Category Archives: General

Earthship Brighton

Turn off the taps before mopping up the water: the climate adaptation vs mitigation debate

The recent floods in the UK are a grim foretaste of the future, with climate change likely to make storms, floods and droughts more severe. Of course we need to adapt our buildings, flood defences and other infrastructure to cope with more extreme weather – but some of those who oppose climate action are now arguing that all our efforts should focus on adaptation, rather than continuing to try to mitigate the impact by reducing the carbon emissions that are causing the problem in the first place.

The ‘adaptation only’ argument has two major flaws. First, if we abandon any attempt to limit our emissions then we will suffer far worse consequences in the future. There is a big difference between the impacts of a two degree temperature rise – possibly just about manageable with a major effort – and the extreme scenario of a four, five or even six degree rise. If this does not sound extreme, bear in mind that the earth was only four degrees cooler than today during the last ice age.

Extreme climate change is likely to push us over a number of crucial tipping points, including dieback of the rainforests, melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets (with sea-level rise of several metres, flooding large parts of many of the world’s large coastal cities), widespread extinctions and crop failures. Despite David Cameron’s promise that “money is no object” when paying to help flood-damaged communities in the UK, it is highly unlikely that the global economy could bear the costs of adapting to such extreme climate change – even if it were technically possible.

It simply does not make sense to try to adapt to a changing climate without also tackling the problem at source – by cutting emissions of greenhouse gases.  If water was rushing through the ceiling from an overflowing bath, would you just start mopping it up without first going upstairs to turn off the tap?

This leads to the second flaw in the argument. Cutting carbon emissions is not a costly burden on society. It brings a host of co-benefits – cleaner air, more secure energy, healthier lifestyles, new jobs – that can more than pay for the up-front costs of investing in safe, clean, efficient, low-carbon technologies. If we abandon efforts to cut emissions, we will remain dependent on dirty, increasingly expensive and environmentally damaging fossil fuels.

It seems obvious that we need both to adapt to future climate change and also continue to cut emissions. Of course money is tight – but that adds more weight to the argument in favour of mitigation, both because mitigation can pay for itself in the long term, and also because we simply cannot afford the costs of dealing with the extreme levels of climate change that will result if we abandon mitigation.

Smart planners will look for the synergies between adaptation and mitigation – win-win actions which increase our resilience to climate change at the same time as cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This could be as simple as painting roofs white in hot countries, to reflect the sun and provide natural cooling while cutting the need for electricity-guzzling air conditioning. Or planting trees in towns to provide natural shade and cooling at the same time as absorbing carbon dioxide from the air (and providing a habitat for wildlife). They will design buildings to be sturdy and well-insulated to cope with extreme weather, at the same time as saving energy and cutting emissions.

And they will try to avoid actions with negative feedback, such as big flood defence schemes that use vast quantities of fuel and concrete, adding to the emissions that are causing the problem in the first place. Instead they will use intelligent approaches such as planting trees in upland catchments to reduce water run-off, and planting winter cover crops to avoid soil being washed into rivers (thus reducing the need for expensive dredging).

A smart approach to adaptation and mitigation can help us to escape our costly and expensive addiction to fossil fuels, redesign our energy-wasting buildings and shift towards more sustainable and resilient forms of agriculture. We just need to look at the big picture, rather than focusing on one problem at a time, to see how all these issues are connected.

Earthship Brighton

Earthship Brighton: Sustainable building that both adapts to climate change and mitigates impacts. Photo: Dominic Alves

A tale of two strategies

Today I finished the basic pages for my new website, One of the last pages I added was this one: A tale of two strategies. It compares two visions of the future:  business-as-usual, where we continue our dependence on fossil fuels, and a more hopeful picture based on a prosperous and vibrant green economy.

Considering I wrote this a year and a half ago now, for the last chapter of my book, it is proving eerily prescient – and not in a good way! As I read back the details of the first strategy – business as usual – it sounds pretty much like a summary of what’s going on in the news today. Faced with rising energy bills, the Australian government is scrapping their carbon tax. Here in the UK, the government is pushing subsidies for shale gas production whilst threatening to ditch support for energy efficiency and renewables. Oil exploration is expanding into the pristine Arctic wilderness. Meanwhile, Typhoon Haiyan bears witness to the threat of higher-intensity extreme climate events, and the economic and social damage that result.

It could be so much better! A raft of new research is strengthening the case for stronger climate action. By escaping our dependence on fossil fuels, we can cut air pollution, improve energy security and ensure much lower energy prices in the long term. I’ll be summarising the latest research on my News page over the next few weeks.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more enlightened politicians and business people blazing a path towards a cleaner, safer future. The UK, US and some other European countries have just pledged to stop funding new coal-fired power plants. Procter and Gamble announced that they have saved $1 billion so far through their drive towards zero-waste manufacturing (see foot of page 3 in this report). Around the world, people are finding innovative ways to cut carbon at the same time as winning economic, social and environmental benefits – such as young Australian entrepreneurs Pollinate, bringing affordable solar-powered lighting and efficient stoves to the slums of Bangalore as well as cutting kerosene smoke and providing employment for local people. So I live in hope!



Cartoon by Joel Pett from USA Today, December 2009

Welcome to my blog

Hi! Welcome to my blog.

This is a place to escape from the doom and gloom that often goes with any discussion on climate change, and look ahead to positive solutions that have multiple benefits.

This is strictly not a place to discuss whether or not climate change is a real problem. That debate has taken up far too much of our time already. My argument is that it makes little difference what you believe about climate change, because we need to do almost all the same stuff anyway. It makes sense to stop wasting energy and resources, halt destruction of the rainforests, switch to clean, renewable energy sources and adopt more sustainable farming practices.

If we do all this, we can gain many benefits – cleaner air and water, safer and more secure energy supplies, healthier lifestyles and a stronger economy. These ‘co-benefits’ can more than pay for the cost of investing in clean technologies.

Of course there are also cases where climate-friendly solutions have drawbacks or trade-offs, such as the accident risks and waste disposal problems of nuclear power, and the visual impacts of wind turbines. Rather than just choosing the cheapest technologies or those that save the most carbon, policy makers need to look at the big picture and consider all the pros and cons of each option, so that they can minimise the conflicts and maximise the co-benefits.

This blog is linked to my website at and builds on my book The Climate Bonus: co-benefits of climate policy.

Please join in the debate – all comments are welcome so long as you are polite and open to reasoned discussion!