Expert Perspectives

Adaptation and Long-term Emissions Reduction Strategies (LTS)

A decade ago, I attended a policy roundtable on forests and climate. It was the early days of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), and most of the presentations focused on whether and how to include forest protection in carbon markets. As an adaptation specialist, I concluded I had come to the wrong workshop. But on the margins of the meeting, I got to talking with a forest scientist who shared my interest in adaptation. He discussed the need for forest managers to think more about adaptation, and for carbon market developers to consider how climate change risks to forests—pests, disease, fire, particular species’ heat tolerance—could create major challenges for mitigation in the long run. Listening to the concern and urgency in his voice, I visualized teams of foresters racing northward in trucks full of dug-up trees that couldn’t move fast enough to get ahead of climate change on their own. And he had one line I’ve always remembered. “Sure, the big money is in carbon,” he said. “But the carbon is in adaptation!”

Today, with long-term emissions reduction strategies front and center on the climate agenda, it’s even more important to considering adaptation’s role in mitigation—and not just for forests. Countries must find a way to take adaptation into consideration broadly across their long-term strategy (LTS), or else risk failing to achieve their 2050 mitigation goals.

First, though, let’s discuss adaptation planning. Countries today have a smorgasbord of options for adaptation planning—from national adaptation plans (NAPs), to national adaptation programs of action (NAPAs), to broader national climate legislation, to climate-sensitive development plans, to various sector plans, sustainable development goal (SDG) implementation plans, and LTS. They might rely on an administrative or mainstreaming process that doesn’t have a classic standalone plan, or they might even work by compiling local plans, such as Nepal’s local adaptation plans of action (LAPAs) or Kenya’s county-level planning. I believe that any one of these—or a combination of them, or others—can provide a good basis for adaptation panning if it’s well resourced, inclusive, iterative, transparent, and well positioned for implementation. Each national government needs to determine which planning process best serves its citizens, and tailor that plan to address its national circumstances and respond to its people’s concerns. Governments should also structure linkages among plans to prevent duplication, build legitimacy, simplify participation, and foster efficient achievement of the country’s climate and development objectives.

For LTS, it doesn’t really matter which planning process takes center stage for adaptation. Whether a country chooses a NAP, an LTS, or something else, its LTS still must take adaptation into consideration, or else risk failing to achieve the LTS’s 2050 emissions goals. This is because adaptation and mitigation are inextricably linked, in at least the three following ways.

  1. Many emissions reduction strategies increasingly require adaptation to ensure long-term success. We all hate to admit it, but the climate is already changing. A growing body of evidence makes clear that global warming has already affected the severity and probability of many weather events; scientists have even found several 2016 events that they concluded were only possible because of human-caused climate change (Herring et al. 2018). And most evidence shows these changes accelerating. This has important implications for many mitigation strategies, especially over the long term. We have only to look at California’s awful 2017 fire season to understand how climate change could send forest carbon up in smoke. Consider, too, the emissions involved in pumping ground water to quench thirsty crops in Maharashtra’s recent droughts, or the carbon Africa could use in fertilizer and pest control to feed growing populations. The carbon footprint of cities, too, will be shaped by adaptation. Consider, for example, emissions associated with the potential influx of migrants to Dhaka and Kolkata should agriculture and fishing fail to adapt to warmer waters, new flood regimes, and rising seas in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta. LTSs that fail to take climate change impacts into account risk missing their mark.
  2. Tackling adaptation and mitigation together—under the umbrella of sustainable development—creates efficiencies, “win-wins” and opportunities for innovation. Many of the biggest wins for emissions reductions over the long term will come in the context of three types of long-lasting development decisions that create opportunities to send emissions rates down—and keep them down—over multiple decades. Adaptation planning looks at these same long-lived decision sets but with an eye to avoiding “lock-in” of vulnerability and risk. The first of these decision sets is hard infrastructure investments—power plants, road networks, water systems and the like—that have multidecadal shelf lives, and once built, cannot easily be replaced or adjusted. The second covers policy- and rule-making around zoning, building codes, technology standards, public procurement, and so on, which rarely get reopened for debate and revision once established. Finally, adaptation and mitigation opportunities also reside in the major public investments that shape a country’s development trajectory, such as building a telecommunications industry, shifting from subsistence to market agriculture, or promoting widespread family planning. Bringing a holistic sustainable development lens to these decisions, including via the SDGs, enables adaptation and mitigation to move forward in tandem, rather than through separate processes. This helps decision makers to more easily identify “win-win” synergies and can improve participation and public buy-in by reducing the overall number of decision processes. It also could enable mitigation efforts under LTS to benefit from innovative adaptation methods and tools designed to support multidecadal planning, such as participatory scenario development (Peterson 2011), robust decision making (RAND Corporation 2018), and adaptive design of policy and infrastructure (Buurman and Babovic 2017). Using these, LTS can help make sure that both adaptation and mitigation interventions are able to take advantage of changes in technology, culture, and politics over the next 30 years, as well as adjust to changes in the climate.
  3. The politics of emissions reduction can be tricky, and adaptation can help build the necessary political will for mitigation. This is especially true in places where emissions have historically been minimal and poverty makes climate risk a bigger public concern than climate change mitigation. Climate change policy history provides many examples. In 2014, many developing country governments sat on the fence about developing an intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) to the Paris Agreement until parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed that adaptation contributions could be included. In India’s 2008 National Action Plan on Climate Change, mitigation-related “missions” initially took a back seat in government communications to large estimates of government expenditure on adaptation under the plan. Even in the United States, state and city leaders such as former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg derive visibility and strength as low-carbon advocates from their on-the-ground experience of climate change impacts and adaptation needs. By linking adaptation and mitigation in a positive, forward-thinking “both/and” narrative, LTS can bring onboard a broader set of constituents, thereby strengthening implementation and outcomes.

NAP, SDG, and LTS processes are all still in relatively early days—especially relative to the 2050 LTS time horizon. Global negotiators and national policy makers both therefore have a lot of scope to create synergies that foster success on multiple fronts. The LTS process would benefit from guidance, tools, and resources that incorporate adaptation, and situate both mitigation and adaptation in the context of citizens’ long-term development aspirations—whether or not a country structures its main adaptation planning process as part of the LTS.


Buurman, Joost, and Vladan Babovic. 2017. “Adaptation Pathways and Real Options Analysis: An Approach to Deep Uncertainty in Climate Change Adaptation Policies.” Policy and Society 35 (2): 137–50. DOI: 10.1016/j.polsoc.2016.05.002.

Herring, Stephanie C., Nikolaos Christidis, Andrew Hoell, James P. Kossin, Carl J. Schreck III, and Peter A. Stott, eds. 2018. “Explaining Extreme Events of 2016 from a Climate Perspective,” special supplement to Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 99 (1). ttp://

Peterson, Garry. 2011. “Participatory Scenario Development Approaches.” Resilience Science, March 2.

RAND Corporation. 2018. “Robust Decision Making.” Accessed March 18.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.