IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

TS.5.2 Interrelationships between adaptation and mitigation

Both adaptation and mitigation can help to reduce the risks of climate change to nature and society.

However, their effects vary over time and place. Mitigation will have global benefits but, owing to the lag times in the climate and biophysical systems, these will hardly be noticeable until around the middle of the 21st century [WGI AR4 SPM]. The benefits of adaptation are largely local to regional in scale but they can be immediate, especially if they also address vulnerabilities to current climate conditions [18.1.1, 18.5.2]. Given these differences between adaptation and mitigation, climate policy is not about making a choice between adapting to and mitigating climate change. If key vulnerabilities to climate change are to be addressed, adaptation is necessary because even the most stringent mitigation efforts cannot avoid further climate change in the next few decades. Mitigation is necessary because reliance on adaptation alone could eventually lead to a magnitude of climate change to which effective adaptation is possible only at very high social, environmental and economic costs [18.4, 18.6].

Many impacts can be avoided, reduced or delayed by mitigation.

A small number of impact assessments have now been completed for scenarios in which future atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are stabilised. Although these studies do not take full account of uncertainties in projected climate under stabilisation – for example, the sensitivity of climate models to forcing – they nevertheless provide indications of damages avoided or vulnerabilities and risks reduced for different amounts of emissions reduction [2.4, T20.6].

In addition, more quantitative information is now available concerning when, over a range of temperature increases, given amounts of impact may occur. This allows inference of the amounts of global temperature increase that are associated with given impacts. Table TS.3 illustrates the change in global average temperature projected for three periods (2020s, 2050s, 2080s) for several alternative stabilisation pathways and for emissions trends assumed under different SRES scenarios. Reference to Tables TS.3 and TS.4 provides a picture of the impacts which might be avoided for given ranges of temperature change.

A portfolio of adaptation and mitigation measures can diminish the risks associated with climate change.

Even the most stringent mitigation efforts cannot avoid further impacts of climate change in the next few decades, which makes adaptation essential, particularly in addressing near-term impacts. Unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt [20.7].

This suggests the value of a portfolio or mix of strategies that includes mitigation, adaptation, technological development (to enhance both adaptation and mitigation) and research (on climate science, impacts, adaptation and mitigation). Such portfolios could combine policies with incentive-based approaches and actions at all levels from the individual citizen through to national governments and international organisations [18.1, 18.5].

These actions include technological, institutional and behavioural options, the introduction of economic and policy instruments to encourage the use of these options, and research and development to reduce uncertainty and to enhance the options’ effectiveness and efficiency [18.4.1, 18.4.2]. Many different actors are involved in the implementation of these actions, operating on different spatial and institutional scales. Mitigation primarily involves the energy, transportation, industrial, residential, forestry and agriculture sectors, whereas the actors involved in adaptation represent a large variety of sectoral interests, including agriculture, tourism and recreation, human health, water supply, coastal management, urban planning and nature conservation [18.5, 18.6].

One way of increasing adaptive capacity is by introducing the consideration of climate change impacts in development planning [18.7], for example, by:

  • including adaptation measures in land-use planning and infrastructure design [17.2];
  • including measures to reduce vulnerability in existing disaster risk reduction strategies [17.2, 20.8].

Decisions on adaptation and mitigation are taken at a range of different levels.

These levels include individual households and farmers, private firms and national planning agencies. Effective mitigation requires the participation of the bulk of major greenhouse gas emitters globally, whereas most adaptation takes place at local and national levels. The benefits of mitigation are global, whilst its costs and ancillary benefits arise locally. Both the costs and benefits of adaptation mostly accrue locally [18.1.1, 18.4.2]. Consequently, mitigation is primarily driven by international agreements and the ensuing national public policies, whereas most adaptation is driven by private actions of affected entities and public arrangements of impacted communities [18.1.1, 18.6.1].

Interrelationships between adaptation and mitigation can exist at each level of decision-making.

