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BLOG: Climate Change, the Inspection Panel and the next thirty years

Mark Goldsmith, Panel Member

The World Bank Inspection Panel is recognized as an international pioneer in respect to holding a multilateral financial institute to account in relation to social and environmental issues – It has also just celebrated its 30th Anniversary. Over the past three decades, the Panel has registered more than one hundred and fifty Requests for Inspection, from communities potentially affected by World Bank-financed projects, and has focused on a range of environmental and social issues, such as environmental assessment, resettlement and indigenous peoples. Historically, the impact of climate change has not usually been raised by complainants and, therefore, the Panel’s work has rarely considered this issue in detail. However, recent developments suggest that this may be about to change – there are several reasons for this.

Firstly, any Bank project approved by the Board after October 1st, 2018 must comply with the Policy and Standards within the World Bank’s Environmental and Social Framework (ESF). There are sixteen specific references to ‘climate change’ in the ESF. These include, in the Vision for Sustainable Development statement, that the Bank seeks to: “Address project-level impacts on climate change and consider the impacts of climate change on the selection, siting, planning, design and implementation and decommissioning of projects.”

Secondly, in December 2022, the World Bank published a seminal strategic paper entitled “Evolving the World Bank Group’s Mission, Operations, and Resources: A Roadmap.” A core part of this roadmap focuses on how the Bank can evolve to tackle global challenges and includes a specific focus on tackling climate change. To meet the aims of this evolving strategy, the Bank is rapidly increasing its financing for climate action. In FY22, the Bank exceeded its target for 2021-2025 to deploy an average of 35% of the institution’s financing in support of climate action: it reached 36% of total Bank Group financing and this is likely to increase in the future.

Thirdly, one only needs to look out of the window or tune into the latest news to realise that extreme weather events, which are potentially linked to climate change, are happening more intensely and with greater frequency and hence there is greater general public awareness of the impacts of climate change. This is happening globally – in 2023, Greece and Canada set records for wildfires and intense heatwaves hit southern Europe and the southern US and Mexico. In parts of East Africa, there have been five failed rainy seasons in a row between 2020 and 2022.  Extreme floods have hit many locations, notably in Pakistan (2022), West Africa (2022), New Zealand (2023) and Libya (2023).

Mark on the Togolese Coastline

And fourthly, the Panel is beginning to receive complaints where an understanding of climate change and climate resilience are now important aspects of the investigation process, and, as such, the Panel is starting to build up its own internal capacity in this area. In its recent investigation in the Republic of Togo, regarding the West Africa Coastal Areas Resilience Investment Project, the Panel hired an expert consultant on coastal erosion, adaptation, and resilience measures. The expert was able to help the Panel put in context the alleged impacts of the project in relation to how climate change, in addition to local human activities, is impacting coastal areas, specifically in Togo. The expert also highlighted the latest analysis from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the long-term adaptation pathways for coastal areas with high erosion rates, such as in West Africa, and the likely adaptation limits for low-lying coastal areas.

Through work like this, the Panel is improving its understanding of the long-term impacts of climate change and how these should be considered as part of the investigation process. Indeed, the technical annex included in the Togo investigation has enabled the Panel to better understand the challenges of coastal climate change risks, such as sea level rise and storminess, as well as potential adaptation measures for low lying coastal communities. As indicated by the Panel’s expert, in the technical annex, adaptation pathways involve “a time-independent sequence of actions responding to multiple drivers and uncertainties, and are guided by the magnitude of sea-level rise to determine when and where it is optimum to adapt.”

The Panel’s expert described the potential approaches to implement an adaptation pathway, including that “effective adaptation pathways require society to choose risk management options, land-use planning, and other policy instruments that can help society create space now, for future adaptation, thereby saving costs and improving long-term societal and ecological resilience.” Adaptation pathways often require a staged-approach that would include reducing harm and improving resilience in the immediate term, such as by using soft or hard coastal risk management options (see graphic below), and developing and implementing appropriate policies. Hard measures are structures – including groynes, breakwaters, seawalls, and dykes – that are built to resist erosion or flooding by waves and storms. Soft measures mimic or support natural processes, such as adding sand to mitigate deficits in sediment supply and vegetation, or restoring wetlands and mangrove forests.




Interestingly, the above graphic was not only useful for the Panel in gaining an understanding of the context of the Togo coast, but also proved an invaluable tool during the sharing of the Panel’s findings with the community. Given that most stakeholders the Panel met with, including the coastal communities, had low climate change literacy, a picture really was worth a thousand words. The Panel used visuals and diagrams such as the one included in this article to explain its findings concerning the risks and impacts of climate change. As a result, those that requested the Panel investigation left with a clearer understanding of possible long-term climate change impacts in the project area and were better equipped to provide informed feedback during their ongoing consultations with Bank Management as part of the Bank’s Management Action Plan process.

The Togo case has also improved the Panel’s appreciation of how the combination of climate change impacts (in this case on high coastal erosion rates) and human activities, can present additional challenges to the preparation of key project safeguard instruments such as the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and Resettlement Action Plans (RAPs). For example, the coasts of Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Benin retreat an average 1.8 meters per year, with localized erosion sometimes greater than 10 meters, due to the inherent weak resistance of the low-lying, sandy coast to waves, sea level rise and storminess. These high erosion rates can mean that the area of land considered and associated potential impacts for a project may change from the time the ESIA analysis is done to when the construction period starts – there is, what could be termed a “moving baseline,” and any potential RAPs may need to take this into account.

So, what about the next 30 years for the Inspection Panel? The Paris Agreement overarching goal is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” To keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C, emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. This is going to require a large amount of investment, and shift in allocation of resources, by the World Bank and others. These investments will need to successfully address two types of projects: ones that address the causes of climate change for example by investing in more renewable energy and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and others that address and mitigate the impacts of climate change on society and ecosystems, such as the Togo project.

As per the Panel’s remit, the Panel can only consider issues of harm or potential harm that are raised in Requests for Inspection, linked to Bank-supported projects, and raising concerns about compliance with Bank policies – it is difficult to predict the next ten years, let alone the next 30, but in the area of climate change, the Panel will be ready to review the issues that arise.