Tag Archives: sustainable building

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