climate variability

Climate change: the mitigation and adaptation dilemma


The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has just issued a cry of alarm in the form of a countdown on 10 September: there are still two years left to act against climate change or risk "disastrous consequences". In drawing up a blackboard of threats to the food chain and access to water, Antonio Guterres hammered home the fact that the world was "facing a direct existential threat" and the "greatest challenge" of the time. "Climate change is moving faster than we are," the UN chief said. In the face of this threat, there are two opposing attitudes: that of mitigation and that of adaptation. Do we have to choose between the two?

Chis issue has come to the forefront again after a summer. particularly disastrous climate change in several countries of the northern hemisphere; and more generally with regard to the high goals in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions set since 2015 by the Paris Agreement.

This is not a choice, however, as both approaches are equally necessary. Without mitigation efforts - i.e. the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions - being rapid and intense, adaptation could grow harder and harder in many parts of the world, and for a long time. But the climate variability and norms that are changing around the world year after year also demonstrate the indispensability of adaptation.

Paradoxically, while climate change adaptation measures have a very concrete and rapid impact on daily life, they are less well known today than those relating to mitigation.

Multiple forms of adaptation

While the objective of mitigation is well known and measurable, the criteria for successful adaptation are less so.

In some cases, "incremental" adaptation will not fundamentally change systems and approaches, such as moving the date of the of the harvest in the year for example.

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In other cases, "transformational" adaptations will involve significant changes in activities or the zoning changes. While the latter measures are more difficult to establish, the former are not necessarily spontaneous. There are many different forms of adaptation and the events that give rise to them.

Faced with these phenomena, academic research has mobilized: international networks are advocating the following knowledge exchangeThe report also stresses the need for collaboration between scientists and field actors in order to observe behaviour and reactions to concrete situations on the ground.

Different actors

Adaptation and mitigation also differ in terms of the areas of research and the professions involved.

To reduce emissions, technical processes are central, even if they remain insufficient without economic and political incentives and changes in consumer behaviour. For adaptation, the organisation of action at the territorial, sectoral or health level is of the utmost importance, supported by technical changes (such as building standards), as well as economic and regulatory incentives.

While it may be necessary to build dykes in response to rising water levels, adaptation will also involve changing habitat criteria, anticipating heat waves and floods in urban areas, considering changes in agriculture and forestry taking into account natural implementation timeframes (e.g. tree growth), working on insurance, agreeing on rules for the movement of people and impacts on property.


Learning is possible, as shown by the relative decline in casualties related to extreme events around the world. However, the number of people affected and property damage is increasing, and the forecasts are not good.

This is because, for both adaptation and mitigation, it is difficult to act today in anticipation of future impacts. Hence the need to highlight the expected benefits of mitigation and adaptation actions. These benefits differ in the two areas.

Reducing emissions means, for example, improving health by reducing air pollution or increasing energy independence through the use of renewable energy. Preparing for adaptation often means increasing resilience in the face of impacts that are already occurring, or even taking advantage of some of the benefits of a changing climate. Many large companies have understood this and are commissioning studies on their climate vulnerability by specialized firms.

Confronting inequalities

Both in the area of mitigation and adaptation, lack of knowledge and behavioural inertia are important barriers.

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It is true that climate change imposes structural changes in societies, and partly reshuffles the cards in terms of advantages and disadvantages. In the case of mitigation, the fundamental dependence on the fossil fuel sector has proven to be a massive brake on change. In the case of adaptation, the resistances are more diversified in view of the different phenomena involved, but also appear.

In this respect, it can be noted that the relationship of these two areas to economic and social inequalities is almost the opposite.

Emissions are caused disproportionately by the wealthiest, both internationally and nationally. Mitigation must therefore concern these actors as a priority. On the other hand, in the face of impacts, wealth often makes it possible to reduce vulnerability, either by establishing protection or by moving to areas with more favourable conditions. Different types of poverty and vulnerability (e.g. age or health status) have a negative impact on the capacity to respond to climate stresses.

At the international level, tropical countries are more prone to strong impacts due to their geographical location and greater dependence on natural systems. However, they have relatively low per capita emissions and most of them bear limited historical responsibility for the problem of climate change.


Oppositions may also exist between adaptation and mitigation.

The increasing use of air conditioning (to adapt to high temperatures) generates, for example, energy consumption (unfavourable to attenuation). Knowing that the benefit of air conditioning is private while heat is generally rejected into the atmosphere. But such cases remain marginal and these differences in approach between adaptation and mitigation make it entirely possible - and necessary - to address them simultaneously.

It is important to emerge from a sterile opposition between these orientations, as well as from a superficial juxtaposition of plans that evoke both areas, without implementation at a fairly concrete level from the "bottom up". In particular, adaptation needs to be given full scope, and may well in the future become more autonomous from mitigation by being led by specific leaders and actors.

These two aspects of the response to climate change will continue to be linked in many ways, not least because the impacts experienced may sorely stimulate the need for increased mitigation efforts.

Adaptation plans exist at different levelsincluding for FranceThe Commission will continue to work on the development of a global agreement on mitigation efforts, taking advantage of the mitigation benefit of not requiring a global agreement on efforts. It is important to be aware of and increase observations of both impacts and responses to those impacts, in order to integrate them in the best possible way into the present and future of our societies.

Edwin Zaccai and Romain Weikmans are co-authors with Valentine van Gameren of "Adaptation to climate change"The Discovery (2014).

Edwin ZaccaiProfessor, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development Studies (CESD), Université Libre de Bruxelles and Romain WeikmansResearch officer of the Fonds de la recherche scientifique (F.R.S.-FNRS) at the Centre d'Etudes du Développement Durable, Université Libre de Bruxelles

The original text of this article was published on The Conversationeditorial partner of UP' Magazine

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