Conventionally policy solutions to the global problem of Climate Change have been dominated by the concept of mitigation, unfortunately this approach contains the seeds of its own doom, critics say.
A mitigation approach is an intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases (IPCC. 2001b), whereas the adaptation strategy; the second approach to tackle Climate Change; is a process to cope with and take advantage of the consequences of Climate Change. Simply put, adaptation acts in anticipation to future impacts and mitigation proceeds rather in reaction. De facto, the adaptation and mitigation approaches are together an inherent component of a decarbonized economy but what makes this balance a fair balance? The purpose of this brief will intend to give an added insight.
Is it relevant to solve environmental problems with the same means that we used to create them?
Whilst there are two Climate Change strategies, efforts have been made to reduce emissions because the problem has been socially constructed as a pollution problem. The impact of this strategy is still significant as the concept of mitigation has framed our current Climate Change policy. Any discussions in respect to Climate Change began in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) well known the Earth Summit where a key environmental treaty was agreed. The treaty is called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and it is considered as a watershed in the fight against Climate Change and a major driver of the Climate Change policy across the world. In this post UNFCCC period any talk about adaptation was perceived as a stance against mitigation activities and, in a broader sense, anti-environmentalist. For example, the Former US Vice President Al Gore speaking in 1992, argued that adaptation represented “a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins.” This common belief has been mirrored by the UNFCC as it mostly set down a framework for GreenHouse Gases (GHG). The detail of the legally binding reduction target appeared with the Kyoto protocol in 1997. Again, the protocol negotiations resulted in a number of novel mitigation mechanisms such as the international Emission Trading (IET).
Whilst the mitigation strategy has been the subject of fierce debates it must be remembered that our policy only reflects the belief system of our society. Our western society is framed by the philosophy of Descartes, where the world can be described and controlled in a mechanical manner. Nowadays, the utilitarian proponents argue that our technologies and innovation would be effective enough to address Climate Change risks. In this regard, the economist Robert Solow, who won the Nobel Prize in 1987, provides a fundamental economic theory. His article in “Intergenerational Equity and Exhaustible Resources” in 1974, demonstrates that the value of the elasticity of substitution of capital for resources is a crucial element and will permit continual growth. In other words, the future substitution of technology, for instance, hydrogen instead of oil, will ensure economic growth in the long run. However due to today’s demands for energy can this statement be valid? Will the future technologies arrive in time? In contrast, the research of Georgescu and Roegen marked a turning point when they demonstrated that this economic logic is invalid. To do so, they showed evidence where creation of innovations and technologies would not be fast enough and therefore insufficient to permit continual growth per capita. This means that the substitution of technology would not be in time to face global challenges including economic, social and environmental issues. That is currently the case in regards to new green innovations and low carbon technologies. The most alarming is that the effectiveness of a mitigation strategy in tackling Climate Change is mainly based on the substitution of technology.
The faith in technical progress and reliance on mitigation strategy starts to collapse. After ten years of an unachieved Kyoto Protocol, a decreasing confidence in mitigation appeared but it is only recently that the adaptation approach has seen a renewal in policy and debate. Nowadays, adaptation has come to be internationally regarded as a crucial response to Climate Change (IPCC, 2001a), and become a key component of the Government’s strategic approach to tackling Climate Change as set out in the UK Climate Change Programme (UKCIP. 2005). Given the potential to spend billions on adaptation efforts research to define what is an adaptation policy is worth pursuing in detail. Besides, there are increasing calls for research to define an optimal adaptation policy (Aakre and Rübbelke, 2008; OECD, 2008; Shorten, 2008; Adger et al., 2007; European Commission, 2007; Bouwer and Aerts, 2006; Kane and Shogren, 2000; Smith et al., 1999). New perspectives on the role of adaptation New perspectives on the role of adaptation are beginning to emerge for two reasons. Decisively, the Stern Review provides an articulate economic argument in favour of adaptation. The review is the first economic report that brings about a common consent regarding the Economics of Climate Change. Along the same lines, emerged a series of the international programmes to support adaptation. The 2001 Marrakech Accord to the Kyoto Protocol, the National Adaptation Programme of Action, the Kyoto Protocol Adaptation Fund, the Least Developed Countries Fund, the Strategic Priority on Adaptation, and the Special Climate Change Fund. And finally in 2002, many developing nations signed the Delhi Declaration calling for greater attention to adaptation in Climate Change policy negotiations. However, the adaptation instruments are biased due to a constant focus on mitigation. In fact, the role of technological change for a sustainable development is inherent in the environmental policy as well as in energy and climate policy. Policy-makers need to understand the limitations of mitigation for reducing vulnerability.
