Climate adaptation, not mitigation, should be world’s goal

Despite 30 years of aggressive international climate mitigation efforts, global carbon dioxide emissions have continued to rise whereas adaptation efforts have shown considerable success.

By Ross McKitrick, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, July 6, 2023

Discussion of climate policy is overwhelmingly focused on options for mitigation, or emission reduction, with relatively little attention paid to options for and benefits of adaptation.

Proponents of climate policy have long resisted discussing adaptation perhaps out of fear that it might be effective: if through adaptation we can substantially reduce or even eliminate the negative effects of climate change, this will weaken the case for deep decarbonization and elimination of fossil fuels, which some in the climate movement view as an end in itself.

But while adaptation has an excellent record of success, mitigation has proven a costly failure. Despite 30 years of aggressive international mitigation effort, global carbon dioxide emissions have continued to rise whereas adaptation efforts have shown considerable success at reducing risks to health and agricultural yields from weather variability.

Two reasons why climate mitigation fails

There are two reasons why the climate mitigation agenda fails: the size of proposed emission-reduction policies relative to the carbon cycle, and the leakage problem.

First, eliminating net human emissions to the atmosphere would require cutting global CO2 emissions by about 50 percent. However, climate policy proposals have generally only sought to reduce global emissions by a few percent.

For example, commitments made by countries participating in the Kyoto Protocol would have reduced global emissions by about 2.5 percent. To an even greater extent, therefore, all domestic Canadian policies are likewise utterly irrelevant to the progress of climate change over the coming century.

Second, when an international emissions-control treaty binds some regions but not others, it incentivizes industries to simply relocate production to the non-participating regions to mitigate higher costs. This is referred to as carbon leakage. Since climate does not respect international borders, a climate policy that simply rearranges the location of emissions but does not reduce them is futile.

It is, moreover, a long-established view in mainstream climate economics that the primary response to climate change will (and should be) adaptation rather than heroic but prohibitively costly attempts to prevent warming. As the costs of mitigation efforts mount it is necessary for policy-makers to confront the risk that continued attempts at aggressive mitigation policy may in fact impede adaption and increase the harm from future warming.

For example, research has shown that mortality due to heat waves has declined dramatically in the United States since 1960, when households obtained access to air conditioning and low-cost electricity. Policies that drive up the cost of electricity put air conditioning out of the reach of many people, thereby increasing their vulnerability to hot weather. Similarly, affordable energy and nitrogen fertilizers have contributed to combating the effects of climate change on agriculture.

When it comes to choosing an overall direction in climate policy, priorities must be set, and the record shows that while mitigation is often costly and futile, adaptation is relatively inexpensive and highly effective. It deserves greater focus in climate policy planning.

This is the Executive Summary of the full report, Adaptation Needs Greater Focus in Climate Policy. The report is available in PDF format at this link.

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