Mitigation versus Adaptation: Where to Invest?

The last several months have given us our fair share of extreme weather reinforcing the findings of the IPCC’s latest scientific report on climate change.  At the same time, these events fuel the debate around what to do about it. While many continue to argue over the relationship between extreme weather events and climate change – Emperor Nero would have been proud – the costs of these events have been staggering, driving debate over where investments should be made to best protect people and assets in the future.

New York City’s recent experience with hurricane Sandy is still being tallied. The June 2013 issue of Scientific American pegged the cost at 15 billion dollars – a fraction of the cost of attempting to protect the city and its inhabitants from future storm surges that will worsen as sea levels rise.

Our focus on adaptation in the wake of such events is natural, as is the call for immediate investment in adaptive strategies. What is also natural is the emphasis on a one dimensional argument that typically positions adaptation investments in competition with mitigation investments. After all there is only so much money to go around and when one tries to build an argument the last thing you want to do is lend credence to a competing argument.

Proponents of adaptation investment argue that climate change is already causing impacts and so investments in mitigation that could take years to implement, and many more before a change is felt, ignore the immediacy of threats to human health and safety. However, mitigation is also needed despite the fact that we continue to exceed key milestones so that we can avoid catastrophic tipping points, such as the thawing of Northern permafrost. These future conditions could create runaway climate change that could potentially overwhelm investments in adaptation.

Canada, like many countries, is facing greater fiscal prudency and competition for limited funds in the public and private sectors. We must avoid the argument that spending in one area over another will be preferred, as neither will solve our challenge. As practitioners working on and around climate change issues, we need to be more aware than most, that investment should be made in both mitigation and adaptation, rather than one or the other.

To make efficient use of available resources, mitigation and adaptation investments and policies need to be integrated into overall climate change strategies, whether they are developed at the corporate, municipal, provincial or federal level. This could take a number of different forms, but the most important aspect is that adaptation and mitigation are not pursued in isolation. Priority should be given to initiatives where synergies between adaptation and mitigation exist.  For example, overhauling buildings’ structure may create opportunities to enhance the building envelope and improve energy efficiency. Additionally, changing landscaping to absorb more water may increase opportunities to design increased shading to lower summer heating loads. Likewise, managing investment in backup power systems may create opportunities for non-diesel renewable power supplies and energy storage. However, in most cases adaptation and mitigation will not be synergistic and tradeoffs will need to be considered. In such cases the investment split between adaptation and mitigation could be based on a climate risk assessment.

Moving forward, a careful integration of mitigation and adaptation investments, supported by adequate evidence to assess tradeoffs and implications, will be the best way to protect people and assets from the effects of climate change in the future.

By Bruce Dudley, and Phil Oakley,

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