When we think of tackling climate change, the first thing that comes to mind is reducing greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons). Alongside this, we may consider ways to improve natural ‘carbon sinks’, such as planting forests. But there is another element – one that has, for the most part, been consigned as a secondary consideration, or even something that is deliberately avoided. It is, of course, climate adaptation.
What is not often realised is that climate adaptation can actually complement, and enhance, mitigation. When we retrofit our homes to be more energy efficient, we are simultaneously helping to reduce emissions. When trees are planed in urban areas to provide shade and a cooling effect, they also store atmospheric CO2. Putting in place ways to adapt and build resilience to climate change, of the kind we recommend, always has some interconnection with adaptation.
This does not mean that adaptation will inevitably, by itself, be positive. Consider, for example, the way rising temperatures in some parts of the world entail widespread and growing use of air-conditioning. This is adaptation to the impacts of climate change (heat), but in doing so it creates – rather than reduces – greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, adaptation schemes can end up being imposed on communities rather than built in consultation with them. The more we leave adaptation on the sidelines, the greater the risk of it being picked up by powerful players, who can even go on to shape what it actually means, regardless of the social impacts.
Whilst we may hear very little about climate adaptation (although mentions are growing), the concept crops up numerously in governmental and large business circles. All governments are expected to produce reports on how they will adapt to climate change, with Local Authorities being required to do the same. For Scotland, this is reflected by Section 53 of the Climate Change Act 2009, which notes the need for public bodies to be resilient to climate change and plan the continuing delivery of key functions in presence of possible climate related disruption.
In some regions the public duty to consider climate adaptation has been shared or delegated to NGOs. In Glasgow region we have Climate Ready Clyde. Their detailed risk assessment sets out recommendations for the region, together with the challenges and opportunities that exist. From reading this, climate adaptation is not just a positive response to an urgent problem; it also represents a catalyst for a rejuvenated economy, with green jobs and chances to empower the next generation to tackle the mounting threat of climate change.
It does not end there. For many businesses, taking into account the impacts of climate change will soon no longer be optional. Starting 2025, all organisations employing more than 200 people will need to provide a mandatory report every year that sets out how they are addressing climate change risks. Legislation is only heading in one direction, so there is a good chance this requirement will be extended to more organisations, with additional factors around climate adaptation coming to bear. In short – whether you like it or not – adaptation is moving out from its obscure position and into the spotlight. As it does so, we should look to good examples of community rooted, socially just, initiatives, which double up as climate mitigation. They are out there: watch this space!