Global Sustainability Agenda #15: Climate Change – If you can’t beat it, adapt to it. Is it time to shift from mitigation to adaptation?

Climate Change - If you can’t beat it, adapt to it. Is it time to shift from mitigation to adaptation

Global Sustainability Reality

Europe calls for swift reduction of fossil fuels, despite ‘greenlash’ (Washington Post)

Here’s your life in 2040 — if the EU’s climate plan works (Politico)

Weather v climate: how to make sense of an unusual cold snap while the world is hotter than ever (The Conversation)

Across the US and Europe, climate change is forcing the ski industry to adapt. (Financial Times)

Could Norway become a graveyard for CO2 emissions? (France 24)

Canadian tar sands pollution is up to 6,300% higher than reported, study finds (The Guardian)

Global Sustainability Business Impact

Not all carbon credits are created equal (EuroNews)

ESG regulation: what companies should prepare for in 2024 (Sustainability Mag)

Rio Tinto rosy on China over uptick in manufacturing activity (Financial Times)

Why putting a price on carbon has been fraught with difficulty (Financial Times)

Former Coal Towns Get Money for Clean-Energy Factories (NY Times)

The path forward

The costs and human toll of climate change are significant and escalating. Between 1980 and 2022, the EU witnessed a notable rise in climate-related extreme events, resulting in 220,000 fatalities and economic losses totaling EUR 650 billion. Recent years have been particularly harsh, with around EUR 170 billion lost in the last five years alone.

In 2022, heat-related deaths reached 61,000, second only to the devastating heatwaves of 2003, which claimed 70,000 lives. These figures may spike rapidly due to the compounded effects of climate change, land use alterations, and environmental degradation. Notably, these factors not only exacerbate health risks but also create new avenues for transmitting viral infections among previously isolated wildlife species, potentially sparking zoonotic disease outbreaks in humans. Additionally, climate change and biodiversity loss significantly drive food insecurity. We now face heightened risks of reaching irreversible climate tipping points, posing unknown and potentially catastrophic consequences for societies, ecosystems, and economies.

Inaction would lead to significantly higher and escalating costs in the coming decades. Although estimates of the costs of extreme weather events carry uncertainties, conservative assessments suggest these costs could reduce GDP by about 7% by the end of the century. Between 2031 and 2050, following a path leading to intensified global warming could result in an additional EUR 2.4 trillion in cumulative GDP costs in the EU compared to a pathway aligned with the 1.5°C objective of the Paris Agreement.

Companies worldwide are increasingly committing to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions and water consumption throughout their operations and supply chains. These efforts aim to slow the pace of global warming and safeguard environmental ecosystems. However, while these measures are crucial, they primarily focus on preventing a worsening future rather than addressing the inevitable consequences of existing damage.

For instance, carbon offset initiatives have yet to demonstrate significant impacts on the atmosphere. Global carbon sequestration efforts reportedly only remove a mere 1% of annual global emissions. Therefore, climate adaptation, which entails assisting people, animals, and plants in surviving amidst escalating climate volatility, should receive equal urgency.

Climate adaptation initiatives receive a mere 7% of climate-related investment. These initiatives encompass various needs, including flood and wildfire prevention, resilient agriculture, clean water supply, infrastructure modifications, and population resettlement. Given their significance, these endeavors warrant more significant investment from businesses, especially since they present near-term opportunities with lower capital expenditures and faster returns on investment.

In fact, according to a Bloomberg report, analysts from Bank of America estimate that the climate adaptation market could potentially reach a value of $2 trillion annually within five years. This underscores the immense economic potential of prioritizing climate adaptation efforts, which mitigate immediate risks and foster long-term resilience in the face of climate change impacts.

Climate change adaptation strategies are essential alongside mitigation efforts to address the challenges of global warming. Even if all anthropogenic emissions were abruptly stopped, the climate would still undergo changes. Since it will take decades for climate change mitigation efforts to have a noticeable impact on rising temperatures, it is imperative to transform global systems to adapt to the changes that are already occurring and will persist in the foreseeable future.

Mitigation involves action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the amount of warming our planet will experience. Adaptation, on the other hand, focuses on helping people adjust to the current and future effects of climate change. These two prongs of climate action work together to protect people from the harms of climate change: one to make future climate change as mild and manageable as possible and the other to deal with the climate change we fail to prevent.

Mitigation centers on addressing the root cause of climate change: the heat-trapping greenhouse gases humans are adding to the atmosphere. This includes reducing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, such as transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewables and nuclear power and enhancing sinks of greenhouse gases that remove them from the atmosphere, like afforestation and direct air capture systems.

