Resources are always scarce and limiting which means that at any one time, they should be allocated efficiently to generate the highest possible returns. An efficient allocation in this sense means that they should provide the best achievable welfare requirements of societies including meeting social, economic, political, and environmental needs.
Climate change response is one area that needs some level of efficiency considerations as opposed to overly precautionary action. Borrowed from the precautionary principle approach, precautionary action is always intended to address perceived or possible risks without necessarily considering the cost-benefit dimensions involved. It may well mean risk aversion, irrespective of what it costs.
It is undisputed that the contribution of countries to the global carbon budget is different and so are the consequences of a warming planet. Precautionary action would therefore mean that low-emitting developing countries struggle to reduce their already little emissions in the false hope that they avert severe consequences of global warming and climate change accruing to them.
Efficiency on the other hand calls on heavy GHGs emitters that have the capital and technology to invest in mitigation of emissions to do so. Efficiency highly considers the quantity of emissions saved per unit of investment. Here, the metrics of how much emissions are saved and the capital invested matter.
Climate Change Mitigation and Climate Adaptation: Getting the distinction
Climate mitigation and adaptation have been used together in virtually every strategic initiative to reduce anthropogenic global warming. However, the two are distinct by definition, characterization, and implementation.
Climate mitigation abstractly means strategies that are consciously applied to reduce or prevent the emission of greenhouse gases emissions (GHGs). It includes technologies such as carbon capture and storage, bioenergy, installation of solar farms, retrofitting old buildings and building energy-efficient ones, and general large-scale rollout of renewable sources of energy to mention just but a few.
Climate adaptation on the other hand means efforts that build the resilience capacity of communities to contend with the adverse effects of climate change on livelihoods, resources, and ecosystems. In essence, adaptation to climate means readying at-risk populations to adjust to the current and future impacts of climate change.
Climate scientists argue that adaptation and mitigation should be employed concurrently if the IPCC target of under 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise has to be achieved and maintained. But there could be an equitability antidote to such an approach if applied in low-emitting developing countries.
Which way- climate mitigation or adaptation?
So, do the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) set by the Paris Agreement necessarily require countries to primarily focus on mitigation or simultaneously implement adaptation as well? What would be the effect of either of the approaches or both in the efficient allocation of resources for tackling climate change?
Does it make economic sense on efficiency terms for less industrialized and low-GHG emitting countries to allocate colossal amounts of money and resources for GHG emission abatement projects?
Because climate change is a global emergency, extremely precautionary paths including commitment and over-commitment of resources towards projects anticipated to cut the emissions are common.
Social welfare issues including poverty, malnutrition, hunger, poor sanitation in the developing countries that do not necessarily contribute any significant emissions to the carbon budget then beg the question of prudence in resource allocation for climate response.
Ambitious climate Mitigation and Adaptation projects in low-emitting developing countries
Various projects are currently underway or being idealized to mitigate runaway climate change. These projects include retrofitting buildings to attain energy efficiency, large-scale integration of renewables into the energy mix, sustainable urban transit systems, electric vehicles, and biofuels, and sustainable land use among others.
One common characteristic of the mitigation interventions is that they are capital intensive to implement on full scale and their effective contribution to cutting GHGs is only economically reasonable at such full-scale levels. While not intending to ignore the fact that in the climate change debate, every little contribution counts, it is also worthwhile to reconsider the financial prudence of allocating resources to every intervention.
At the same time, climate adaptation activities in developing countries include agroforestry that integrates forestry and agricultural value chains, integrated soil and water management, structural adjustments of floodplains to control flooding, relocation of populations from at-risk areas, climate-smart agriculture, investment in disease and climate resistance crop varieties among others.
These adaptation approaches are comparatively low capital intensive, require locally available resources, and are highly consistent with the traditional scientific knowledge that people used in response to their changing environments.
Environmental economics perspective on Climate Mitigation and Adaption in low-emitting developing countries
It is true that both climate adaptation and mitigation contribute to the IPCC projection of maintaining the global temperature rise on the safe path below 1.5 degrees celsius. However, the primary concern is in the where and how of their suitability of each of the two approaches to specific countries.
Even working with extreme precaution, it could be a little naive to believe that there is one solution that fits all in the climate change response. It is out of this understanding that the principle of efficiency in resources allocation kicks in to guide on whether it is adaptation or mitigation that should be escalated in low-emitting, developing countries
So look here, an environmental economist will account for pollution as being beneficial up to the point where marginal costs (MC) outweigh marginal benefits (MB). Up to this equilibrium point, pollution is advantageous because it improves the utility of natural resources by converting them to more valuable forms for the improvement of social welfare.
Take the debate further- if environmental pollution up to where MC=MB is tolerable, then does it mean that trying to mitigate GHG emissions in low-emitting countries where currently the MC≠ MB, while at the same time over-committing other resources towards it, amounts to double jeopardy for human welfare?
What over-commitment of resources to climate mitigation may mean for low-emitting countries
As controversial as this analogy may be, it is understood that climate mitigation projects are capital intensive, although the costs continue to reduce as a result of more innovations. On the other hand, climate adaptation in developing countries that are also low emitters is comparatively cheaper both in the long and short term.
Imperatively, to implement a full-scale mitigation project, take for example carbon capture and storage, capital has to be drawn from other welfare improving projects to be invested there. Two, the emission levels are not yet at the point where MC=MB which effectively means that welfare improvement is already constrained.
Effectively, an over-commitment of resources on climate mitigation may just result in the stagnation of human welfare and constrained economic growth. It requires a very conscious act of balancing to ensure that climate mitigation projects if they have to be implemented, do not create extreme trade-offs with human welfare and economic growth.
Cover image credit:“Turning the tide on climate change by Robert Kandel” by Philippe 2009 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Text image credit: “File:Teaching climate change mitigation (blackboard) icon.png” by Tommaso.sansone91 is marked with CC0 1.0