What is the role of adaptation in advancing emission reductions?

March 25, 2020, by Tani Colbert-Sangree

As you are well-aware, reducing emissions to achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 Celsius (1.5C) warming climate goal will require a deepening of public support. Currently, mainstream narratives around climate action focus on the need to reduce emissions to ‘save the planet’. But, geologically speaking, the planet does not need saving. It will continue spinning and life will continue evolving irrespective of the future of humanity.

Humanity’s future is what we as greenhouse gas (GHG) management professionals are fighting for, but the planetary scale used by this mainstream climate narrative is so large few can connect to it or feel capable of influencing it. This framing can therefore easily disempower the average citizen from taking climate action. Yet, we know that focusing on the human impacts in one’s immediate community can activate emotional responses [Pandve et al. 2011, Stecula and Merkley, 2019; Van de Velde et al, 2010; Lampiris et al., 2017], which suggests that messaging about the human-centric effects of climate change mitigation (actions that prevent future climate change by reducing emissions) and adaptation (actions that reduce the dangers exacerbated by climate change), can help rally public sentiment for action. Current COVID-19 pandemic messaging target’s this emotional response by warning the public that at-risk groups are in severe danger, and thankfully the messaging is generating support for necessary public health measures.

While messaging is not the primary task of GHG professionals, and climate change dangers are not as clear-cut as those of COVID-19, a human-centric message is critical to establishing climate action policies and should inform our work. I propose here that GHG professionals can help build support for emission reductions by integrating synergistic adaptation measures into our mitigation work and explicitly discussing their expected human welfare effects. Case studies from a couple of large American cities provide examples of how to integrate adaption into your climate change work and communications narrative.

The necessity of adaptation

As GHG management professionals, we strive to have a meaningful impact in mitigating emissions and preparing our world for the growing dangers of climate change. The scale of future damage can be lessened by reducing emissions, but the climate damage resulting from current and past emissions cannot be avoided. Climate action, through adaptation, must address the ‘baked in’ impacts of accumulated past emissions. Even if we are optimistic, we must prepare for the impacts of a 1.5C increase in global temperatures. This new climate will entail profoundly altered rainfall patterns, higher sea-levels, intensified heatwaves, more acidic oceans, and increased storm severity. As the science has long warned, these alterations will cause floods, drought, damage to coastal cities, disruption to transportation, expansion of agricultural challenges, and the exacerbation of public health concerns, among other consequences. Envisioning a sustainable future necessarily requires both mitigation of emissions and adaptation.

The climate action plans (CAPs) and other policies that target emission reductions, must also address these ‘baked in’ climate impacts. Past experience, much of it at the local level, suggest that prioritizing adaptation and highlighting the resulting benefits to human welfare, can generate support for CAPs, and thereby bolster the policy objective of reducing emissions.

Mitigation and adaptation: The Green Deal approach

The United States’ (US) Green New Deal resolution and the European Union (EU) Green Deal roadmap are examples of policy approaches that link GHG mitigation with objectives to address poverty, income inequality, racial justice, and economic sustainability. In other words, these approaches structure emission reduction polices to more broadly address equity, health, and job opportunities in an effort to build a larger coalition in support of policy enactment. The mitigation work in both US and EU proposals involve the overhaul of infrastructure for energy, transportation, and other sectors. Non-GHG objectives are targeted through livable wage “green jobs” and equitable distribution of public and private investment. Adaptation features significantly within each proposal: the US proposal calls for support to communities with high risk of climate damage or disruption and human health objectives. The EU proposal creates a Just Transition Fund to assist vulnerable populations adapt to climate change’s impacts. Overall, this Green Deal linkage approach employs adaptation, among other objectives, to garner public support in the US and EU for mitigation.[1]

GHG professionals can mimic the approach of the Green Deal. Mitigation action and adaptation pair naturally over a large number of interventions that achieve both objectives. This pairing is revealed when a city reduces its impervious surfaces through adding trees and vegetation to sequester carbon, an act which also reduces the risk of floods and heatwaves in addition to other benefits. Additionally, a residential solar-distributed grid system can displace fossil fuel sourced-energy and keep the lights on when more frequent storms knock down powerlines. So, how do we achieve these mitigation and adaptation linkages in our GHG mitigation work?

GHG professionals should design for and value adaptation benefits as part of their analyses of how to invest mitigation resources. For example, when considering a forestry project, your analysis could prioritize coastal mangrove restoration over an inland timber project because of the added adaptation benefits mangroves provide: controlling erosion, providing breeding grounds for fish, and protecting coastal settlements from storm damage. Such an analysis needs to occur at the onset of program or project development to direct the activity(ies) towards both mitigation and adaptation objectives.

Case Studies

Before the Green Deal was coined, a number of municipalities became leaders in implementing climate action and have fostered public acceptance for mitigation policies by linking them with the tangible human-felt benefits of adaptation investments. Two case studies from the cities of Baltimore and Los Angeles are presented that demonstrate on-the-ground implementation of climate action policies.


