Climate change mitigation and adaptation are keys to combating greenhouse gas emissions and global warming
Editor’s Note: This is an update to an article that was originally published on August 27, 2021.
Individuals, businesses, and governments can each take actionable steps today to tackle climate change through interventions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance natural carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption.
When excess CO2 traps the sun’s energy in Earth’s lower atmosphere, it causes surface temperatures to rise. This is known as the greenhouse effect.
Climate mitigation efforts are used to combat the greenhouse gas effect and the global warming it causes. These efforts typically concentrate on CO2, although other environmentally hazardous gases such as methane are also of concern.
What is climate mitigation?
Climate-change mitigation involves human interventions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from sources or enhance their removal from the atmosphere by sinks.
A greenhouse gas source is anything that emits CO2, such as the burning of fossil fuels in power stations, vehicles, and factory production processes. Humans are also sources of greenhouse gas emissions; every time we breathe out, we expel CO2. A sink, on the other hand, is something that absorbs CO2, such as forests, vegetation, or soils.
What is the difference between climate change mitigation and adaptation?
As the names imply, climate change mitigation involves taking action to mitigate—or reduce—the emission of greenhouse gases to limit global warming.
Climate change adaptation involves taking action to adjust to and prepare for the current and predicted effects of climate change, such as more frequent heatwaves, droughts, floods, and coastal erosion from rising sea levels as glaciers melt.
The importance of these two approaches is often dictated by local area priorities, but alignment at national, regional and sub-regional levels is critical to ensuring that long-lasting positive impacts are made. Working in an agile and flexible manner is crucial to understanding the context of the action and informing the resulting approach.
Is mitigation more important than adaptation?
Both climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation are important in curbing the effects of global warming. Mitigation efforts can reduce the rate of global atmospheric temperature rise, and eventually even reverse it. However, this will take many decades, which means adaptation is needed to protect nature, people, and livelihoods from the impacts of global climate change.
Heatwaves, droughts, floods, and coastal erosion are all happening now, so adaptation measures must be deployed to improve the resilience of impacted areas and to prepare for unavoidable future impacts.
What measures can be taken to help climate change mitigation?
Responding to climate change involves two possible approaches: reducing and stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (i.e., mitigation) and/or adapting to the climate change already in the pipeline (i.e., adaptation).
The first approach, emission-reducing measures from sources, includes improving energy efficiency to reduce the fuel needed to produce a given output, and replacing fossil fuel sources (oil, gas, coal) with renewable energy alternatives (such as wind, solar, and hydropower).
In recent years, the cost of wind and solar electricity generation has rapidly reduced, making these often the cheapest source of electricity generation where the wind speeds or insolation levels are suitable.
The next major mitigation challenge is the decarbonization of heat and transport, with electrification and hydrogen presenting alternatives to fossil fuels. Embedding storage in distribution networks and at end-use increases the utility of these low carbon transition routes, while reducing the impact of offshore wind intermittency.
The second approach to mitigate climate change is to increase the effectiveness of sinks. Popular measures include tree planting, increasing vegetation cover, and improving soil absorption of CO2. Reversing the degradation of sinks—for example, through acting to reduce deforestation—is also crucially important, both for mitigation and for biodiversity conservation.
Technologies such as Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) are also being deployed at pilot scale, including direct capture of CO2 from the atmosphere for conversion and storage in geological formations, or for use in the production of fuels, chemicals, building materials, and other products containing CO2. Such technologies involve large investments in demonstration projects to realize their potential.
What measures can be taken to increase adaptation?
Essentially, climate change adaptation aims to manage climate risk to an acceptable level, taking advantage of any positive opportunities that may arise. These measures can be very wide-ranging, depending on the specific risks. When faced with sea-level rise, for example, it might be necessary to relocate sensitive structures to higher ground and/or discontinue threatened activities.
