Mitigation or Adaptation?

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.

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 to people.

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.

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.

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[1]. 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!


Covid and Climate: How Much is Too Little?

By JUSTIN STEVENS (Director, Climadapt)

The second wave of COVID-19 is still hitting many countries, and total lock-downs are the norm. Working from home and travel bans have resulted in a fall in CO2 emissions, outpacing the 2008 recession and even WWII. So has this bought us more time, and is the climate emergency now a little less urgent?

A report published by the World Meteorological Organisation in September 2020 showed that the reduction of emissions from COVID-19, although significant, was not enough. It was also the case that, towards the end of the first wave, emissions started to increase again.

Even now, in the midst of another even deeper lockdown, the world’s climate emissions are above what is needed to keep temperatures below 2 degrees. They actually need to fall by at least 7.6% globally, each year, until they are zero. Because so much carbon has soaked into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, and since it lasts for several hundred years, our ability to emit even more without consequences is shrinking. Each gigatonne now only adds to the carbon ‘bank’ – at present over 415ppm. The last time this amount of carbon was seen in the atmosphere was 3 million years ago, when sea levels were 25 metres higher than they are now. And the warming created by carbon takes time to happen.

For some, the election of President Biden in the US and his subsequent rejoining of the Paris Agreement was a cause for hope. Unfortunately, it is the case that even if countries meet commitments made under the 2015 Paris Agreement – and there is not much to even bind them to those commitments – the world is still heading for a 3.2 degrees rise in global temperature.

These are scary figures to get your head around, and perhaps that explains why many people – including entire governments – are burying theirs in the sand.

What it means, for both them and the rest of us, is at least 3 degrees rise by 2100. If you want to know what a planet 3 degrees hotter looks like, check out this video.

There’s a chance, of course, that there will be a flurry of new policies aimed at driving down climate emissions and perhaps even the deployment of technologies from the atmosphere. If that happens temperatures will stay within 2 degrees rise – with deep impacts to our way of life, but ones far easier to deal with than if it gets to over 3 degrees.

And there’s also a chance, as we saw with the first wave of COVID, that industries will roar back into life, and emissions will continue on an upward trajectory. Indeed, many nations have already indicated that ‘economic growth’ (as measured by GDP, the thing driving emissions) takes priority.

We’ll see. But whatever happens, we need to be prepared.