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Potential at the Intersection of Adaptation and Mitigation

Re-published from Carbon Talks, SFU by Christopher Gully

Today’s Carbon Talks brown bag lunch dialogue featured Deborah Harford, director of Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT) at Simon Fraser University. She spoke on “Win-Win Solutions: Smart Approaches to Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.”

I can’t stop thinking about intersections, those points where interests of two or more parties cross and mingle, resulting in either cooperation and collaboration, or conflict. More and more, science is intersecting with sociology, health with economics, education with communications. As I listened to Deborah Harford speak today about mitigation and adaptation, it occurred to me that almost nowhere else do we see so many intersections – potential points of cooperation or conflict – as with the environment.

A tree destroyed by the infamous mountain pine beetle (photokayaker, Flickr)

The environment sits at the intersection of almost all disciplines, industries, and professions. Engineers helped to create polluting industries, yet they are in a position to clean them up. Legislators, planners, and policy makers are starting to realize that their policies, regulations, and decisions must recognize and mainstream the reality of climate change while working to combat it. Healthcare professionals are facing new and emerging threats as a result of changing weather patterns. Retailers and restaurants now face growing pressure to stock local or organic produce and products while dealing with rising fuel costs. When climate and energy innovators seek solutions, they must look far and wide across a variety of sectors and disciplines to determine how their change, and their innovation, will impact everyone else.

The two areas that most climate change actors focus their efforts on are mitigation (finding ways to decrease carbon emissions through promoting renewable energy, increasing efficiency, and changing consumer habits) and adaptation (building resiliency into our infrastructure, planning, and systems in order to deal with the inevitable changes that will come with climate change and increased weather variability). The spread of the mountain pine beetle in British Columbia was one of Harford’s examples of the intersection of adaptation and mitigation in the most negative sense. Rising temperatures due to climate change enabled the beetle to live throughout the winter, whereas it would normally have frozen. This interruption of its natural cycle led to rapid expansion of its population, destroying vast tracts of BC forest, and consequently releasing countless tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. If a small beetle could be so effective at both benefiting from and helping to cause climate change, imagine our own capacity for damage without foresight. It is not uncommon to hear politicians and analysts quip that Canada will benefit from climate change due to warmer temperatures, but the beetle tells us we cannot afford to be so short-sighted.

The focus then should be on the positive intersections between climate change adaptation and mitigation. While one team seeks solutions to the amount of emissions we’re continually pumping into the atmosphere, the other team wants to deal with the inevitable variability in weather effects and changing climate that come with a warming atmosphere. How can these two teams work together, and in what instances are they competing?

Rendering of adaptation strategies for rising sea levels in Delta, BC (UBC)

Consider rising sea levels; if our response to a sea level increase of 1.2 meters (a prediction for the coming 100 years) is to build castle walls, battlements, and dikes out of concrete, then such efforts will only contribute to further emissions – concrete production is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. However if a strategy involves earthen berms, or barriers made from recycled or reclaimed materials, then mitigation and adaptation can be mutually supportive. Another example, raised by a participant at the dialogue, was on transportation and emergency services. Increased focus on public transportation (a mitigation effort) must take into account the need for increased access to emergency services, under the assumption that extreme weather events will be increasingly common. Another participant asked whether urban densification and distributed energy (again, efforts toward mitigation) in fact make us more vulnerable to climate change. While Harford acknowledged such increased vulnerability, she pointed out that this is exactly the kind of question we must ask: if a densely populated city is necessary to mitigate climate change, yet is more vulnerable to extreme weather events, how can we find a balance that addresses both?

It is those win-win solutions that Harford refers to as “smart” adaptation, and it’s the paradigm that policy makers, planners, and engineers should be working within. If we seek to all benefit in a transition to a low-carbon economy, the points of cooperation lie at the intersection of our disciplines, projects, and innovations, and such intersections should not be ignored.

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