One city working to prepare its constituents for the climate dangers it faces is my hometown, Baltimore, Maryland. Lisa McNeilly, the City’s Director of Sustainability, explained that Baltimore’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) grew out of the City’s long-standing Disaster Preparedness Plan. Their CAP focuses on emission reductions, adaptation, and preparedness for specific climate disasters. A separate 2019 Sustainability Plan (2019 SP) focuses on more persistent climate risks – like heat waves or power outages – that are exacerbated by Baltimore’s societal stressors including poverty, unemployment, and crime. The 2019 SP bolsters the emission reduction goals in the CAP by, for example, identifying urban landscape-adaptations that can reduce residents’ exposure to climate dangers while sequestering carbon. As Lisa described, “When fear of a break-in stops you from placing an AC unit in your ground-level apartment, your risk of heat-related health issues increases. Increasing canopy cover throughout the urban forest is one tool to reduce the heat residents face, but unemployment, poverty reduction, and efforts to build safer communities are also part of the solution.” Strategies for addressing issues like this which link poverty and crime directly to climate adaptation in Baltimore are delineated in a section of the 2019 SP titled, “Guidance for Equitable Implementation.” The 2019 SP supports the CAPs mitigation objectives by targeting the non-GHG benefits of climate action and addresses the conditions many Baltimore residents face, thereby more likely garnering public support for the CAP. Baltimore City is currently in the ‘convening stage’ before implementing both its CAP and the 2019 SP. Reflecting on the value of highlighting the benefits of proposed climate action, McNeilly advised that, “costs must be presented accurately, but highlighting the associated benefits – whether quantifiable or not – is an effective approach to increase support for the project.”

While the Office of Sustainability gathers partners in preparation for implementation of its CAP and 2019 SP, the City’s Law Department is suing oil and gas companies for money damages to compensate for the injury to the City’s climate caused by their products. The companies were well aware of the climate injuries their products will, and have, caused – the lawsuit posits – but hid their products’ dangers for decades. The lawsuit seeks the funding necessary to adapt the urban landscape to present and future climate threats. While the lawsuit continues through the court system, Lisa McNeilly and her staff engage the offices of Housing, Transportation, Public Health and countless others, to identify the dangers climate change poses and establish necessary adaptation. Engaging City agencies in sustainability planning and focusing the lens on the costs and benefits of adaptation is building support for mitigation related climate action in Baltimore.

As GHG professionals, this case study shows how adaptation efforts can make climate change’s dangers tangible. Baltimore officials are conceptualizing how they must adapt, which is humanizing the climate threats residents will face into the future. An adaptation perspective to climate action in Baltimore is building support for climate action across the City.


Los Angeles

Los Angeles has successfully begun implementation of “LA’s Green New Deal” CAP, with large public support. As outlined in a recent GHGMI blogpost by GHGMI Board Member and former Climate Advisor to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, Katie Goldman identifies that in designing the CAP, City officials took additional steps to analyze the public health and job creation benefits residents would receive through the implementation of the plan’s aggressive emission reductions. Goldman identified that an objective of the plan was to explain “what people will experience and how this plan can make their lives better.” A lot of effort went into analyzing the job creation and health benefits to constituents. The plan promotes the growth of an equitable urban tree canopy (prioritizing increasing canopy cover in areas of greatest need) and implementation of green infrastructure, cool roofs, and cool neighborhoods. These measures will help reduce the risks residents face from heat waves, floods from extreme rainfall events, and drought as natural landscapes release water more slowly than concrete. LA’s green-infrastructure will be funded through ballot measures, such as “Measure W” passed in 2018, which garnered the necessary 2/3rd threshold of constituent votes in that election, and now allocates proceeds from a 2.5% property tax on impermeable space to fund these water-resilience projects around LA. Similar ballot measures in 2016 – “JJJ”: targeting transit oriented affordable housing, and “M”: expanding public transportation – passed the 2/3rds threshold, demonstrating that constituents value the benefits of climate action in LA. The public support for these ballot measures reflects the success of policy implementors and community organizations who have successfully messaged the benefits of these policies and campaigned for their adoption.

It is to the City leadership’s credit that stakeholder engagement efforts were valued as fundamental components, informing the course that climate action has progressed. In 2015, 2018 and 2020, LA Mayor Garcetti issued Executive Directives (#7, #22, and #25) prioritizing sustainability and resilience initiatives throughout City departments, and has established climate governance structures that ensure a community perspective informs climate planning across LA. Goldman identified the Climate Emergency Commission[2], part of LA’s Green New Deal CAP, “that will ensure disadvantaged, indigenous, and youth communities are provided direct input to the implementation of the climate action plan.”

This case study presents a model pathway for realizing climate action. Its success was made possible by robust stakeholder engagement throughout planning and implementation that (among other valuable benefits) drew attention to the CAPs adaptation benefits and climate danger reductions. The human welfare and adaptation perspective employed by Mayor Garcetti and LA officials led to public support and the successful implementation of proposed climate action policies across one of the largest metropolises on the globe.

