Transboundary Climate Risks – Wilton Park Dialogue

The Wilton Park dialogue was convened with the recognition that climate change adaptation continues to be framed and addressed primarily at the local, subnational and national levels.
Multiple Authors
Transboundary Climate Risks


The Wilton Park dialogue was convened with the recognition that, despite the explicit acknowledgement in the Paris Agreement on climate change that adaptation is a ‘global challenge … with … international dimensions’, it continues to be framed and addressed primarily at the local, subnational and national levels. Yet transboundary climate risk will affect all countries, regardless of their level of development, in accordance with the extent and nature of their integration into the global economy and their specific links with vulnerable countries.

Climate risk is in many cases ‘borderless’ or ‘transboundary’ in nature. The dialogue examined challenges and approaches to understanding and addressing transboundary climate risk resulting from two distinct factors: 1) the transboundary impacts of climate change; and 2) the transboundary consequences of deliberate adaptation to climate change, both positive and negative.

*This article is a summary of the report. Download the report on the right-hand column for more information.

Critical Risks

The Wilton Park dialogue provided an opportunity to explore and analyse critical issues:

  • Approaches to considering and integrating transboundary climate risks in national socio-economic planning, climate adaptation plans, and in regional adaptation processes.
  • The implications of transboundary climate risks for global governance frameworks and the need for coherence between international conventions.
  • The role of non-state actors, the importance of shared learning and the incentives that could be harnessed to better account for transboundary risks across sectors, geographies and communities (scientific, legal, policy and/or practice).
  • Key events and opportune moments to raise the profile of transboundary climate risks, particularly in the context of the Climate Action Summit being hosted by the UN Secretary-General in September 2019.

Key Findings

  1. Transboundary climate risks cross national borders and affect all countries, irrespective of their location or level of development.
  2. Climate risks at the regional scale are often easiest to understand and receive more attention from scientists, policy-makers and adaptation practitioners than other forms of transboundary climate risk.
  3. Countries often lack the capacity to gather sufficient data on transboundary risks, while the large volumes of data that do exist (at various levels, including the local and subnational) are too often underutilised or not sufficiently granular to be useful to policy-making processes.
  4. Beyond the UNFCCC, regional, sectoral and financial institutions should explore their respective roles in exchanging knowledge and managing transboundary climate risk, not only to increase investment in adaptation, but also to explore the implications for markets, trade and financial flows, as well as the governance of transboundary ecosystems, and the migration and displacement of people.

Understanding Transboundary Risks

Biophysical Pathway

Refers to transboundary climate risks that manifest through alterations to flows within biophysical systems – including river basins, arid lands or oceans – or natural processes like air currents and biogeochemical cycles.

Outstanding complications and needs:

  • Some transboundary climate effects in the biophysical pathway may have positive and negative impacts simultaneously. For instance, fish stock migration can, owing to changes in sea temperatures, have negative impacts on livelihoods in one location, and positive impacts in another.
  • Significant knowledge gaps remain, particularly regarding less visible transboundary risks.
  • Work remains to be done to demonstrate the cross-cutting impact of biophysical transboundary climate risks to multiple stakeholders, including government departments for which climate change is typically a peripheral concern.

Opportunities for action:

  • Develop a stocktaking exercise of existing regulatory and legal frameworks on the regulation of transboundary biophysical systems and seek opportunities to embed climate risk in these governance processes.
  • Invest in awareness-raising and capacity-building for actors in this governance space.

Trade Pathway

Refers to transboundary climate risks that manifest through disruptions to the price, quality and availability of goods and services on international markets and supply chains.

Outstanding complications and needs:

  • Levels of awareness of – and capacity to evaluate – climate risk vary widely among both public and private stakeholders. Private sector incentive structures for managing transboundary climate risks in the trade pathway may not align with the broader aim of building the resilience of vulnerable communities.

Opportunities for action:

Policy-makers should work with vulnerable trade partners to:

  • Enhance their resilience;
  • Strengthen awareness across government ministries and relevant offices to better align policy with climate change science;
  • Develop and implement processes to facilitate interactions across government on climate change risk and contribute to national adaptation strategies;
  • Pursue partnerships with private sector actors to leverage expertise regarding supply chain risk and climate risk management opportunities.

People Pathway

Refers to transboundary climate risks that manifest through changes to the flow of human beings around the world, including migration and tourism.

Outstanding complications and risks:

  • Emigration is viewed as a last-resort option by many countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
  • Public discourse on migration and displacement can be highly political and polarising.
  • Migration as a result of climate-induced displacement will also have cross-border impacts and, if not accounted for in national adaptation planning, will strain both migration-producing and recipient nations.

Opportunities for action:

  • While the discipline of climate attribution science is developing apace, attribution of migration flows to climate change remains a key challenge; further research in this area is needed.

Finance Pathway

Refers to the transboundary impacts of climate change that manifest when climate events, slow-onset changes or adaptation actions alter the return on overseas investment and shift remittance flows.

Outstanding complications and risks:

  • While there was broad agreement that environmental and climate risks are not properly understood and encoded in financial systems, the session also raised a number of wider questions. How can climate risks be better incorporated into investment decisions? How can the benefits of resilience be properly reflected within assessments of risk? How should resilient infrastructure be defined? How can actors justify high capital expenditure in the short term in favour of reduced operational costs in the long term?

Opportunities for action:

  • To facilitate lesson-learning regarding transboundary risks and the private sector, participants suggested that those responsible for preparing country development strategies engage with private sector stakeholders to share knowledge and build capacity.

Governing Transboundary Climate Risks Across Scales

Global, regional, national and local actors should work in concert to manage transboundary risks in a way that centres on the experiences of people and promotes adaptation as a global public good.

Global:- Climate change will affect people in all countries, and managing transboundary climate risks will require the concerted effort of all countries, working in cooperation with neighbours and partners globally. Raising awareness of transboundary climate risks should be done in a way that does not exacerbate tensions between countries, focusing instead on the benefits of developing a common understanding of problems and identifying relevant solutions

Regional:- Regional Adaptation Plans were identified as one possible mechanism for improving adaptation planning related to transboundary climate risks. While participants agreed that broader adaptation planning was needed, a variety of views were expressed about the utility of regional or sectoral adaptation plans.

National:- Preparations for National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) may present an opportunity to include transboundary climate risks in adaptation planning processes. By employing systems-level analysis, countries could use NAP preparations to analyse their transboundary risk exposure and develop approaches to managing these risks.

Subnational:- Subnational actors often have closer connections to local communities and it is often at this level that day-to-day decisions on adaptation are taken and implemented. Civil society can be included in this dialogue by working with local officials to share concerns and expertise.

Moving Forward: Next Steps and Recommendations

Visibility – There is a continued need to raise awareness of transboundary climate risks to enable actors at all levels to understand, measure and explicitly acknowledge the costs of inaction and non-cooperation, and the benefits of adaptation, regional resilience and global multilateralism.

Evidence – Advancing this agenda will require building up the evidence base to better identify, govern and manage transboundary climate risks.

Influence – Processes under the UNFCCC have a high degree of legitimacy and provide ample entry points to raise the profile of transboundary climate risks and strengthen their governance.

Convening – Any approach to global adaptation without borders should harness existing networks and inspire new coalitions to raise the profile of transboundary climate risk and harness advocacy or policy entry points.


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