Aligning Local Logic with Global Need

Aligning Local Logic with Global Need

A Path Towards Sturdier Mitigation Policy
Aerial view of Manhattan
February 3, 2017
Climate adaptation and mitigation have frequently been viewed as separate strategies, and this distinction within intergovernmental decision making guarantees fragility in subnational climate policy. We now understand that mitigation and adaptation are equally critical approaches to addressing the threats of climate change.

Dichotomy or Nexus?

In the case of urban response to climate impacts, adaptation refers to the strategy of decreasing climate vulnerability by changing aspects of a society’s infrastructure, laws, or behaviors. Examples of adaptation include food/water transportation, urban greening, seawalls, and increased water treatment capacity. Mitigation, on the other hand, encompasses all efforts to reduce the quantity of greenhouse gas being emitted into the atmosphere. At times, climate mitigation and adaptation have even been pitted against each other with policy makers and scientists supporting one to the exclusion of the other. During the early years of climate policy development, adaptation was frequently the strategy that lost out (Shippner, 2006). It was argued in the lead up to the Kyoto Protocol that being a proponent of investment in adaptation was ‘defeatist’ and ‘fatalistic’ and that “believing that we can adapt to just about anything is ultimately a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skin” (Gore, 1992 quoted by Pielke, 1999). At times, an emphasis on adaptation was used as way to postpone our need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels (Parker-Flynn, 2015). Due in part to this early contention between proponents of each, there has been a tendency in policy design to separate mitigation and adaptation into two distinct, and at times competing, strategies; an approach referred to as the mitigation-adaptation dichotomy (Schipper, 2006)

It is now understood that mitigation and adaptation are equally critical approaches to addressing the threats of climate change. Ultimately, mitigation and adaptation address the same need; that is, to reduce the damaging and undesirable consequences of human-induced global warming patterns. We now understand the complex interdependencies of these approaches and that within the realm of feasible policies neither strategy will succeed without the other. Atmospheric carbon concentrations have guaranteed several decades of a hotter and more uncertain climate, regardless of our future mitigation steps. Equally, no known adaptive method can move forward both efficiently and effectively without assurance of future mitigation success. Rather than the mitigation-adaptation dichotomy, a new approach to climate policy should embrace the mitigation-adaptation nexus (Ayers & Huq, 2008). Only an approach that embraces the interdependency of these strategies, and accepts that neither is apt to succeed without the other, will be likely to maximize co-benefits.   

Concerns Over an Integrated Approach

There are valid concerns over how to integrate mitigation and adaptation at the strategic and program level. For one, adaptation operates within an entirely different spatial, temporal, and institutional realm than mitigation. Whereas mitigation is a global effort towards which every country or community has an obligation to contribute, the range of adaptation challenges facing local areas range from extremely dire, to negligible, to exploiting some narrowly improved conditions for some period of time. Mitigation, although important, will not deliver the immediate and localized benefits that adaptation offers in response to specific challenges. Furthermore, policies addressing each strategy are influenced by different institutions, beliefs, values, and interests (Klein, 2007). Mitigation efforts are most effectively implemented as top-down agreements and partnerships between international, national, and sub-national communities aided by the principle of complementarity, while the call for adaptation usually comes from the bottom-up, as communities, regions, or sub-national jurisdictions recognize the impending local threats of climate change (Beisbroek et al., 2009).

Climate mitigation can occur through a wide variety of technological and regulatory policies and programs, but generally speaking, mitigation instruments fall within four broad categories: producing energy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions; technology that removed greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; land use and forestry management to promote natural cycling of carbon; and energy conservation and process efficiency -- four broad instrument categories with a single goal or ‘target’ which is to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

Adaptation efforts are considerably more complicated because each one is location specific and can ‘target’ anyone, or several, impacts of climate change. For example, building a seawall to protect New York City would be an adaptive initiative that ‘targets’ the increased flood threat posed by sea level rise. Similarly, burying power lines is an urban adaptation that ‘targets’ the property and tree damage expected by increasingly intense storms. Primary impacts of climate change such as increased precipitation or increased temperatures may subsequently cause secondary impacts such as increased water pollution or spread of disease which, in turn, may lead to tertiary impacts and systemic uncertainty, illustrating the numerous possible ‘targets’ for adaptation measures. This was clearly demonstrated in 2007 by an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to characterize adaptation pathways as a complement to the Department of Energy’s 1997 characterization of mitigation pathways (Wilbanks et al., 2007). 

Cities Demand Synergistic Strategies

There is no denying that strategic integration of adaptation and mitigation is a challenging, uncertain, diverse, and at times, inefficient goal. However, pursuing integrative strategies at the city level is likely necessary if mitigation is to remain a priority for local governments. 

Last year, The Guardian published an article titled: “New York City accelerates emissions efforts in face of daunting sea level rise.” This commitment to mitigation is part of a larger “80x50” plan that New York City and a number of other cities and states have committed to; that is, to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050. Cities, in theory, should be an effective policy platform for emissions reduction because of they are centers of technology and planning innovation and are usually somewhat immune to swings in national politics and policy focus. Pledges such as New York’s “80x50” plan are, therefore, undeniably commendable given sub-national governments’ significant contributions to global carbon emissions.

Cities and states may wish to set an example by pledging to reduce their emissions, but when faced with the need to allocate scarce resources to a limited number of policy actions and investments, governments and their constituents will face tough choices about who benefits from local measures. 

