28 October 2019

Improving governance is key for adaptive capacity

Governance in climate vulnerable countries will take decades to improve, substantially impeding the ability of nations to adapt to climate change and affecting billions of people globally, according to new research published in Nature Sustainability.

© Marc Bruxelle | Dreamstime.com

© Marc Bruxelle | Dreamstime.com

Weak governance is one of the key obstacles to sustainable development, and while there is no doubt that improving governance comes with a broad range of co-benefits including the ability to respond to pressing global challenges like climate change, there is a shortage of quantitative data around possible future pathways in this regard. The new study aims to address this gap by for the first time quantifying different governance pathways at the national level over the 21th century, using scenarios of socioeconomic development – the so-called Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) – which are widely used in climate change research. The authors also draw on the World Governance Indicators provided by the World Bank, which take into account multiple dimensions of governance such as political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, the rule of law, and measures to control corruption.

"Since the climate of tomorrow will not meet the society of today, we need to include sociodemographic and economic components in forecasting future societies' adaptive capacity. While much work has been done on climate scenarios, the work that quantifies and offers a future outlook on a society like ours is scarce," explains IIASA World Population researcher Raya Muttarak, one of the study authors.

Even under the most optimistic development scenarios, the results indicate that it will take until around 2050 to overcome weak governance globally. Under pessimistic scenarios characterized by regional rivalry, more than three billion people would still be living in countries with weak governance conditions well beyond mid-century.

“Governance is a key ingredient of a country’s capacity to adapt to climate change,” elaborates study lead author Marina Andrijevic from Climate Analytics, a non-profit institute working on climate science and policy in relation to the 1.5°C limit in the Paris Agreement. “For example, good governance is important for long-term planning, guidelines and regulations, and can be crucial for governments in successfully leveraging investments in adaptation projects. Conversely, a lack of transparency, high corruption or political instability could deprive a government of that much-needed finance.”

The numerous interventions a government can make to adapt to climate change – such as prioritizing policies, mobilizing resources, coordinating efforts, and decision-making – are processes often contingent on the efficacy of institutional mechanisms. The level of corruption within a government, for instance, will impact its ability to deal with a climate-related disaster.

The results not only have far-reaching implications for sustainable development, but they also link directly to the immediate need to adapt to the impacts of climate change, particularly in the most vulnerable countries. According to the authors, this new understanding of the possible pathways of governance and the resulting adaptive capacity will contribute to more realistic assessments of how the world may be able to cope with the impacts of climate change in the future. 

“We tend to treat climate change adaptation as something that we can just switch on and then we’re fine, but our study shows that it is more complicated than that and that building adaptive capacity in many regions of the world will take a long time,” adds study coauthor Carl-Friedrich Schleussner of Climate Analytics and Humboldt University.

On the upside, the study shows that countries characterized by very weak governance have a near-term rate of improvement of up to five times faster under the most optimistic scenarios than they do under the worst. 

“There is a window of opportunity to eradicate the lowest levels of governance in the near term and get the world on a pathway towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” says study coauthor Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, a researcher in the IIASA World Population Program and professor of economics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU). “This is of paramount importance also to enable those nations, many of which are located in climate vulnerable regions, to adapt to climate change.”

Adapted from a press release prepared by Climate Analytics.


Andrijevic M, Crespo Cuaresma J, Muttarak R, Schleussner C-F (2019). Governance in socioeconomic pathways and its role for future adaptive capacity. Nature Sustainability DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0405-0 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16133]

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Last edited: 29 October 2019


Jesus Crespo Cuaresma

Research Scholar Migration and Sustainable Development Research Group - Population and Just Societies Program


Ansa Heyl

Communications Manager and Deputy Head of Communications and External Relations Communications and External Relations Department

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