Adaptation, meanwhile, involves building resilience to current and future climate impacts through various strategies. These can include infrastructure improvements, natural solutions like ecosystem restoration, and policy changes to ensure communities can withstand climate-related challenges effectively.

Today, mitigation efforts are not on track to meet global targets set by agreements like the Paris Agreement. Consequently, adaptation becomes even more crucial. However, current funding for adaptation lags behind, with most resources allocated to mitigation efforts. It is essential for wealthier nations to fulfill their pledges of financial and technological aid to support adaptation efforts in low- and middle-income countries.

A renewed commitment to both mitigation and adaptation is essential. The sooner the world reduces greenhouse gas emissions and enhances resilience to climate impacts, the less severe the consequences will be, ultimately saving lives and livelihoods. This may require adopting comprehensive strategies across all global development systems to adapt and build resilience to climate change, involving collaboration among citizens, researchers, and policymakers at various levels.

Here are some strategies for adaptation to climate change:

  1. Terrestrial and Freshwater Ecosystem-Based Management: Terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, spanning from the tropics to polar regions, face significant threats from climate change. Urgent management measures are required to prevent catastrophic environmental and socio-economic consequences. Ecosystem-based management (EbM) emerges as a viable option for bolstering the resilience of vulnerable terrestrial ecosystems. EbM involves managing ecosystems and their functions to mitigate various climate change risks to people, biodiversity, and ecosystem services, offering multiple co-benefits.
  2. Coastline Protection and Mitigation of Sea Level Rise: Coastal protection and the challenge of rising sea levels are paramount concerns affecting numerous coastal communities and ecosystems. Rising sea levels can trigger severe consequences, including flooding, erosion, saltwater intrusion, habitat loss, infrastructure damage, displacement, and heightened vulnerability to storms. Implementing strategies to protect coastlines from sea level rises is imperative. These strategies range from hard engineering solutions such as concrete seawalls and levees to soft engineering approaches like nature-based solutions, living shorelines, and beach nourishment.
  3. Climate-Smart Agricultural Practices and Regenerative Agriculture in a Carbon Economy: The adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, including crop residue management, reduced tillage, soil amendments like biochar, and cover crops, aims to sequester soil carbon and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Furthermore, the development of climate-resilient crops is essential. Climate change poses significant threats to global food security, necessitating increased food production on existing farmland while conserving forests. Sustainable farming practices, precision agriculture technologies, agroforestry, and the development of resilient crop varieties are crucial in ensuring a secure food supply while safeguarding our planet’s natural resources.
  4. Addressing and Planning for Environmental Change: Efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change-induced environmental issues should be coupled with urgent actions to reduce environmental pollution and degradation. Addressing global challenges related to climate change, such as sustainable management of global warming and its impacts on soil health, air pollution, water resources, food security, waste management, and the exploration of alternative energy sources, are essential to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs).
  5. Effective Risk Management of Extreme Weather Events: The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events due to climate change, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires, necessitate robust risk management measures. Raising public awareness and leveraging advanced technologies for monitoring extreme weather events are vital in developing effective solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
  6. Utilizing Urban Soils for Climate Change Adaptation: Given the significant urban population growth expected by the end of the 21st century, the state and function of soils in urban areas are of paramount importance in combating the intensifying impacts of climate change. Urban green infrastructure (UGI), comprising parks, green walls, roofs, street trees, rain gardens, and other vegetated spaces, plays a crucial role. UGI can help mitigate climate change impacts by capturing and storing carbon, regulating microclimates, ameliorating urban heat islands, improving air quality, reducing building energy use, and promoting sustainable behavior patterns.
  7. Transitioning to Climate-Resilient Infrastructure: Infrastructure networks are essential and long-lived assets across various sectors. Decisions made regarding the design, location, and operation of these assets today will determine their resilience to climate change impacts in the future. Enhancing the resilience of infrastructure is crucial for climate adaptation and mitigation, especially considering that urban areas contribute over 70% of global CO2 emissions. Therefore, adopting climate-responsive management practices for urban systems is essential to reducing CO2 emissions and ensuring sustainable urban development.

Beatriz Canamary

Beatriz Canamary is a consultant in Sustainable and Resilient Business, Doctor and Professor in Business, Civil Engineer, specialized in Mergers and Acquisitions from the Harvard Business School, and mom of triplets. Today she is dedicated to the effective application of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Multinationals.

She is an ESG enthusiast and makes it possible to carry out sustainable projects, such as energy transition and net-zero carbon emissions. She has +15 years of expertise in large infrastructure projects.

Member of the World Economic Forum, Academy of International Business and Academy of Economics and Finance.