Living with Global Warming

Studies | Global Warming

No. 278
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
by Indur M. Goklany

Integrating Mitigation, Adaptation and Sustainable Development

Figure I - Decline in Cropland Needed in 2085 versus Annual Productivity Growth

"Increasing farm productivity would reduce the area devoted to agriculture and limit habitat loss more effectively than reducing global warming."

We have examined two approaches to address warming through the foreseeable future. The first, mitigation, would modestly reduce positive and negative impacts across the board. It entails significant near-term costs, but a delayed pay-off. The second approach, “focused adaptation,” would reduce vulnerability to climate-sensitive hazards now and through 2085 by pursuing measures focused on reducing each of these hazards at the present time.

However, developing countries are most vulnerable to warming because they lack the adaptive capacity needed to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change; therefore a third approach to address climate change is to increase their adaptive capacity by enhancing economic development and human capital. That, of course, is precisely the point of sustainable development.35 Moreover, the determinants of adaptive and mitigative capacity36 — economic development, human capital and a propensity for technological innovation — are largely the same. Thus enhancing adaptive capacity should also boost mitigative capacity.37

"Economic growth would help developing countries solve existing problems and adapt to climate change."

An integrated strategy — simultaneously pursuing sustainable development while advancing the capacity to adapt to and/or mitigate climate change — can be pursued through the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were explicitly devised to advance sustainable development in poorer countries. The MDGs are: cutting global poverty, hunger, and lack of access to safe water and sanitation in half; reducing child and maternal mortality by two-thirds or more; achieving universal primary education; and reversing the growth of malaria, AIDS/HIV, and other major diseases. The benefits of achieving the millennial goals would generally exceed those flowing from focused adaptation or even the deepest mitigation. Yet, the additional annual cost to the richest countries of attaining the MDGs by 2015 is pegged by the U.N.’s Millennium Project at about 0.5 percent of their GDP.38 That is approximately the same cost as that of the barely-effective Kyoto Protocol, and much less than the cost of stabilization at either 750 or 550 ppm.

Moreover, in addition to costing less, an integrated approach would yield benefits sooner and, because of the uncertainties related to warming and its impacts, far more certainly than mitigation alone. In addition, increased adaptive capacity would either raise the level at which greenhouse gases would need to be stabilized to forestall warming from becoming “dangerous,” or allow mitigation to be postponed, or both. In any case, costs associated with any eventual stabilization could be reduced, particularly if, in the interim, resources are expended to improve the cost-effectiveness of mitigation options. And, as noted, such an approach would be entirely consistent with Kyoto’s objectives, outlined in Article 2, “to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

Finally, mitigation proponents argue that climate change would otherwise hinder sustainable development and lock developing nations into poverty.39 However, through 2085, the impacts of unmitigated warming are either smaller than the baseline problems that would exist in the absence of warming or it is more cost-effective to reduce the magnitude of the total problem via adaptation than through mitigation. Thus, even if mitigation is inevitable in the longer term — beyond 2085 — the problem through the foreseeable future is not that climate change will perpetuate poverty and hinder sustainable development, but that the lack of sustainable economic development will impede developing countries’ ability to cope with all manner of adversity, including climate change.40

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