However, a closer examination of these policy pledges reveals an underlying, yet profound, non-sequitur. Given the global mechanics of Earth’s atmosphere, virtually all the benefits of reduced emissions by a city will occur outside of the local governments jurisdiction. In contrast, adaptation measures will return virtually all of the resulting benefits within the local boundaries of the acting jurisdiction.

The externalized benefits of mitigation versus the internalized benefits of adaptation give cities a “logic of collective action” policy problem. If, in the case of New York City, sea level rise is the climate threat that must be addressed, mitigation will mobilize a constituency that is more fragile over the long run, compared to alternative uses of the same resources ( of a seawall). An investment in adaptation will invariably yield a greater return on investment for the sub-national jurisdiction at which the strategy is implemented. Cities and states may wish to set an example by pledging to reduce their emissions, but when faced with the need to allocate scarce resources to a limited number of policy actions and investments, governments and their constituents will face tough choices about who benefits from local measures. The logic above suggests that local benefits of adaptation will eclipse global benefits of mitigation in local decision-making.  

A Co-Benefits Approach

One way to avoid these hard choices (and the globally sub-optimal level of mitigation that is likely to follow) and align local adaptation needs with global mitigation needs is to isolate adaptation measures that simultaneously contribute to mitigation efforts. Assuming that local governments account for the cost-effectiveness of proposals, one can devise a national policy framework to favor local measures that yield the co-benefits of an integrated mitigation-adaptation nexus solution. 

But what policies yield such co-benefits and reflect a nexus of mitigation and adaptation? As was noted above, an exhaustive list of possible climate adaptation initiatives is nearly impossible, so for the illustration of a co-benefits approach, a handful of primary climate impacts and adaptation measures that directly address or ‘target’ those impacts will be used to illustrate the potential for synergistic and duel-purpose climate strategies. ‘Primary impacts’ of climate change are being used here to designate environmental conditions that are directly caused by the global warming effects of climate change rather than ‘secondary’ or ‘tertiary’ impacts which are environmental conditions caused as a result of ‘primary impacts’. Increased temperature, for example is a primary impact of climate change, whereas the spread of tropical disease into higher or lower latitudes is a secondary impact resulting, largely, from the primary impact of increased temperatures (Butler & Harley, 2009).  

Six conditions, which inclusively represent the major primary impacts of climate change, will be used to illustrate adaptive policies that have either positive, negative, or negligible effects on mitigation. A number of mitigation policies that have negligible or negative effects on adaptation will also be used to balance the Venn diagram model shown in Figure 1. This co-benefits approach and graphic are heavily influenced by a similar, but less city-centric, policy and behavioral classification model in Klein et al. (2007). 


Figure 1: A Venn diagram classification model for adaptation and mitigation strategies, highlighting those strategies that offer co-benefits. Policies and programs placed in the central lens have positive impacts on both mitigation (M) and adaptation (A). Those policies outside of the overlapping region, but inside the lines are measures that benefit one strategy and have no measurable impact on the other. Those outside the parallel lines (M↑/A↓ and M↓/A↑) have a negative impact on the opposing strategy.

First consider the primary climate impact of increased temperatures, as was used in the example above. There are a number of imaginable adaptation solutions that a region faced with this climate threat could reasonably invest in. Three such examples are: increased use of A/C in residential and commercial buildings, improved building insulation, and increased shade cover in outdoor public spaces. All of these measures would effectively help a city adapt to the increased heat stress it is experiencing, but, as indicated in figure 1, you can see that one strategy has a negative effect on mitigation (increased A/C), one has a negligible impact on mitigation (increased shade cover), and one has co-benefits for both adaptation and mitigation efforts (building insulation). By investing in cost-effective building insulation, a city conserves energy by reducing the temperature control needed, as well as protects residents in the event of grid failure and loss of temperature control (Trisolini, 2014).

This same exercise can be repeated for adaptation policies that address any of the other five primary impacts of climate change: decreased temperature, increased precipitation, drought, storms, and sea level rise (see figure 1). Adaptation to drought, for example, could be achieved by transporting water from elsewhere (negative effect on mitigation), reducing water use (negligible effect on mitigation), or by improved watershed management (positive impact on mitigation) (Klein et al., 2007).

Mitigation policies can also have either positive, negative, or negligible impacts on adaptation efforts as is outlined in Figure 1. Banning the use of automobiles in the city center would reduce emissions significantly, but it would also limit citizen’s movement and could negatively impact adaptation in the event of flooding or a power outage. 

Because of the fragility of sub-national and city mitigation pledges, it is critical that strategies which offer co-benefits are supported by a national mechanism. 

The purpose of this classification exercise is to demonstrate that when adapting to a specific climate threat, there are very often multiple strategies that can be implemented and some of those strategies can end up hindering global mitigation efforts, while other measures may offer co-benefits. The same is true for mitigation policies that negatively or positively impact adaptation. Because of the fragility of sub-national and city mitigation pledges, it is critical that strategies which offer co-benefits are supported by a national mechanism. This national mechanism could take the form of a carbon tax and credit system, which makes adaptation strategies with added mitigation benefits a more financially attractive option for cities. Or a national support mechanism could be more direct: promoting, or even requiring, adaptation projects that meet a standard for mitigation benefits. 

The author gratefully acknowledges the guidance and comments of Mark Alan Hughes and Cornelia Colijn of the Kleinman Center on earlier drafts of this document. 


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