What’s the difference between climate change adaptation and mitigation?

The distinction between adaptation and mitigation still confuses many who are not so familiar with all the climate change talk, particularly those coming from fields of work where these words are used to mean different things.

In the field of climate change, mitigation refers to actions taken to lower the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and thereby reduce the extent to which the global climate system changes relative to how we have know it to be in the recent past. Mitigation involves:

  • reducing or eliminating emissions at the source (e.g. building a wind farm instead of a coal-fired power plant, reducing the number of aeroplane/ship/car journeys, avoiding deforestation, creating more energy efficient, energy neutral, or even energy producing buildings, appliances, vehicles, etc.), and/or
  • sequestering greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (e.g. through planting more trees that absorb CO2, carbon capture and storage facilities at factories and power plants, stimulating additional sequestration into the ocean via plankton growth, etc.).

Many mitigation methods are still in the research and development phase and for some there are concerns over possible ‘secondary’ impacts across the system of such interventions, especially when it comes to large scale geo-engineering options like pumping chemicals into the ocean and upper atmosphere. National and sub-national governments around the world are in various stages of making and passing rules on different mitigation targets, audits, standards, methods, etc. for their areas of jurisdiction.

Adaptation, in the field of climate change, refers to actions taken to reduce the negative consequences of changes in the climate (e.g. switching to drought resistant crops, creating / protecting a coastal buffer zone, developing an effective early warning system, building flood barriers, extending insurance, etc.), or if possible to leverage any positive consequences that may result from such changes (e.g. growing climate sensitive crops like grapes in new areas, using land that was previously water-logged, increased water availability in certain places and times of year, etc.). Most often the evaluation of whether consequences are likely to be positive or negative is done with primary refernce to humans, rather than other species or the earth system as a whole. However, whether a particular climatic change is positive or negative is rarely common to all people, it usually depends on the scale considered, the locations affected, the income-generating or livelihood activities people are involved in, the level of access people have to services (both public and private), etc.

There is still some debate as to whether it makes sense to talk about adaptation to human-induced climate change as something separate from, and different to, adaptation to natural climate variability, or for that matter adaptation to environmental change more broadly (i.e. implying that any given time a group of people, a species of animal or plant, an ecosystem, etc. is adapting simultaneously to a combination of changes in their climate, the amount and type of vegetation around them, the amount and quality of water available to them, the pathogens they are exposed to, etc., etc.). For this reason, in an effort to avoid misunderstandings, some people chose to qualify the term by saying things like ‘climate change adaptation’, ‘adaptation to climate variability and change’, ‘adaptation to multiple stressors’, etc.

Some of the confusion stems from the use of the term ‘mitigation’ in the disaster risk community, who talk about mitigating risk in the context of reducing the likelihood of a disaster event occurring, either by addressing the hazard directly or by putting mechanisms in place to reduce / minimize the negative impacts that can be caused when a hazardous event occurs. This has some parallels (although not complete alignment) with the way the term ‘adaptation’ is used in the field of climate change. Confusing indeed and at times quite a challenge to building widespread engagement around what the problem is and how to tackle it!




Anna Taylor a Researcher on Climate Change and Urban Sustainability at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Anna’s work forms a part of her PhD research on the governance conditions for adapting to climate change at the city scale.  Her PhD research is jointly funded by ACDI and the Mistra Urban Futures Programme.

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2 Responses to “What’s the difference between climate change adaptation and mitigation?”

  1. Jannie

    I see. So mitigation is elimination to lessen our ozone layer problems while adaptation is adapting the consequences instead of being against it. For short, adaptation is “going with the flow”. Am I right?

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  2. boji

    We imagine that type of information will be made available as mitigation, if you will.

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