Courtesy of AICCRA/Samuel Lamptey

Five principles for tracking climate adaptation in agriculture

What is effective adaptation? For whom is adaptation effective? Within what timeframe and conditions is adaptation effective? What evidence is there to demonstrate effectiveness?   

Drawing on extensive work designing adaptation, we outline five principles that should guide the future of adaptation tracking discussions, in the context of the Global Goal on Adaptation.  

In agriculture, adaptation actions are happening. Farmers on the ground adapt. They use  simple, yet effective strategies to fight against climate-induced pests; or innovative, digital agri-advisory tools to adjust what, when and how to grow on their fields.

Across the African continent, climate information plays a critical role in supporting locally led adaptation. New ways of doing business are being promoted to support private investment in small-scale agribusiness and de-risk the sector. 

National adaptation planning policies—a rarity some ten years ago—are now critical climate action pillars in more than 85% of the countries globally

But while actions and actors abound, adaptation efforts need a reality check.

Are adaptation investments bringing improvements for farmers, fortifying their resilience? Or are they causing more harm than good?

This underscores the urgency for tracking adaptation – the development and application of systematic approaches for assessing adaptation progress. 

The just-concluded COP28 in Dubai promised to be a watershed moment for adaptation tracking, with the establishment of a framework for assessing global progress in climate change adaptation.

After two weeks of intense negotiations, the parties agreed on targets for the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA), to be achieved by 2030. A two-year work programme was established to define indicators for assessing progress towards those targets.  

The slow progress witnessed in finalizing the GGA framework demonstrates the difficulty in answering fundamental questions:

  • What is effective adaptation?
  • For whom is adaptation effective?
  • Within what timeframe and conditions is adaptation effective?
  • What evidence is there to demonstrate effectiveness?   

Drawing on extensive work designing adaptation, we outline five principles that should guide the future of adaptation tracking discussions, in the context of the GGA.  

1. Embrace diversity as a cornerstone of adaptation  

In adaptation, diversity is a reality and our greatest strength. In agriculture, vulnerability contexts vary widely, and so do the adaptation strategies.

Therefore, tracking adaptation progress requires analyzing adaptation from diverse perspectives.

Impact pathways, also known as theories of change, can capture this diversity. They are tools to describe the rationale for adaptation, envisioned results, outcomes and impacts, and strategies to attain these.

When designed with stakeholders, impact pathways form the basis for collective adaptation visioning, capturing stakeholders’ unique experiences, needs and understandings of effectiveness. They can capture the complex linkages between the priorities and perspectives of diverse actors, guiding an integrated design of adaptation tracking while capturing contextual nuances.

Scientists, practitioners, and policymakers have been using impact pathways for crafting project rationales. The novelty is applying this thinking to adaptation tracking. For instance, impact pathways and theories of change can inform contextually-fit metrics for national investment plans; or help agribusinesses craft strategies for enhancing impact of their business models and sourcing new capital.

2. Look beyond the obvious: capture the process and its outcomes

Adaptation is not the finish line, but a process towards the goals of enhanced resilience, reduced vulnerability, and improved well-being.

Tracking adaptation requires a variety of metrics on:

  • Processes and actions;
  • Resources (such as finance, human capacities, infrastructures);
  • Immediate results;
  • Outcomes and impacts over time.

Each type of indicator tells one part of the story, but none alone paints the full picture.

But this approach is fraught with challenges. Outcomes and impacts can be slow to appear, uncertain, subjective, and costly to track.

No wonder existing adaptation policies, such as National Adaptation Plans and Nationally Determined Contributions, often lack comprehensive metrics.

Practicality and the need to quickly show investment results determine a preference for process and output metrics, over outcome metrics.

Yet, amid challenges, there is promise with the emergence of long-term strategies (LTS), most notably in African countries.

LTS foster a forward-looking approach, promoting consideration of more enduring effects of adaptation efforts.

Therefore, developing capacities for designing an LTS can be a key strategy for integrating more adequate metrics that speak to outcomes and long-term impacts.  

The 'Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA)' project has been working with national and regional partners in Kenya and Senegal to develop the potential of LTS for climate action in agriculture. 

3. Redefine the role of metrics: they are not the holy grail, but a compass

The emergence of adaptation tracking within broader political and social debates on climate action has led to more demand for aggregatable and comparable metrics that can show adaptation progress across sectors, populations and even countries.

But metrics are just the tip of the iceberg. They must align with robust impact pathways to ensure that indicators measure what matters.

Pairing metrics with data systems is key for enabling data collection, management, and analysis.

Actually being able to use metrics requires expertise and human capacity to operate and maintain data systems over time, necessitating careful consideration of the national contexts within which adaptation tracking happens. 

And, crucially, metrics require robust finance. Adaptation tracking should no longer be the footnote but the headline, with dedicated budgets in adaptation policies and investments.

Shifting the discourse from 'adaptation metrics' to 'adequate adaptation tracking systems' where quality is the focus of conversation, more so than quantity.  

4. Change perspective: don’t reset the system, recalibrate

Though adaptation tracking is relatively new, that doesn't mean we should start from scratch. Existing foundations for tracking adaptation exist.

Across Africa, all countries have an adaptation policy instrument; some have dedicated M&E systems, others are in the process of building them. They may not be perfect, but they represent a solid ground for designing adaptation tracking and basis for improvement.

Across donor frameworks, indicators abound. They may not be all designed specifically for adaptation, but they can be repurposed when aligned with robust impact pathways.

We do not need a reset, but recalibration. This should not mean halting innovation. It implies pairing established efforts with innovative approaches to enhance practicality of tracking, while reducing data burden and redundancies.

For instance, ICT can help collect better, more targeted data. AI can tackle complex tasks such as estimating coffee yields, and satellite imagery can enable near real-time monitoring of climate adaptation progress in agricultural adaptation. These promising technologies warrant further exploration. 

5. Amplify local voices: ground adaptation tracking in reality  

Actors working at the local level are on frontlines of climate change. Yet, conversations on adaptation tracking tend to linger in high-level arenas, at donor roundtables and in scientific bubbles, disconnected from the realities on the ground.

It's time to amplify local voices.

Guided by the impact pathways (the first principle we highlight) engagements with farmers and local communities can reveal context specific vulnerabilities, incorporate the aspirations of communities into adaptation tracking frameworks, and enable more relevant and accurate  capturing of adaptation efforts. 

Better integration of local organizations in international fora is needed, such as the negotiations for a global goal on adaptation and the Global Stocktake.

Additionally, building on-the-ground capacities to apply tracking methodologies, collect evidence on adaptation effectiveness, and use those findings will together enhance adaptation and attract better finance. 

A complementary route is to empower those interacting with farmers (such as agribusinesses) to collect and report adaptation data. This is critical for accounting for the often-overlooked intermediaries—small and medium-sized private sector actors—that make adaptation happen. 

These five principles form the foundation for a more effective and inclusive conversation on adaptation tracking.  The time to change the narrative has come.   


Andreea Nowak - Research Team Leader (Climate Action) - The Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT

Lucy Njuguna - The Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT