Expert Perspectives

Choices in the Integration of Climate Adaptation in Long-Term Climate Mitigation Strategies (LTS), and Strengthening National Adaptation Plans

The advantages of integrating climate adaptation into long-term climate mitigation strategies (LTSs) include the opportunities to identify, make explicit, and thereby develop and take advantage of the co-benefits and synergies among adaptation and LTSs; adding contributions to adaptation outcomes as criteria for selecting mitigation strategies and the technological choices involved; and identifying the adaptation options with highest potential for mitigation.

The disadvantages of integration largely have to do with the transaction costs of integration. However, these fade as the real significance of both climate risks and the responses elaborated to development trajectories are realized.    

On the temporal dimension, far-sighted adaptation (instead of just incremental and short-term action) is likely to be more cost effective and less prone to be maladaptive. Adaptation in many sectors for social and economic development objectives can be designed to be synergistic with mitigation. For instance, in Scotland the national land-use strategy states that GHG emissions associated with land use should be reduced and land should continue to contribute to delivering climate change adaptation and mitigation objectives. Similarly, forest management is seen as a vehicle for both facilitating adaptation in the natural environment and contributing to mitigation and reduced albedo effects in northern latitudes.

Mitigation and Adaptation: Policy Substitutes or Synergistic for Developmental Outcomes?

In 2001, the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that despite pledges to reduce emissions of GHGs, they were continuing to increase and a certain amount of climate change was becoming inevitable in the near to medium term. So, while mitigation is quintessentially important to avoid long-term catastrophic levels of climate change, adaptation is necessary to the unavoidable impacts of climate change that are “locked-in” now due to past and current emissions of GHGs. The poorest countries and communities are being affected first—so development, poverty eradication, and responses to climate change are linked. Put simply, where mitigation can contribute to economic growth and adaptation to eradicating poverty there are also linkages between adaptation and mitigation that can result in developmental synergies.

From the perspective of economics, climate adaptation and mitigation of GHG emissions are policy substitutes, as both can reduce the impacts of climate change. Cost-benefit analysis of emission abatement is one of few ways tried to analyze adaptation and mitigation together. To move beyond the two-dimensional trade-off, zero-sum-game analysis of resource allocation to adaptation or mitigation, the synergistic attributes of long-term integrative approaches to adaptation and mitigation need to be established. Freeing up and enhancing people’s capacity to adapt and to mitigate GHG emissions requires longer-term policies at aggregated levels and the subsidiarity necessary for innovative collective action.

“Effective Adaptation” as Set Out in the Paris Agreement

Longer-term adaptation will be needed because inherently it is a learning-by-doing, and uncertainty-plagued, area of endeavor. And, because climate risks will escalate over time, new risks will emerge and tipping points and thresholds will be reached whereby qualitative changes in adaptation responses will be needed over longer durations. In that sense, longer-term adaptation can achieve accumulative effects if employed in an iterative and learning-led approach.

The Paris Agreement (PA) sets expectations for adaptation and bodies associated with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are assessing how well national-level adaptation is beginning to reach these expectations. Climate adaptation will be needed into the long term, and both adaptation and mitigation must be integrated into different developmental (economic and social) policy frameworks.

The PA sets out ways to improve the effectiveness and durability of adaptation actions. Article 7 provides clear statements on what Parties agree constitutes effective adaptation. As paragraph 2 indicates, “Parties recognize that adaptation . . . makes a contribution to the long-term global response to climate change to protect people, livelihoods and ecosystems.” Paragraph 5 says that “adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, . . . integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate.” These statements lay the groundwork for consideration of how best to integrate adaptation into long-term climate response strategies and thereby align it with mitigation.

The Least Developed Countries Expert Group (LEG) has carried out an assessment of how national adaptation plans are leading to reductions in climate vulnerability and greater integration of adaptation into national policies and strategies. The LEG found early movement in both directions.

Types of Climate Adaptation and Coherence with LTS in the Medium to Longer Term

It makes sense to ask which types of adaptation fit best with LTS. The most obvious delineation is between autonomous and planned adaptation—that is, voluntary actions by people, enterprises, and organizations—and actions taken by the state. Within these categories exist various and distinct types of adaptation, all of which can extend into the long term.

