Adapt or mitigate


The ongoing debate around climate change

Adapt or Mitigate, one of the ongoing debates about climate change. Where should our focus be? On helping people to adapt to the effects of climate change or on helping humanity to mitigate climate change itself, thereby minimizing its effects? The response might be clear that mitigation is more important in the long run, and on the global scale, I would have to agree. But that logic cannot be applied unilaterally, and in the context of designing international development policy, we run the risk of making a grave error if we focus only or disproportionately on mitigation in the case of developing countries.

Just three weeks ago, Minister Bibeau launched a process to consult Canadians about global development issues and to find out what Canadians think should be the priorities of Canada’s plan for international cooperation for development. Her announcement came a week after she had launched the pre-consultation meetings more informally with civil society leaders. During one of these meetings it was mentioned that the Canadian government intended to dedicate 25% of its climate change budget for international development assistance to adaptation measures, and 75% to mitigation measures. This was seen as progress compared to previous discussions, but still not good enough.

Poor countries didn’t create climate change, and aren’t positioned to stop it

The global logic of mitigation is being applied to developing countries. But if we do that, we miss the mark. Mitigation is a question of reducing or countering greenhouse gas emissions. If you take a look at where those are coming from right now, you’ll find mostly developed countries, but also China and India and other highly industrialized middle-income countries, which, by the sheer power of their populations are bound to have among the highest measures for many indicators. India has the highest number of people living in poverty, and the fourth highest number of billionaires. China is second in both. (World Bank, Forbes, Our World In Data).

Does this mean there is no point to focus on mitigation in developing countries? Not at all. But it makes more sense to place the onus for mitigation largely on the 20 countries responsible for 80% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and any other countries where the rates are high, than on African countries, for example, which collectively account for only 2.3% of emissions.

Adaptation will lead to mitigation

The typical response to the “adapt or mitigate” debate is that developing countries are struggling with the effects of climate change now, not later. Soil is eroding; water supply is less predictable, just like extreme weather conditions provoking floods and droughts. These issues affect human livelihoods now, and under current climate conditions and current practices in areas such as agriculture, the livelihoods are not sustainable. This is true, but there’s more to be said on this issue. In fact, those truths affect both developing and developed countries. What’s missing, aside from that fact that the mandate of international development is linked to poverty reduction and therefore to adaptation measures, is some sort of understanding about how adaptation measures will actually contribute to long-term mitigation. The most compelling example is related to deforestation. We know the role that trees have in reducing the prevalence of greenhouse gases, so the “planting trees: good; cutting trees: bad” is an easy argument to make, with the exceptions concerning sustainable forest management whereby it’s better to plant and cut than not to plant at all. With this example, it’s easy to understand that a family in Haiti or Senegal that has no other economic choice for cooking fuel other than wood or coal, will turn to cutting a tree and burning wood or coal if they must. If less harmful alternatives (natural gas, non-carbon based electricity, fuel efficient wood stoves) were rendered accessible, such damaging practices would give way to more sustainable ones. Hence, adaptation, in the sense of helping people to earn a living by countering the effects of climate change which threaten their livelihoods, will help people adopt practices that contribute to mitigation. This has been demonstrated in Costa Rica, where 50% of the land is covered by forests, compared to around 20% 30 years ago. The impressive forest management and conservation results were achieved mainly through cash payments for environmental services. (World Bank)

Local development first

Another simple way to understand this dynamic is the focus on local development. By encouraging local sustainable livelihoods in rural regions whose environment is threatened right now, we help communities rely more on local food production, reducing the reliance on imported goods requiring international greenhouse-gas emitting transport. We would also be encouraging young people to resist the draw of migration to cities which in many developing countries, not all, of course, are not yet as energy efficient as the rural areas of those countries. Again, adaptation will contribute to mitigation.

This is related to another issue that needs to be addressed, the lack of reliance upon scientific, theoretical models which predict the effects of climate change to formulate policies and programs. But that’s another blog.

How can I participate in Canada's consultation efforts ?
Go to the GAC website and click on the International assistance review consultation form

and the Discussion paper .