Mitigation, adaptation and resilience: climate terminology explained

The terms ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ refer to two different paths for dealing with climate change. Mitigation deals with the causes of climate change and works to reduce man-made effects on the climate system. In contrast, adaptation makes changes to prepare for and negate the effects of climate change, thereby reducing the vulnerability of communities and ecosystems. By adapting to cope with the effects of climate change, communities, enterprises and institutions can build up their climate change resilience.

What is mitigation?

Mitigation is action taken to reduce activities that are the man-made causes of climate change. These activities include burning fossil fuels, deforestation and livestock farming – all of which increase concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, producing a blanketing effect and warming the Earth. By taking measures to reduce emissions of GHG, or remove them from the atmosphere via forest planting or underground storage for example, individuals and institutions can mitigate climate change.

Mitigation has policy implications for the major sectors of the economy: energy, transport, construction, industry, agriculture, forestry and waste management. To mitigate their activities, these sectors have several options. For example, they can use renewable energy instead of fossil fuels to reduce the amount of GHG released into the atmosphere. Or they can use energy efficient lighting and electrical appliances to reduce their energy consumption. Permits and incentives are a useful way of encouraging this kind of mitigating behaviour.

The benefits of these mitigation actions, aside from the global benefit of reduced GHG emissions, include improved air quality, reduced health costs, increased energy efficiency and better energy security.

But for mitigation actions to reduce GHG emissions enough to significantly slow down climate change, piecemeal efforts are not enough. Success depends on global cooperation and achieving this is not straightforward. Many developing countries do not want to be denied the opportunities that have previously benefited their more industrialised neighbours; they argue for compensation in mitigating climate change.

What is adaptation?

Adaptation involves actions taken to counteract new or changing environmental challenges and reduce the vulnerability of human systems to the effects of climate change. Adaptation can take place in anticipation of an event or as a response to it; it includes adjustments through climate planning as well as autonomous reactions by individuals and public bodies.

The policy implications of adaptation relate to the specific risks that climate change poses to an area or sector and the practical steps needed to reduce those risks. The environmental impact of increases in heavy rain, for example, will not affect settlements on higher ground in the same way as it does those on flood plains. Different adaptation, and policy, responses are therefore required for different areas.

What is the relationship between adaptation and resilience?

The benefits of adaptation are increased resilience at different levels: individual, community, organisation, country and global. For example, improving a road, so that it can withstand more severe flooding, increases the resilience of the community that uses that road. Likewise, improving emergency medical services strengthens community resilience to deal with more prevalent water-related diseases brought about by increased rainfall.

What is the relationship between mitigation and adaptation?

Climate change mitigation and adaptation are not mutually exclusive but are key partners in any strategy to combat climate change (Figure 1). As effective mitigation can restrict climate change and its impacts, it can also reduce the level of adaptation required by communities and nations.

However, there is a significant time lag between mitigation activities and their effects on climate change reduction. Even if we were to dramatically reduce emissions today, current greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would continue to result in global warming and drive climate change for many decades. And so, it would also be many decades before adaptation requirements are reduced.

Adaptation in South Asia

Regardless of international efforts to mitigate climate change, communities throughout South Asia need to adapt to changing environmental conditions. These communities include millions of people who are vulnerable to climate change due to the geographic characteristics of where they live, the seasonally dependent nature of their livelihoods, and a high prevalence of extreme poverty.

Adaptation programmes are under way. These include increasing farmers’ knowledge of predictable weather events via the use of technology, diversifying cropping patterns to better withstand droughts and/or floods, and targeting irrigation systems to combat water insecurity. But much more needs to be done. To help with this process, ACT will be working with the governments of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, to integrate climate change adaptation into policies, plans and budgets.

Further reading

Mahfuz, A. and Suphachalasai, S. 2014. Assessing the Costs of Climate Change and Adaptation in South Asia. Manila, Philippines: Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2007. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Section 4: Adaptation and mitigation options”. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC.

Know Climate Change. (n.d.). Adaptation and Mitigation. New Delhi, India: The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

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