The examples from Baltimore and Los Angeles show how framing emission reduction efforts within a human-welfare perspective and highlighting adaptation benefits assisted in building support for CAP implementation. While these case studies focus on the municipal context, this approach surely has lessons for corporate sustainability officers, national level policymakers, and others addressing the climate crisis.

Resources to integrate an adaptation approach

Foundational guidance on how to recognize climate change vulnerabilities and develop approaches to adaptation that addresses these vulnerabilities is listed below. Such guidance can be integrated with mitigation analysis and policy development. Publications that highlight this valuable integration suggest employing spatial theory and landscape approaches to guide climate action. One clear example is the Ecotowns Framework, that does just this with at-risk municipalities in the Philippines. Advocates of this approach are working with climate funding mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund to integrate adaptation benefits into the proposal review process. Unfortunately, rigorous guidance to assist in linking the objectives of adaptation and mitigation does not appear to exist. Such guidance is needed to assist GHG professionals in analyzing adaptation benefits and integrating them into mitigation efforts. Until such guidance is developed, I recommend using the following guidance materials, consulting with experienced adaptation implementors, and sharing your lessons learned with colleagues in the GHG professional community. We at GHGMI are happy to assist in this sharing.

Adaptation and vulnerability guidance:


GHG professionals and policymakers around the world must navigate difficult political terrain to adopt emission reduction policies. A mitigation policy’s pathway into law depends upon the ability to draw human connection to the climate crisis. Linking mitigation policies with adaptation and economic objectives has been shown to be an effective approach to building coalitions and public support for mitigation legislation. To improve our effectiveness as GHG professionals, we should maintain this adaptation perspective in the pursuit of mitigation and ultimately human welfare. Such an approach to GHG management will hopefully expedite mitigation while preparing us for the ‘baked-in’ climate dangers of the future.

[1] Relevant to the current economic fallout from COVID-19, Green Deal policies are highly potent stimulus packages. In 2009, following the 2008 financial collapse, the United Nations called for a “Global Green New Deal” but the global economy rebounded with continued fossil-fuel reliance and no Global Green New Deal. Governments around the globe are now developing stimulus packages and should recognize the opportunity of this assistance to facilitate transition to sustainable systems.

[2] For more information on the Climate Emergency Commission view this C40 Webinar Katie presented in August of 2019.

[3] 1. Identify current and future climate hazards 2. Conduct inventory of infrastructure and assets 3. Characterize risk of climate change on infrastructure 4. Develop initial adaptation strategies 5. Identify opportunities for coordination 6. Link strategies to capital and rehabilitation cycles 7. Prepare and implement adaptations plans 8. Monitor and reassess

3 responses to “What is the role of adaptation in advancing emission reductions?”

  1. Sid Abma says:

    Hi GHG Group
    Suing the oil and gas people will not fix anything from the past. We have to look forward and determine what can be done now and in the future to mitigate GHG’s as much as possible.
    Instead of suing the gas companies get their assistance at helping their gas customers to increase their natural gas energy efficiency, thus reducing CO2 emissions in big numbers. Not only will this reduce CO2 emissions but it will also reduce the effects of global warming by venting cool exhaust into the atmosphere instead of hot.The last side benefit to increasing natural gas energy efficiency with the technology of Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery is the “production” of distilled water.
    For every 1 million Btu’s of heat energy that is recovered from the combusted natural gas exhaust, and that heat energy is utilized, 117 lbs of CO2 is not put into the atmosphere.
    In every 1 million Btu’s of combusted natural gas are 5 gallons of recoverable distilled water.
    These are benefits not to be scoffed at.
    The gas utilities know who are their bigger consumers, and having those customers with the utilities financial help at making them more energy efficient will be good for All.

    • Tani Colbert-Sangree says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Sid. We certainly want to take advantage of all possible ways to address climate change that are at our disposal and certainly fuel switching to natural gas can reduce emissions. Time is growing quite scarce in dealing with this crisis and we must use all tools available to prevent extreme damages from climate change. My personal opinion is that both the carrot and stick approaches will be effective with regard to fossil fuel companies. There is plenty of evidence showing a track record of companies voluntarily/collaboratively moving towards cleaner energy, but there is also a track record of information suppression to continue fossil fuel reliance. While lawsuit is part of the path presented by the Baltimore Case Study it is by no means the only way Baltimore is addressing climate change. Again, my personal take here is that a diversity of approaches should be employed until we find effective ways to adapt society, but I acknowledge your stance and also the importance of not disrupting the energy systems that support society. I hope we can work together to find the best solution.

  2. Patrick Cage says:

    Excellent post, could not agree more. To be effective GHG management professionals, we need to consider the politics and public acceptance of different proposals. Even if it is not what we are trained to do, it is what the circumstances will expect of us. Plus, considering adaptation is not only more politically viable – it also actually reduces the impacts that groups will feel from climate change – which is ultimately our goal as GHG management professionals, even if we usually look at it through the lens of GHG abatement.

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