Case study

DFID Research: Combating climate change is a unique challenge for development research

November 2011 sees another round of negotiations on climate change with the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) due to be held in Durban, South Africa.

Maasai standing on cracked earth in front of Baobab tree

Maasai standing on cracked earth in front of Baobab tree. Picture: Brent Stirton/Getty Images/WWF-UK

November 2011 sees another round of negotiations on climate change with the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) due to be held in Durban, South Africa. Once more the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the commitments of parties signed up to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol will be under the spotlight.

DFID and its partners will be working hard at COP17 to ensure positive outcomes are secured for the world’s poorest people. Climate change is already endangering the livelihoods of millions of people in developing countries. It represents one of the greatest threats to development and in response DFID has significantly increased research into climate change and strategies for low carbon growth.

Researching the threat

In many parts of the world the climate is already a threatening reality. A recent study on Migration and Global Environmental Change supported by the UK Government Office for Science states that nearly 73m people in the Ganges Brahmaputra delta are already exposed to environmental events such as cyclones and tidal surges. The cumulative effect of rising sea levels, rainfall changes, extreme events, and the degradation of habitats and natural resources mean some island nations in the Pacific are faced with becoming uninhabitable in coming decades.

Food insecurity remains endemic in most of Africa, with climate factors such as rainfall variability a major cause. In 2006, 25 African countries needed food aid, largely due to recurring drought. Depending on the greenhouse gas emission scenario which will unfold in the years to come and the ability of local communities to adapt their agricultural systems to climatic changes, millions of people could be at risk from hunger and increased water stress. The situation is compounded by the fact that the specific impact of climate change on individual developing countries is still poorly understood.

It is impossible to tackle problems of this complexity without modelling likely scenarios, impacts and vulnerabilities. Gaps in climate data and deficiencies in climate and climate impact models, however, have held up the assessment of likely climate impacts at country and sub-regional levels, especially in Africa. DFID is supporting research programmes that increase capacity in this area and advance our knowledge of the science of climate change.

For example, in 2001 DFID co-funded a study by the Hadley Centre of the UK Meteorological Office study on Regional climate change prediction for national vulnerability assessments that trialled the development of regional climate models (RCMs) for greater accuracy in forecasting and simulation than was achievable through current global climate models. This effort contributed to the development of PRECIS, a now commonly used RCM across the continent. PRECIS was developed in order to help generate high-resolution climate change information for as many regions of the world as possible, and has been used to provide scenarios for the joint India-UK programme of impact assessments on India.

The DFID/Met Office Climate Science Research Partnership (CRSP) is working to increase our understanding of climate in Africa and to incorporate this knowledge into both global and regional climate models, such as PRECIS, that are used in both medium range weather forecasting and decadal climate projections. This project also aims to enhance the capacity of key African institutions to undertake climate science and contributes cutting-edge climate expertise to other DFID research initiatives such as Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA), the Agricultural Model Inter-comparison Project (AgMIP), the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation project (ESPA), as well as DFID’s development assistance to the African Climate Policy Centre (ACPC).

Resilience through adaptation

Developing countries will need to adapt to worsening droughts, crop failures, water shortages, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, the extinction of habitats, and other negative effects of climate change. Identifying pathways for adaptation is now a key feature of the development landscape.

DFID research is helping countries find different ways of adapting to climate change. The Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change (EACC) project - a major study led by The World Bank - explored future economic costs associated with adapting to climate change and levels of funding needed for an effective response. Analysis focused on critical infrastructures such as agriculture, fisheries, coastal zone adaptation, ecosystem services, forestry, municipal water services and riverine flood protection. The overview forecasts composed by the EACC project stress the centrality of poverty reduction since poverty exacerbates vulnerability to weather variability and climate change.

Projects like Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA), Enhancing Capacity for Adaptation to Climate Change in the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories and a suite of other DFID funded research projects are delivering comprehensive climate change risk assessments produced at national and provincial levels. Understanding regional risk is essential for helping low income countries design long-term solutions.

Communicating climate change

Mobilising knowledge is central to bringing about action on climate change. This requires communicating research findings in ways that change the thinking of policy makers and ultimately lead to action. Indeed many of the pitfalls experienced by present approaches to climate change are the result of poor communication and the inefficient mobilisation of knowledge.