So how extensive is the problem? The increase of extreme weather such as the 2007 summer flood and the 2006 drought in Europe, have shown how climate events can have dramatic consequences on our lives. Crucially in the UK, the central conclusion of the Stern Review is that the benefits of forceful and early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting (DECC. 2009). The Review predicts that the “do nothing” scenario would cost 20% of GDP each year against 1% of GDP per year to take action
As mentioned previously the adaptation and mitigation approaches are two faces of the same coin, nonetheless the question is to know how effective is the adaptation strategy in tackling Climate Change. The emergency of Climate Change makes it clear that the enhancement of our capacity to adapt is paramount. There were previously no legal requirements on the Government to report or monitor the risks of Climate Change. Nevertheless, recent shift in the UK Climate Change policy and international pressures have resulted in a renewed focus on adaptation strategy. The UK policy: blueprint? The UK is a relevant example to understand how the adaptation process should be conducted. On one hand, the UK is considered in Europe to be a leader in reducing Greenhouse Gases (GHG) (Professor Kevin Anderson, EEA. 2009). On the other hand, if the UK aims to maintain its leadership position, it must reinforce its Climate Change policy. In this regard the adaptation strategy offers the opportunity for the UK to be the first country to provide a blueprint. It is now a matter of months until what is considered as a renewal of the Kyoto protocol: the Copenhagen Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This conference could be the most critical environmental policy gathering in decades (Copenhagen Climate Council. 2009). As a result, the UK passed the Climate Change Act in 2008. It is considered to be the world’s first long term legally binding framework to tackle the dangers of Climate Change (DEFRA. 2008). Nevertheless, whilst the Act requires parties affected to report on adaptation, there are currently no standards concerning the method of reporting (DECC. 2009. p. 55). This lack of guidance can either lead to more flexibility or confusion. The controversy is over which adaptation approaches will best meet the Climate Change Act. On one hand, as a matter of coherence, a common methodology will be needed for adaptation. On the other hand, adaptation strategies will inevitably be diverse because regional or local vulnerabilities present disparate risks resulting from Climate Change. From a wider perspective, Climate Change Act (CCA) 2008 is considered to be the world’s first long term legally binding framework to tackle the dangers of Climate Change DEFRA. 2008). The Act gives responsibility for adaptation to DEFRA regulations and to the requirements of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (“DECC”) for mitigation. The Act could become a reference for other policies/legislations that need progress in this matter. For instance, the last policy in force in France is the “Plan Climat 2004” where questions about adaptation are absent. To sum up, the UK is a pioneer because the CCA gives powers to the Government to carry out risk assessments and make plans to address those risks. Previously, criticisms made towards Climate Change policies were related to the set of ambitious targets and the lack of actions (Turney. 2008). To avoid this happening again, the UK government have passed key provisions. This paper briefly analyses the current tools and institutional approaches used in the UK jurisdictions. Since its beginning, the UKCIP has played a key role in assisting in the development and implementation of adaptation in public and private sectors (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). The UKCIP provides a seven-step process to assist policy makers in the prioritisation of risks and actions. Recognising that the world is not a zero risk environment is surely the main contribution of this process. Its reliance on risk principles helps stakeholders to identify thresholds for unacceptable losses or new opportunities. However, whilst the thresholds are useful reference points for adaptation planners, the process does not allow for a comparison of risks. In addition, the study identifies limited funds and expertise as the main obstacles faced by policy makers. The full success of policies will be influenced by a number of factors, including atmospheric feedback mechanisms, enhancement of the communities’ capacity and technological developments. Still those factors depend upon financial and technical local capacities, which are not similar across the UK. In a sense the adaptation appears relatively unfair. Finally, despite being relatively advanced in the development of its institutional capacity, legislation, and tools for adaptation planning, the UK has not yet adopted a formal risk prioritization process at the national level.
To conclude, the door to take societies to a low carbon future has opened but the emergency of Climate Change requires a faster response. The 21st century will be marked by a third generation of human rights including the right to a healthy environment, international equity, and sustainability (Vasek. 1979). In this sense, this brief confirms that we cannot solve the problem with the same means that we used to create them. Whilst mitigation is necessary it is definitely not fair and effective enough to tackle Climate Change. As a matter of fact, the magnitude and pace of Climate Change requires complex instruments. However those instruments inherently reflect the deep beliefs of our system and so to face Climate Change we need a mixed approach synchronizing mitigation and adaptation.
- UN/DESA Policy Brief: Reaching a Climate Deal in Copenhagen
- A New Direction for Climate Change Policy: The Hartwell Paper
- Participatory Learning in Climate Change Law Policy, Part 1
- ETFRN Report on Forests & Climate Change
- Portfolio Approach to Climate Mitigation
Filed under: Climate Change Law