Article: Adaptation to Climate Change: A Powerful Tool to Reducing the Overall Cost of Mitigation

This article was published by Green Business on December 3, 2009

Every single research conducted in the name of climate change acknowledges the fact that adaptation will be a key response to reducing vulnerability to climate change.  The reality is that the Earth has already warmed by 0.7°C since around 1900.  Even if all emissions stopped tomorrow, the Earth will warm by a further 0.5 – 1°C over coming decades due to the considerable inertia in the climate system.  On current trends, global temperatures could rise by 2 – 3°C within the next fifty years or so, with several degrees more warming by the end of the century if emissions continue to grow.

Economist Lord Stern of Brentford clearly warned the world in his report prepared for the British government on the subject of effect of climate change and global warming on the world economy that climate is a pervasive factor in social and economic development – one so universally present and so deeply ingrained that it is barely noticed until things go wrong.

He further cited that adaptation will be crucial in reducing vulnerability to climate change and is the only way to cope with the impacts that are inevitable over the next few decades.  In regions that may benefit from small amounts of warming, adaptation will help to reap the rewards.  It provides an impetus to adjust economic activity in vulnerable sectors and to support sustainable development, especially in developing countries.  Here comes another warning – but adaptation is not an easy option, and it can only reduce, not remove, the impacts. There will be some residual cost – either the impacts themselves or the cost of adapting.  Without early and strong mitigation, the costs of adaptation rise sharply.

The thirteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) in Bali, December 2007, adopted the Bali Plan which identified adaptation as one of the following five key building blocks required for a strengthened future response to climate change to enable to and beyond 2012:

  1. Shared Vision;
  2. Mitigation;
  3. Adaptation;
  4. Technology; and
  5. Financial Resources.

According to a report accepted by Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Summary of Main Findings related to adaptation include:

  1. Other effects of regional climate changes on natural and human environments are emerging, although many are difficult to discern due to adaptation and non-climatic drivers;
  2. Some adaptation is occurring now, to observed and projected future climate change, but on a limited basis;
  3. Adaptation will be necessary to address impacts resulting from the warming which is already unavoidable due to past emissions;
  4. A wide array of adaptation options is available, but more extensive adaptation than is currently occurring is required to reduce vulnerability to future climate      change. There are barriers, limits and costs, but these are not fully understood;      and
  5. A portfolio of adaptation and mitigation measures can diminish the risks associated with climate change.

Adaptation in a general sense is defined as “Modification of a concept or object to make it applicable in situations different from originally anticipated”.  A broad definition of adaptation, following the IPCC, states any adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.

The graph presented below illustrates how adaptation can play a role in minimizing the overall cost of climate change:

  1. The red-line stands for Cost of Climate Change without Adaptation (A);
  2. The green-line stands for Cost of Adaptation + Residual Climate Change (B); and
  3. The blue-line stands for Residual Climate Change Damage (C).      



  1. D Represents Total Cost of Climate Change after Adaptation;
  2. E Represents Gross Benefit of Adaptation; and
  3. F Represents Net Benefit of Adaptation.

The graph indicates that adaptation will reduce the negative impacts of climate change (and increase the positive impacts), but there will almost always be residual damage, often very large. The gross benefit of adaptation is the damage avoided. The net benefit of adaptation is the damage avoided, less the cost of adaptation.

The residual cost of climate damage plus the cost of adaptation is the cost of climate change, after adaptation.  The other point is that the portion of potential cost saving associated with adaptation is significant enough not to ignore or disregard the power of adaptation.

The objective of adaptation is to reduce vulnerability to climatic change and variability, thereby reducing their negative impacts. It should also enhance the capability to capture any benefits of climate change. Hence adaptation, together with mitigation, is an important response strategy and another warning from Stern is that without early and strong mitigation, the costs of adaptation will rise, and countries’ and individuals’ ability to adapt effectively will be constrained.

The graph presented below demonstrates how response to climate change through effective policies could use adaptation as an effective tool to help mitigate the overall damage:


Accepting the fact that adaptation is a response to climate change and climate variability, the graph highlights a planned adaptation can help to minimize the impacts and vulnerabilities while policy responses through human interfaces attempt to mitigate climate change and its variability.

Policy-driven adaptation can be defined as the result of a deliberate policy decision.   Autonomous adaptation is undertaken in the mainly by the private sector (and in unmanaged natural ecosystems), while policy-driven adaptation is associated with public agencies either in that they set policies to encourage and inform adaptation or they take direct action themselves, such as public investment.

According to the report published by the IPCC on the subject, adaptation can operate at two broad levels:

  1. Building Adaptive Capacity – creating the information and conditions (Regulatory, institutional, managerial) that are needed to support adaptation. Measures to build adaptive capacity range from understanding the potential impacts of climate change, and the options for adaptation (i.e. undertaking impact studies and identifying vulnerabilities), to piloting specific actions and accumulating the resources necessary to implement actions; and
  2. Delivering adaptation actions – taking steps that will help to reduce vulnerability to climate risks or to exploit opportunities.  Examples include: planting different crops and altering the timing of crop planting; and investing in physical infrastructure to protect against specific climate risks, such as flood defences or new reservoirs.

The barriers and limits associated with adaptation include the following:

  1. Uncertainty and imperfect information;
  2. Missing and misaligned markets, including public goods; and
  3. Financial constraints, particularly those faced by the poor.

Countries and regions around the world are engaged in developing strategies to overcome the barriers and limitations associated with Adaptation.  Here is an example of how the European Union is preparing to capitalize on the power of adaptation.

The European Commission presented a policy paper in April 2009 known as a White Paper which articulated the framework for adaptation measures and policies to reduce the European Union’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.  This paper acknowledged the fact that decisions on how best to adapt to climate change must be based on solid scientific and economic analysis.  It is therefore important to increase the understanding of climate change and the impacts it will have. The White Paper outlines the need to create a Clearing House Mechanism by 2011 where information on climate change risks, impacts and best practices would be exchanged between governments, agencies, and organisations working on adaptation policies.

The paper presented the EU’s Adaptation Framework and the objective was to improve the EU’s resilience to deal with the impact of climate change. The EU’s framework adopts a phased approach. The intention is that phase 1 (2009-2012) will lay the ground work for preparing a comprehensive EU adaptation strategy to be implemented during phase 2, commencing in 2013.

Phase 1 will focus on four pillars of action:

  1. Building a solid knowledge base on the impact and consequences of climate change for the EU;
  2. Integrating adaptation into EU key policy areas:
    • Increasing the resilience of health and social policies;
    • Increasing the resilience of agriculture and forests;
    • Increasing the resilience of biodiversity, ecosystems and water;
    • Increasing the resilience of coastal and marine areas; and
    • Increasing the resilience of production systems and physical infrastructure.
  3. Employing a combination of policy instruments (market-based instruments, guidelines, public-private partnerships) to ensure effective delivery of adaptation; and
  4. Stepping up international cooperation on adaptation.  For phase 1 to be a success, the EU, national, regional and local authorities must cooperate closely.

The proposals set out in this paper cover actions to be taken in the first phase and are without prejudice to the future structure of the EU budget and to the current and future multi-annual financial framework.

On a smaller but a powerful level, everybody has responsibility to understand clearly that the potential damages of climate change and climate variability are entirely dependent upon the responses or adaptations that people make to their ever changing environment on a daily basis.  Perhaps the best way to minimize damages associated with climate change is to adapt carefully the management of resources, the procedures and processes of producing goods and services, and the leisure activities for the hobbies and entertainment.

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