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Mitigation vs Adaptation: But what's the difference?

Mitigation includes activities like planting trees and preserving forests.

Recently, I was listening in on a webinar on Climate Action, and one of the panelists, a journalist, kept referring to two climate change concepts — mitigation and adaptation— interchangeably.

Being well-versed with climate change language, I immediately knew that the panelist was wrong.

But I cannot fault them because even the learned among us do not know the difference between these two important concepts. So what’s the difference between these two approaches?

I will shed more light on this. According to Dr John Kakonge, former Ambassador/Kenya Permanent Representative to the UN Office and World Trade Organisation in Geneva, the two concepts are sometimes not easy to differentiate. 

Dr Kakonge explains that mitigation refers to ways to reduce the release of greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our planet.

One crisis, two responses

He explains that mitigation includes activities like planting trees and preserving forests.

When communities and nations adopt these mitigating activities, then they will be able to reduce the number of harmful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, he points out.

Adaptation, on the other hand, basically just means adjusting existing activities to accommodate the effects of climate change without actually trying to reduce it.

According to the UN expert, adaptation involves building flood barriers; implementing effective use of water like reducing consumption and recycling due to drought; and developing drought-resistant crops, such as maize.

Climate Reality Project gives a spot-on illustration to demonstrate the difference between the two concepts.

“Imagine you’re on a ship that’s sinking because of a leak. If you want to stay afloat, the first thing you could do is grab a bucket and pour water out as it gushes through the hull. 

This response is adaptation — addressing the effect (the water in the boat), but not the cause of the problem (the hole),” it explains.

Back to the sinking ship. If adaptation is pouring water out to stay afloat in the moment, sealing the leak to halt more water coming in is defined as mitigation. In other words, it’s addressing the root cause of the problem.

In practice, mitigation is planting trees and preserving forests so they can absorb and store more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

Just like the other strategies, in recent years tree planting has seen unprecedented action by governments and private groups alike.

Most importantly as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted, no single option (adaptation or mitigation) is sufficient by itself to address climate change.

Effective implementation of both depends on sound policies adopted at all levels to enable an integrated response that links mitigation and adaptation.

-The writer is an Editor at the Standard and is passionate about environment conservation

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