Adaptation actions can have (often unintended) positive or negative mitigation effects, whilst mitigation actions can have (also often unintended) positive or negative adaptation effects [18.4.2, 18.5.2]. An example of an adaptation action with a negative mitigation effect is the use of air-conditioning (if the required energy is provided by fossil fuels). An example of a mitigation action with a positive adaptation effect could be the afforestation of degraded hill slopes, which would not only sequester carbon but also control soil erosion. Other examples of such synergies between adaptation and mitigation include rural electrification based on renewable energy sources, planting trees in cities to reduce the heat-island effect, and the development of agroforestry systems [18.5.2].

Analysis of the interrelationships between adaptation and mitigation may reveal ways to promote the effective implementation of adaptation and mitigation actions.

Creating synergies between adaptation and mitigation can increase the cost-effectiveness of actions and make them more attractive to potential funders and other decision-makers (see Table TS.7). However, synergies provide no guarantee that resources are used in the most efficient manner when seeking to reduce the risks of climate change. Moreover, essential actions without synergetic effects may be overlooked if the creation of synergies becomes a dominant decision criterion [18.6.1]. Opportunities for synergies exist in some sectors (e.g., agriculture, forestry, buildings and urban infrastructure) but they are rather limited in many other climate-relevant sectors [18.5.2]. A lack of both conceptual and empirical information that explicitly considers both adaptation and mitigation makes it difficult to assess the need for, and potential of synergies in, climate policy [18.7].

Table TS.7. Relationships between adaptation and mitigation [F18.3]. ENGO = Environmental Non-Governmental Organisation; CDM = Clean Development Mechanism; MEA = Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

Scale Adaptation Mitigation Mitigation Adaptation Parallel decisions affecting adaptation and mitigation Adaptation and mitigation trade-offs and synergies 

Awareness of limits to adaptation motivates mitigation e.g., policy lobbying by ENGOs


CDM trades provide funds for adaptation through surcharges


Allocation of MEA funds or Special Climate Change Fund


Assessment of costs and benefits in adaptation and mitigation in setting targets for stabilisation

Regional/natural strategy/sectoral planning 

Watershed planning (e.g., hydroelectricity) and land cover, affect greenhouse gas emissions


Fossil fuel tax increases the cost of adaptation through higher energy prices


National capacity, e.g., self-assessment, supports adaptation and mitigation in policy integration


Testing project sensitivity to mitigation policy, social cost of carbon and climate impacts

Local/biophysical community and individual actions 

Increased use of air-conditioning (homes, offices, transport) raises greenhouse gas emissions


Community carbon sequestration affects livelihoods


Local planning authorities implement criteria related to both adaptation and mitigation in land-use planning


Corporate integrated assessment of exposure to mitigation policy and climate impacts


Decisions on trade-offs between the immediate localised benefits of adaptation and the longer-term global benefits of mitigation would require information on the actions’ costs and benefits over time.

For example, a relevant question would be whether or not investment in adaptation would buy time for mitigation. Global integrated assessment models provide approximate estimates of relative costs and benefits at highly aggregated levels. Intricacies of the interrelationships between adaptation and mitigation become apparent at the more detailed analytical and implementation levels [18.4.2]. These intricacies, including the fact that adaptation and mitigation operate on different spatial, temporal and institutional scales and involve different actors who have different interests and different beliefs, value systems and property rights, present a challenge to the practical implementation of trade-offs beyond the local scale. In particular the notion of an “optimal mix” of adaptation and mitigation is problematic, since it usually assumes that there is a zero-sum budget for adaptation and mitigation and that it would be possible to capture the individual interests of all who will be affected by climate change, now and in the future, into a global aggregate measure of well-being [18.4.2, 18.6.1].

People’s capacities to adapt and mitigate are driven by similar sets of factors.

These factors represent a generalised response capacity that can be mobilised in the service of either adaptation or mitigation. Response capacity, in turn, is dependent on the societal development pathway. Enhancing society’s response capacity through the pursuit of sustainable development pathways is therefore one way of promoting both adaptation and mitigation [18.3]. This would facilitate the effective implementation of both options, as well as their mainstreaming into sectoral planning and development. If climate policy and sustainable development are to be pursued in an integrated way, then it will be important not simply to evaluate specific policy options that might accomplish both goals, but also to explore the determinants of response capacity that underlie those options as they relate to underlying socio-economic and technological development paths [18.3, 18.6.3].