Europe’s position on adaptation hurts emission reductions

Just saw the news that the European Union agrees on its position for the Paris climate change conference. Check it out HERE. There is one main point that I am concerned about:

“The EU regards ambitious action to prepare for and respond to the effects of climate change to be a central part of a balanced agreement. Both emissions reductions and adaptation will be essential to manage and reduce the risk of adverse impacts of climate change, including addressing the risk of loss and damage.”

The point with adaptation is that it may significantly reduce incentives for emission reductions. For example, a country that – due to a tight budget – has to choose between emission reductions and adaptation, will  – in the absense of a legally binding international agreement – generally prefer adaptation. The reason is simple: it knowns that its own emission reductions will not be sufficient to curb climate change, and thus it is more efficient for this country to reduce potential impacts from climate change. Indeed, I just recently saw a research paper (sorry to the author but I forgot who wrote it) that found that the option of adaptation reduces the probability to have an international climate treaty. Thus, by also focusing on adaptation the EU undermines its own ambitious target: “Commissioner Arias Cañete said: “We are now equipped with a solid position for Paris. The EU stands united and ready to negotiate an ambitious, robust and binding global climate deal.” This is less likely to happen if one brings the option of adaptation on the table.

Another downside of allowing for a significant role of adaptation in climate policy is that if one country starts to think like this and thereby cuts down emission reductions, this reduces the incentives of other countries to reduce their emissions in order to increase adaptation, and we end up in a situation where no country really reduces its emissions but all countries spend fortunes on adaptation. A kind of devils circle…

Why would that be an issue?

  1. It might very well be that adaptation, in the medium to long run, is much more expensive than emission reductions today.
  2. This will lead to increasing climatic changes that we finally may not be able to adapt to.
  3. This harms the poor even more since they are unlikely to be able to sufficiently adapt to climate changes. We see this already now in the rural sub-Saharan Africa, where many are migrating because local climatic changes have led to losses in agricultural production that drove these regions below subsistence level.

Though the narrative of the European Union seems to suggest that emission reductions and adaptation are not substitutes, don’t be fooled – all European countries have a tight budget, with some countries like Greece or Spain or alike having no more room for additional expenses. There must be a trade-off between emission reductions and adaptation.

Even if for some reason the European countries are able to find some room in their budgets for adaptation and emission reductions, it is quite likely that in a strategic world other countries will see that the European countries are large spenders on adaptation, and thus they will do the same. In the moment that adaptation becomes a serious policy option in one country, then this will likely imply that it becomes a serious policy option in other countries, too. It can thus be expected that these other countries, maybe less committed to fighting climate change than the European Union (imagine for some strange twist of misfortune that Donald Trump becomes the US president…),  simply pick up the European narrative but focus on adaptation only. Urgh…

And then imagine a somewhat pessimistic politician who, for some unfortunate reason, believes that we can do very little about minimizing climate change. He will certainly opt for more adaptation.

Thus, I do not believe that the strategy of allowing adaptation to play a significant role in policy making is an intelligent choice of the European Union.

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