Flood defenses such as barriers or flood plains may be needed to protect property. Or possibly, different crops need to be grown that can build a resilience to droughts or floods, and some agricultural activities might need to be relocated or discontinued. Health impacts can also arise from heatwaves and changes in disease spread with higher temperatures. Adaptation measures are often complex, involving physical, social, and institutional changes to reduce exposure to risks and/or offset losses through insurance.
What steps can society take to defeat climate change?
There are many actions that individuals, businesses, governments, and civil society can take to help tackle climate change. The following is a selection of actions for individuals, though many translate to larger groups.
Successful climate action is often dependent on the capacity it has to engage the societies it impacts. Top-down policies alone are not enough. Actively communicating with stakeholders and giving them a platform to speak is critical to promoting long-lasting behavior change, sharing experiences and understanding the social and cultural impact of climate action.
Step 1: Advocate for change by talking about it
By making your concerns known, you will find allies with ideas and knowledge to share. With enough collective concern expressed from voters, governments will enact laws to limit emissions and make polluters pay for the emissions they produce.
Step 2: Use more energy-efficient products
Minimum Energy Performance Standards laws enforce and guide new energy-efficient products or appliances. Look for labels and information that will help you in choosing devices that offer the greatest energy-saving features.
Step 3: Take advantage of the availability of renewable energy sources
Greater uptake of renewable energy is needed to reduce and eventually remove the need for fossil fuels. At home, using a renewable energy source could involve putting solar panels on your roof, or simply switching to a renewable energy-only supplier for your electricity. The more people choosing renewable energy supply options, the more investment suppliers attract.
Step 4: Consider heat decarbonization to improve efficiency
The first step in heat decarbonization is to insulate the building fabric and seal up draughts, so heat is not wasted. Then replace boilers where practicable with heat pumps that are ultra-efficient and powered by renewable electricity.
Step 5: Reduce water and food waste
Reducing waste is important because it reduces emissions in our atmosphere. Much less water needs to be pumped, heated, and treated when less water is used. You can also mitigate emissions by reducing food waste, eating less meat, and using local suppliers rather than transporting food over long distances.
Step 6: Convert to LED bulbs to save energy
Switching your lighting from traditional incandescent bulbs to LED bulbs yields large energy savings, as does simply switching electronics off rather than leaving them on standby.
Step 7: Reduce your transportation carbon footprint
Traveling less—especially flying—and switching to fuel- and carbon-efficient options like public transportation and/or electric vehicles all reduce emissions and can save you money. If you cannot easily switch out your old petroleum-powered vehicle, then try to drive it in a more fuel-efficient manner—meaning go shorter distances, drive less frequently, and do not put your foot to the floor.
How does policy contribute to climate change?
Energy policies help reduce emissions while simultaneously ensuring energy remains affordable and secure. Most countries have implemented a variety of climate change-related legislation over recent decades that benefit people and the planet. Some examples are:
- Transportation policies that encourage switching to low carbon alternatives.
- Grants and loans used to de-risk low carbon transition, improve the viability of low carbon technologies, and support innovation.
- Carbon or energy taxes to help price emissions.
- Subsidies for fossil fuels and other environmentally damaging activities can be removed and replaced by penalties.
- Emissions trading schemes with caps and tradable permits offer a route to cost-effectively reduce emissions.
What is the government's role in climate change?
Governments develop and implement policies at national, regional, and local levels covering both mitigation and adaptation. They also agree with each other at the supra-national level through various forums to take collective actions and monitor progress through mutually agreed mechanisms. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of Parties meetings is a principal forum for such agreements.
What are the next steps in responding to climate change?
Individuals, businesses, and governments can each take actionable steps today to tackle climate change through interventions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance natural CO2 absorption. From simple measures like switching to LED bulbs and buying energy-efficient products to implementing large-scale climate mitigation and adaptation policies and legislation and even voting for lawmakers who hold our environment to a high standard, we can collectively slow down and possibly stop the ravaging effects of global warming on our planet and to ourselves, our businesses, and our economies.
Our lives are intertwined with the environment in so many tangible and intangible ways. We must find new ways to live, work, and play that cause much less impact to our environment.