Guest post by: Indur M. Goklany
In a series of posts (collected here) we saw that no matter how significant climate change may seem when viewed in isolation, it pales in significance when compared with other global problems, at least through the foreseeable future. This is hardly surprising: in the absence of context even the smallest molehill may be mistaken for a Mount Everest.
So how should we deal with climate change in the context of other more significant threats to human and environmental well-being?
The following figure, reproduced from the earlier set of posts, shows the maximum contribution of climate change to global mortality from hunger, malaria and coastal flooding in the year 2085 under various IPCC emissions scenarios. Specifically, it shows that climate change would contribute no more than 4%-10% to global mortality from these factors. The highest such contribution occurs under the warmest-but-richest (A1FI) scenario. [Under this scenario, the average global temperature is projected to increase by 4°C between 1990 and 2085.]
Therefore if we could roll climate back to its 1990 level —which means reducing CO2 concentrations to below that magic 350 ppm number — then the mortality in 2085 from hunger, malaria and coastal flooding would, at most, be reduced by 4%-10% through “mitigation”. [In climate change parlance, “mitigation” means reducing greenhouse gas emissions or concentrations, whereas “adaptation” would reduce damages (or negative impacts) from climate change.]
But what about the remaining 90%-96% of the mortality problem? Annual mortality would still be between 2 million and 6 million, depending on the IPCC scenario employed. The Kyoto Protocol, on the other hand, would reduce climate change by less than 10%. Hence, as a first approximation, the Protocol would, had the US participated and if all nations meet their obligations fully, reduce mortality by less than 1% (= 10% of 10%) in 2085.
By contrast, if we focus on reducing societies’ vulnerabilities to hunger, malaria and coastal flooding through measures that would work regardless of climate change (see bullets below), we would be able to address 100% of the future mortality problem in 2085. Such an approach, which I call “focused adaptation,” could, moreover, bring larger benefits — and bring them quicker, because any significant benefits from emission reductions, regardless of their stringency, will be delayed by decades (due to the inertia of the climate system).
Focused adaptation can be generalized beyond hunger, malaria and coastal flooding if we focus on reducing vulnerability or increasing resiliency to any climate-sensitive problem that could be exacerbated by climate change (see here.]
Another critical advantage of adaptation is that it can capture the benefits of climate change while reducing its costs, whereas mitigation would indiscriminately reduce both the positive and the negative impacts of climate change. That is, mitigation is a double-edged sword, whereas adaptation is a scalpel.
Thus, we saw previously (here) that climate change would reduce both the net population at risk of water stress, and habitat converted to cropland. Both these benefits of climate change would be lost under mitigation. On the other hand, adaptation would more selectively capitalize on these positive impacts.
In addition, focused adaptation would be more economic than emission reduction. The Kyoto Protocol, despite its minimal effectiveness, is estimated to cost around $165 billion annually. [See here.] Although the cost of rolling the climate back to its 1990 level has never been estimated, suffice it to say that it should cost orders of magnitude more. For the purposes of this exercise, in the following I will assume a lower bound of $165 billion annually.
However, results from the UN Millennium Project and the IPCC’s latest assessment indicate that, via focused adaptation, we could:
- Reduce malaria by 75% at a cost of $3 billion/yr. Specific measures include improving antenatal care for expectant mothers in vulnerable areas, developing a malaria vaccine, indoor residual spraying with DDT, and insecticide treated bed nets.
- Reduce hunger by 50% at a cost of $12-15 billion/yr (see here, p. 18, and here) Specific measures could include the development of crops that would do better in poor climatic or soil conditions (namely, drought, water-logging, high salinity or acidity) that could be exacerbated by climate change, and under the higher CO2 and temperature conditions that are likely to prevail in the future.
- Reduce vulnerability to coastal flooding at a cost of $2-10 billion/yr. e.g., through building and strengthening coastal defenses, insurance reform, and improving early warning systems.
In addition to mitigation and focused adaptation, there is another approach to dealing with climate change.
Developing countries are generally deemed to be most vulnerable to climate change, not necessarily because they will experience greater climate change, but because they lack adaptive capacity (that is, financial and human capital) to acquire and use the technologies necessary to cope with its impacts. Hence, another approach to addressing climate change would be to enhance the adaptive capacity of developing countries by promoting broad development, i.e., economic development and human capital formation, which, of course, is the point of sustainable economic development.
Advancing economic development and human capital formation would also advance society’s ability to cope with all manner of threats, whether climate related or not (see here and here). The costs and benefits of sustainable economic development can be garnished from literature on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were devised to promote sustainable development in developing countries. The benefits associated with these goals — halving global poverty; halving hunger, halving the lack of access to safe water and sanitation; reducing child and maternal mortality by 66 percent or more; providing universal primary education; and reversing growth in malaria, AIDS/HIV, and other major diseases — would exceed the benefits flowing from the deepest mitigation. Yet the additional annual cost to the richest countries of attaining the MDGs by 2015 is estimated at 0.5 percent of their GDP, approximately the same as that of the ineffectual Kyoto Protocol.
Hence, we have a choice. We could over the foreseeable future:
- Spend $165 billion annually on the Kyoto Protocol to reduce mortality from hunger, malaria and coastal flooding by less than 0.4%-1%, while marginally increasing the population at risk of water stress, and reducing habitat available for the rest of nature.
- Spend much more than $165 billion annually to roll back climate to 1990 levels and reduce mortality from hunger, malaria and coastal flooding by less than 4%-10%, while substantially increasing the population at risk of water stress, and reducing the amount of habitat available for the rest of nature.
- Spend about $34 billion annually on focused adaptation to reduce mortality by 50%-75% from the three above-mentioned risk factors without increasing either the population at risk of water stress or the habitat lost to cropland. [Details can be found here.]
- Spend $165 billion annually on broad economic development to garnish benefits greater than what can be obtained through rolling climate back to 1990 levels, or even focused adaptation.
- It shows that through the foreseeable future, adaptation — whether it is focused or based on broad development — is far superior to mitigation. Either adaptation approach will provide far greater benefits than even the deepest mitigation, and at a lower cost. And these conclusions hold regardless of the choice of discount rate, or fanciful scenarios beyond the foreseeable future.
This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no role for mitigation, particularly in the long term. But in the short- to medium-term, that role shouldn’t include heroic emission reduction measures (see here).
Table 1: Costs and benefits of various mitigation and adaptation approaches. Note that figures in red indicate that the policies in question would make matters worse. Source: Goklany (2009).