5.1 Developing an adaptation action plan

An adaptation action plan is the central, most important and established and proven policy instrument for implementing adaptation. It sets out what needs to be done to convert prioritized adaptation options into actions, specifying by whom and when, and addressing resource needs and resource allocation. The main purpose of an adaptation action plan is to guide the implementation process by providing a detailed roadmap for putting adaptation options into practice.

The action plan document represents the policy output of the preceding stages of adaptation policy making. It should thus be firmly based on the outcomes of steps 1-4 of the adaptation cycle. Building on the adaptation strategy and concretizing its overall objectives and strategic directions, the accompanying action plan presents the portfolio of selected adaptation measures, describes them in operational terms and in a structured manner, and outlines a strategic process and coordination mechanisms  for implementation. In comparison to the strategic framework, an action plan usually addresses a shorter time horizon and is therefore subject to more frequent revisions. Building on the national action plan, subnational levels of governance within a country should develop their own adaptation policy documents, prioritising and concretising adaptation measures according to their specific contexts. The Urban Adaptation Support Tool provides respective guidance for European cities, towns and other local authorities.

According to the cross-cutting nature of climate change adaptation, adaptation action plans will be integrated, multi-sectoral policy documents putting forward adaptation actions within and across a broad range of climate-sensitive sectors. To guide and facilitate mainstreaming of adaptation in relevant sector policy fields, sectoral adaptation plans may be developed complementary to comprehensive adaptation plans.

Involving stakeholders from relevant sectors and levels, seeking and establishing agreements with a view to implementation, and discussion of the adaptation action plan in a public consultation are strongly recommended. These are vital elements of the governance of adaptation and pave the way for effective implementation.

For an adaptation action plan to be effective, it is essential to obtain political approval. Adaptation strategies and action plans can be effective if they are legally non-binding, ‘soft’ policies, but anchoring them in legislation will create statutory responsibilities and thus benefit their implementation.

Designing the adaptation action plan

The adaptation action plan presents and describes the selected adaptation options, possibly organised in sector-related activity fields and cross-cutting or generic actions, and outlines pathways for their implementation. While the level of detail and the structure may vary, it should contain, among others, the following information, as far as possible spelled out for each single action:

  • Goals of actions
  • Rationales and relevance of actions
  • Implementation steps and pathways
  • Instruments that offer entry points for mainstreaming and implementation
  • Roles and responsibilities of implementing actors, explicitly considering the need for coordination and cooperation between actors at all levels
  • Timeline for implementation
  • Estimation of resources needed, in terms of human, financial and knowledge-related resources
  • Available options for funding and financing
  • Potential conflicts and synergies
  • Indicators and mechanisms to monitor and evaluate implementation success
  • Provisions for revising actions
  • Information needs, open research questions and ways to close knowledge gaps
  • Potential barriers to action and facilitating factors to overcome these

Already when designing the action plan, it is highly recommended to take into account the need for monitoring and evaluating implementation progress and adaptation outcomes. Defining the goals of each action in a clear and verifiable way and suggesting possible indicators supports the subsequent measurement of implementation success. Each adaptation action may hold potentials for synergies and conflicts - with other actions, sectoral interests or other public policy goals, including mitigation of climate change and disaster risk reduction. If conflicts and trade-offs are hidden, this threatens coherence of different policies and may result in unintended non-sustainable or maladaptive outcomes. To foster synergistic and avoid antagonistic effects of adaptation actions, it is thus helpful to identify and flag potential conflicts and synergies in the policy document, thus supporting mainstreaming. Depending on the scope and ambition of the action plan, the target groups addressed may vary and may be as broad as ranging from public authorities at different levels, infrastructure/service providers, interest groups/NGOs, research and educational organisations to private companies (including insurance and industry), resource managers and landowners, private households, and civil society at large. As far as applicable, it may be useful to divide them into implementing actors carrying main responsibility for an action, cooperation partners, and further involved stakeholders.

Planning adaptation pathways

An adaptation action plan can be organized in adaptation pathways, where the implementation scheme for each adaptation option consists of a sequence of measures towards a pre-defined adaptation goal. In doing so, each implementation step represents a building block that is linked to time horizons and considers uncertainty along the implementation process. Adaptation pathways offer a conceptual framework for flexible policy planning, enabling an iterative and dynamic implementation process to deal with uncertainties, manage change within complex socio-ecological systems, and limit undesirable and mal-adaptive consequences. Adaptation pathways are composed of a sequence of possible actions resembling a decision tree. Over the course of time, possible ‘tipping points’ (e.g., climate events, changes in external framework conditions) may trigger a review mechanism to check if the line of action still meets the specified objective or not. This may result in the need to shift to another implementation pathway. When connected with sound monitoring and evaluation of implementation, this approach can help to support learning over time and increase resilience or adaptive capacity.

Source: Zandvoort et al. (2017): Adaptation pathways in planning for uncertain climate change: Applications in Portugal, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. Environmental Science and Policy 78 (2017) 18–26.

Learning from good examples from transnational, national and subnational levels

Available adaptation strategies and action plans of other European countries as well as such existing in some transnational (macro-)regions can serve as helpful examples for countries or governments at sub-national territorial levels in developing their own adaptation planning documents. It is best to assess and compare documents from several countries, learn from best practices and apply them in a customized way. Transnational cooperation structures and networks, such as European transnational cooperation regions, macro-regional strategies and international conventions, can greatly support sharing of knowledge and mutual learning of experiences between countries and regions. Transnational networking can also help to better align adaptation policy making at EU, transnational and domestic levels and to consider transboundary adaptation issues in adaptation policy documents.

Additional resources

Country Profiles

Transnational regions

Mapping governance of adaptation to climate change in the Alpine Space

Adaptation policies and knowledge base in transnational regions in Europe

Rationale, approach and added value of Key Type of Measures for adaptation to climate change

Using Key Type Measures to report climate adaptation action in the EEA member countries

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