The problem is neatly summed up in the abstract of an article by John D. Sterman entitled ‘Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world’. He argues that ‘strong scientific consensus on the detection, attribution, and risks of climate change stands in stark contrast to widespread confusion, complacency and denial among policymakers and the public. Risk communication is now a major bottleneck preventing science from playing an appropriate role in climate policy.’

Communicating scientific knowledge on the risks of climate change is essential for driving policy forward and DFID research is responding to the challenge. Enhancing developing country access to high quality, policy-relevant information is just one half of the solution. The other half is giving access to policy making tools and platforms that promote adaptive planning and help manage climate compatible development. It is also about listening to communities most at risk and building traditional and local knowledge into development strategies to ensure policy has positive impacts.

The Climate and Development Knowledge Network

DFID provides anchor funding to the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), a project that has been providing developing countries with access to the latest research and science on climate change and, more specifically, its links to development, since 2010. Led by PwC in collaboration with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC), Fundacion Futuro Latinoamericano (FFLA), LEAD International, and SouthSouthNorth (SSN), CDKN brings formidable expertise to bear on the challenges of communicating climate change. The project will help transform research into policies and programmes on the ground, supporting developing countries to move to a climate resilient future.

CDKN priorities range from risk analysis and strengthening resilience to supporting climate negotiators from least developed countries. CDKN’s global activities include research on climate change, agriculture and food security in Africa, piloting climate change adaptation policies in Latin America and giving technical assistance to strengthen climate change knowledge in Nepal.

The first phase runs until 2015 and so far CDKN has provided a wealth of innovative, policy relevant information and expertise that will shape global action on climate change. CDKN will be hosting a networking event CDKN Partners Together at COP 17 at the Oasis of Fresh Thinking in Durban on 4 December (see the CDKN website for more details).

Halting deforestation

Protecting the world’s forests and the livelihoods of the 1.2 billion people who depend on them is an essential ingredient for combating climate change. Last year DFID’s finance to the CGIAR global research partnership supported high impact research by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). For example, CIFOR is helping improve Indonesia’s pulp and paper and oil palm plantations to increase their productivity and limit the amount of natural peat forest they clear. Evidence from CIFOR underpins Indonesia’s new legislative reforms, which will ensure the fibre and palm oil it exports are from sustainable and legal sources. CIFOR is also helping revive the production of gums and resins such as frankincense and myrrh and helping conserve forests and boost livelihoods in Ethiopia’s impoverished drylands.

DFID also supports the CGIAR’s Forests, Trees and Agroforestry Research Programme, which is jointly implemented by CIFOR and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). The aim of this project is to enhance the management and use of forests, agroforestry and tree genetic resources across the landscape form forests to farms, with a view to building climate resilient agriculture and tree farming. This, in turn, it is hoped, will improve food security, for example by promoting trees that help fertilise farmers’ fields.

Exploring growth through low carbon development

DFID research is exploring methods that will help low income countries avoid development policies that lock economies and regions into carbon intensive growth and dependency on fossil fuels. Promoting the development of low carbon technologies and encouraging the use of clean energy will help developing countries achieve a greener future that supports economic growth.

As part of our commitment to combating climate change, DFID has commissioned analysis by a wide range of bodies to explore options for low carbon growth and development, building on an on-going partnership, Policy Innovation Systems for Clean Energy Security (PISCES), with the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS). This partnership supports innovation and provides policy-relevant knowledge in the energy sector - leading to better practices in helping the poor acquire low-C energy, with a focus on biological sources. Aware of the need to explore ways to scale up research and innovation in this area, DFID commissioned an assessment by the Clean Energy Group on ‘Moving Climate Innovation into the 21st Century’. The report highlights the need for cheaper technologies that serve the needs of the poor, the particular opportunities for technology development in and by developing countries and the need to empower developing countries as partners in innovation.


As delegates prepare to convene in Durban, the effects of a changing climate are already being felt. Extreme weather events, rising sea levels, severe flooding, worsening droughts, water shortages and the extinction of habitats and species are likely to hit poor countries hardest. The environmental, political and economic consequences of climate change are likely to be enormous unless action is taken now.

Knowledge sharing and communicating climate change to policy makers is vital for focusing international efforts to combat climate change. DFID research is working hard to ensure climate science is translated into policy that promotes climate compatible development and strategies that help least developed countries adapt to future challenges.

Updates to this page

Published 25 November 2011