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Mitigation, Adaptation, and Global Governance

It is useful to think about climate change and global governance in terms of adaptation and mitigation. Climate change mitigation seeks to reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions or enhancing the absorption of carbon or carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by “sinks,” such as oceans or forests. Adaptation seeks to diminish the negative impacts of climate change by increasing the ability of humans or ecosystems to cope with the changes. Mitigation and adaptation deal with different aspects of the risks imposed by climate change, but they are interrelated. Since mitigation would prevent the worst-case scenario from occurring, it increases the chances that the remaining climate risks can be successfully managed through adaptation. The benefits of mitigation are global, but the cost of reductions is primarily local. In contrast, adaptation costs and benefits are both primarily local. Mitigation benefits are long-term, whereas adaptation benefits are short- and medium-term. Because of these differences, national and international climate change response efforts have followed separate mitigation and adaptation paths, with a major focus on mitigation. However, some climate change impacts are unavoidable now, so adaptation efforts have begun. Nevertheless, the technological and financial capacity of countries to adapt to climate change differs significantly, as does their vulnerability to the effects of climate change.[1] These differences among countries are part of the reason for incorporating the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities into the UNFCCC.[2]

Incentives to take mitigation and adaptation measures are asymmetrical, since the costs and benefits of these measures are not the same for all countries.[3] Developing countries may insist that developed countries take responsibility for the cost of mitigation and adaptation. Regardless, at some point, some developing countries will have to focus on adaptation at the national level to address climate- related catastrophes, with or without the help of the developed countries. Some developed countries might find adaptation less costly than mitigation and just leave the most vulnerable to fend for themselves, absent significant spillovers, such as climate refugees. However, discussing the costs and benefits of mitigation and adaptation in terms of developed and developing countries ignores the global nature of the problem, the potential seriousness of the consequences and the great variation among countries in their vulnerability to, and their capacity to adapt to, the effects of climate change.

In the context of climate change, global governance means risk governance and international processes, institutions, and legal regimes.[4] Risk management requires identifying and assessing risks, then finding ways to mitigate and adapt. Scientists identify and assess risks. Mitigation and adaptation have financial and economic implications. Global governance also requires the coordination of legal regulation in many areas, which involves both international environmental law and international economic law. In turn, legal regulation implies international negotiation, avoiding regulatory capture and coordination between global institutions.

There is a synergy between mitigation and adaptation, since the former facilitates the latter. For example, reinforcing dykes in anticipation of rising sea levels and storm surges is a precautionary measure and an adaptation measure.

  • [1] WTO and UNEP, Trade and Climate Change (WTO Secretariat, Geneva 2009) 24—6.
  • [2] Christopher D. Stone, “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities in International Law”(2004) 98 AJIL 276.
  • [3] Hanh H. Danga, Axel Michaelowa, and Dao D. Tuan, “Synergy of Adaptation and MitigationStrategies in the Context ofSustainable Development: The Case ofVietnam” (2003) 3 Climate Policy(Supplement 1) S81.
  • [4] Carolyn Deere-Birkbeck, “Global Governance in the Context of Climate Change: The Challenges of Increasingly Complex Risk Parameters” (2009) 85 International Affairs 1173.
 
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