is good news in our view. The TRACC should be based on a warming hypothesis of +3°C at the global level, meaning +4°C on average for mainland France by 2100. This will provide all French actors with a common reference to anticipate and prevent risks in case the target of limiting global warming to below +2°C worldwide is not achieved.


This proposal can be criticised on a number of counts. The main one is the final warming level used for the trajectory: +4°C in 2100 in France corresponds to the trajectory we will be on if all of the measures announced by states to date are implemented. This is therefore not so much a pessimistic trajectory as a realistic one. It would also be useful to analyse resilience against a more pessimistic warming hypothesis which, while undesirable, remains plausible. The Conseil national de la transition écologique (French council for ecological transition) thus recommends “defining the activities for which a higher warming level by the end of the century should be anticipated”. With this in mind, it would make sense to define a number of different reference trajectories so that projects are designed to be resilient in a wide range of possible futures. This would ensure actors integrate the fact that climate change is taking us into a completely new and deeply unpredictable context in which deterministic forecasting methods are losing relevance.


In spite of this legitimate criticism, we are convinced that the process underway is a step in the right direction, that it should be supported and that it needs to be taken further. All public and private actors need to rapidly start to anticipate and prevent the economic and social risks linked to the impacts of climate change. However, policies, projects and investments are currently designed as if the climate is not changing, in other words, on the basis of historical climate data. In the absence of a reference trajectory, the tendency is not to change decision making in order to integrate uncertainty, but rather to ignore projections and to act as if the past climate is still the “least worst” hypothesis, whereas it is in fact totally obsolete. Implementing a reference warming trajectory should help ensure a shift from a reactive approach to climate impacts to one that is finally proactive and that works to reduce vulnerability. 


The cross-cutting and normative scope of the TRACC now needs to be guaranteed

Although the approach adopted is a step in the right direction, we now need to move to action by ensuring that the TRACC truly becomes a vector of a cross-cutting, binding adaptation policy.


It is currently expected that the reference trajectory will be included in the third French national plan for adaptation to climate change (PNACC). However, the PNACC has not yet been adopted by decree, contrary to the national low-carbon strategy and the multiannual energy plan, and is not binding. An opinion of the French Council of State in 2021 mentions the “weak normativity of the PNACC and the absence of legal effect”. Indeed, very few people even know of the existence of this plan, whether local officials, MPs, economic actors, or citizens. As things stand, it therefore seems unlikely that including a reference warming trajectory in this document will be enough to encourage actors to examine their vulnerability to climate change and to the adaptation measures to be implemented.


Two conditions must therefore be met in order to get further: 

1. Ensuring that the proposal put forward proactively by the Minister of Ecological Transition is endorsed in a more cross-cutting manner by the other ministries concerned, especially the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Health. Indeed, adaptation to the impacts of climate change is a challenge that concerns economic development, territorial planning, security and social policy. These ministries must therefore also consider themselves responsible for the content of the PNACC and for analyses of policies and investments in light of the TRACC. It would thus be best if the major guidelines, as with other environmental planning issues, were given directly by the Prime Minister.


2. Putting the reference warming trajectory into law. Similarly, to ensure the TRACC becomes an element of a cross-cutting policy and a common basis for subsequently launching sectoral processes, this trajectory must be put into a transversal law, for example the law on energy and climate (LPEC), which will be presented in the coming months. This would ensure the necessary transversality and give the trajectory a stronger legal basis. Failing this, there is no guarantee that all the sectoral processes required will be launched, and for those that are, the absence of a common legal framework poses the risk of inconsistencies between sectoral policies.


Several ways of including the TRACC can be considered, with varying levels of ambition. As a minimum, this could take the form of a symbolic reference to the principle of the TRACC in order to finally make adaptation a goal shared by all. An obligation for public and economic actors to report on the production of vulnerability analyses and adaptation plans could also be envisaged. The French government could take inspiration from the initiative launched to this end by the United Kingdom in 2008, targeting major utilities. It could also go further by providing for the definition of specific conditions for the use of this trajectory, for example, by establishing a list of benchmarks or standards to be updated, such as regulations on energy use in buildings or risk prevention plans with a timeframe.


Progressively tailoring implementation requirements to actors and sectors

Putting the TRACC into law will of course not be enough in itself. We will then need to think about the processes to implement so that all actors in all sectors are encouraged to adapt to the impacts of climate change and have the knowledge and resources to do so. The goal in the first phase will be to ensure the actors concerned, whether public or private, systematically analyse the consequences of climate change for their activities, then debate the acceptable level of risk, before progressively increasing their level of preparation by implementing appropriate adaptation measures.


These processes and the best methods of implementation for each sector will need to be discussed within each sectoral policy. A gradual increase in adaptation requirements could be envisaged to take account of the different levels of maturity between sectors, or to recognise that some fields are more critical than others.


Adaptation requirements could rapidly be imposed on certain actors that have reached maturity on the subject or whose activity is critical, for example utility companies. The integration of adaptation in the building sector will also need to be accelerated immediately in order to avoid increasing the stock of assets that will have to be adapted to the future climate in a few years’ time. This could initially be achieved through public procurement, to build capacities in the sector, before updating the benchmarks for all. These two sectors are also the ones in which public spending will be high in the next few years, especially to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Exemplarity of the state in the analysis of its spending in light of adaptation to climate change will be welcome, both to launch a dynamic and to address the effectiveness of public spending.


Other actors will need several years to shift to systematic implementation. For example, most local authorities will first require awareness-raising and knowledge-building activities. Establishing as of now that these requirements will concern them in a few years’ time will help to ensure that these less mature actors gradually enhance their competencies.


The sectors and actors mentioned are just examples. We hope that the next few months will see the emergence of a debate on ways to accelerate adaptation in all sectors and for all actors. Finally, alongside these processes, it will be essential to accurately assess the support requirements of the less advanced actors or those with fewer resources, to ensure they are also able to consider the full implications of a reference warming trajectory and prepare more effectively.


These proposals provide some first avenues for discussion. They are aimed at stimulating a public debate on the best way to establish an “adaptation reflex” in France, in other words the reflex to design investments and policies taking account of the significant uncertainties surrounding our future climate conditions. In view of the impacts of climate change already observed in France and which continue to worsen, discussions should no longer focus on the relevance of talking about adaptation, but on ways to implement an ambitious adaptation policy.

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