Links between adaptation and mitigation

Measures to mitigate climate change and to adapt to it complement each other. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are mitigated, people's living conditions will become significantly more difficult or become impossible in many parts of the globe. On the other hand, climatic conditions will change in any case because of the emissions already released, so some degree of preparation for the future is essential.

To mitigate, adapt or prepare?

The municipalities’ climate strategies and programmes must cover both mitigation of climate change and adaptation to climate change. The terms cause confusion sometimes; what is mitigation and what is adaptation, and why do we sometimes talk of merely preparing for climate change?

Mitigation of climate change means reducing greenhouse gas emissions and taking care of greenhouse gas sinks. Restricting emissions is intended to slow and eventually reverse the growth of carbon dioxide (CO2) levels particularly in the atmosphere. Reducing emissions will affect CO2 levels slowly though because this gas has a long lifetime in the atmosphere. Therefore the effect of reductions in emissions on the average global temperature will not be seen for decades.

Adaptation is the established name for activities which try to reduce the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities. It is thus preparing for a time when the climate, i.e. the average weather, is markedly different from what we experience today. As a word, “preparedness” perhaps describes better the active nature of adaptation; we try to forecast future weather conditions and create structures and operating models which will work in these new conditions.

Measures to mitigate climate change and to adapt to it complement each other. Without taking measures to mitigate climate change, there is a threat that the average temperature could rise to such levels that people's lives in many regions of the world would be significantly affected or be made impossible. In such a case even adaptation measures would not be able to guarantee everyone’s well-being. Even if emissions were successfully restricted, the slow elimination of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would affect the climate for decades and centuries. That is why at the local level it is necessary to prepare for the future in any case and attempt to forecast the nature of the change and its effects. Thus some degree of preparation for the future is essential.

Could adaptation and mitigation measures be in conflict with one another?

Mitigation and adaptation measures do not always meet directly. The measures require different kinds of approaches and different actors to be involved in decision making processes. It is even more important to understand that the information requirements and decision making logic of mitigation and adaptation are fundamentally different. The ideas of sustainable development and societal justice underpin mitigation measures, albeit that sometimes it is possible to gain purely economic benefits from mitigation measures. The benefits from adaptation measures on the other hand can be seen immediately and are thus often easier for decision makers to justify. Mitigation is seen as a global objective, whereas adaptation is often locally motivated.


Mitigation measures

Adaptation measures


Area of impact

Decision making level

Global – national - local

Local (mainly)

Time perspective of the effect

Decades (average temperature of the earth) - immediate (monitoring emissions)

Immediate (vulnerability to weather phenomena) – centuries (sustainable community structure)

Approaches to combat change

Technological solutions (low emissions technologies) – reducing consumption and changing its structure – maintenance of gas sinks

"Soft" methods (changing behaviour, increasing knowledge) – technological solutions (structural protection methods)

Responsible actors

Main emissions sectors (energy generation, transport) – private individuals (consumption)

Vulnerable actors in several sectors and administrative levels

Beneficiaries of actions

Future generations (sustainable development), poorer areas and population groups (limited capacity for adaptation)

Focus of adaptation activities (direct benefit), society (over the long term)

Paraphrasing Martens et al. (2009) The climate change challenge: linking vulnerability, adaptation and mitigation. [1]

Sustainable society takes into account both migitation and adaptation needs

In practical work, the objectives of mitigation and adaptation measures meet, for example, in defining sustainable communities. The issue revolves around adaptation to mitigation measures and taking mitigation objectives into account in adaptation. The first of these means new lifestyles in society as efforts are made to mitigate climate change through hard targets on reducing emissions. Significant long term emissions reduction targets require action on all sectors of society and will also affect the lives of citizens.  Reductions in consumption, driving and flying are the easiest ways towards a carbon neutral life.

The other route to reductions is technological; for example utilising solar and wind power. As they become common, these choices about lifestyle will have a significant effect on definitions of what a functioning community and community structures are. Preparing for changes minimises the harm they can possibly cause as well as their costs and helps benefit from changing demand.

Another important link between mitigation and adaptation is the ecological sustainability of adaptation measures. Adaptation measures have to be implemented so that they do not needlessly increase communities’ consumption of energy or materials. For example ensuring opportunities for exercise during warmer winters by building ice rinks or tunnels for skiing would hardly reduce emissions even if part of the skiing holidays was spent skiing in tunnels rather than in Lapland. And conversely, at what stage, for example, would the defragmenting of community structures, which is advantageous for reducing emissions, lead to increased vulnerability from the use of poor quality construction sites or through problems with stormwaters. One can also ask where is the limit at which protection of vulnerable targets starts to needlessly eat away at communities’ resources?


  1. Martens, P., McEvoy, D. & Chang. C. 2009. The climate change challenge: linking vulnerability, adaptation and mitigation. Current opinion in environmental sustainability. Volume 1, Issue 1: 14-18.