  • Climate-proofing of productive sectors for economic development objectives. This is a common objective of planned adaptation by the state and is done either directly by investing in infrastructural changes or indirectly by changes in the enabling environment to incentivize such changes by enterprises and subnational government.
  • Vulnerability-related adaption to address social development objectives. Vulnerability to climate effects can both cause people to fall into poverty and make it more difficult for them to escape poverty. Climate risks to the poorest reduce the effectiveness of poverty eradication measures such as investments in social protection floors.
  • Adaptation at the landscape level related to the vulnerability of ecosystems and building on the precedents of integrated watershed management and the like. Adaptation here seeks to strengthen natural systems’ and thereby human systems’ ability to absorb the effects of climate change. Key to this approach is the preservation of ecosystem services that humans depend on for their livelihoods.
  • Integrated adaptation through capacity enhancement to increase the full range of societal responses to climate risks. Integrated adaptation can absorb impacts, lessen the effects of the risks, and, when necessary, transform livelihoods, enterprises, and local economies to essentially avoid climate risks by reducing sensitivity and hazards.  
  • All of the above can be served by and benefit from research and technology development in different ways.

Despite the rather false dichotomy imposed by the logic and politics of the climate negotiations,  examples of adaptation and mitigation integration are being employed currently. These examples  are seen to generate synergies in the energy, infrastructure planning and construction, transportation, insurance, and waste treatment sectors. Many actions under REDD+ not only lead to higher levels of sequestered carbon but also result in adaptation by forest dependent people and economies. And, of course, there are the win-wins claimed for climate-smart agriculture.

Most national action plans are either in development or at such early stages of implementation that lessons are at best preliminary. Some industrialized countries have longer-standing climate adaptation programs in place, and the reviews of these provide some indicators of what could be learned. The first Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme, published in May 2014, brought together existing policies and activities into a more coherent package. This program now moves into its second phase, where it will seek to increase its coverage, improve its governance, and hence increase its impact. The independent review of the first phase concluded that more data are needed to monitor risks, assess progress in the implementation of policies, and inform future adaptation decisions. In Scotland climate responses are moving into alignment. The Scottish government laid a statutory order in October 2015 that requires public bodies to publish a report each year on what they are doing on both adaptation and mitigation.

Ways to Manage Integration of Adaptation and LTS

Moving toward greater integration of adaptation and LTS for mitigation involves a series of operational issues. A public sector that is aware of and understands the sense and benefits to be derived from integration can catalyze private sector investment in the integration of mitigation and adaptation. Support for technological change that results in increases in mitigation and adaptive capacity can be provided, for example switches to renewable energy sources that allow greater distribution or decentralization of energy that then supports livelihood diversification and so on in remote areas.

At the policy level, linking the concept of mitigation and adaptation synergies to the climate mainstreaming agenda can change the range of climate response actions considered and implemented by stakeholders.

Government and global climate funding agencies could use the “demand pull” potential of climate finance, whereby the public-good value of mitigation/adaptation integration can be estimated and results-based awards for achieving integration can be offered. Here it is crucial that claims of achievement of public good generation be validated.

In addition to the above, there are moves toward programmatic and “whole of government” approaches for the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Given that SDG 13 is widely recognized as a principle goal affecting many others in the longer term, and that adaptation to climate risks affecting the likelihood and sustainability of achieving many of the other climate sensitive goals, such programmatic approaches across governments will make sense.  

The development of these ways to support and manage mitigation/adaptation integration will depend on a number of requisite components. Research and development will be required to identify the best ways to achieve integration for different country contexts. Technical and to some extent political issues that need context-specific resolution include the identification of synergies that avoid trade-offs among mitigation and adaptation actions; the economics of synergies in terms of costs and benefits and the distributive aspects; and the identification of synergies arising from mitigation/adaptation integration and demonstration that they result in more efficient, responsive, and comprehensive climate policy.

Such synergies through integration will be of most interest to developing countries with high (and/or rapidly increasing) emissions and major vulnerabilities. It is perhaps here that mitigation/adaptation integration should start and where the vision needs investment from both from domestic and global sources.  


The advantages of mitigation and adaptation actions are not mutually exclusive. The choice is not between adaptation integrated into LTS and the strengthening of long-term aspects of national adaptation planning. On the contrary, these can be mutually coherent. Trade-offs do need to be thought through and can be made sensibly if the scale (time, coverage) and decision makers and investors are similar (e.g., those in ministries of finance and economic development). Some countries, such as Ethiopia and Kenya, already have core development policy narratives that provide a framing for how climate responses are designed and integrated. These climate response policies sit hierarchically under the national development policy framework, and as such, LTS and adaptation refer up to the higher-level national development policy. The issue, then, is whether the adaptation policy framework and the LTS cross-refer and are seen as integrated, or remain separate and parallel.

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