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Climate: what is the difference between mitigation and adaptation?

We often talk in terms of a "fight" against climate change, a fairly all-encompassing term that actually hides two distinct realities: mitigation and adaptation. Let's unpack this.

Mitigate or adapt… do we have to choose?

You will have guessed that the answer is no! Mitigation and adaptation are, well and truly, the two fronts in the same major battle:the fight against climate change.

They are in actual fact two complementary strategies that each apply to a distinct level.In concrete terms, mitigation tackles the causes of climate change, while adaptation tackles its effects. In short, the first consists of limiting global warming, and the second, learning to live with it.

In both cases, there is an emergency.The IPCC, the organisation that documents and summarises all scientific knowledge relating to climate change, repeated it in its last report (the 6th, published in several stages since 2021): there remains very little time for us to limit the damaging effects of climate change.

Today, global emissions of greenhouse gases, which are the principal cause of climate change, continue to increase. Yet experts estimate these will have to peak before 2025 at the latest, then drastically decrease if we want to limit global warming to around 2°C. We are, therefore, left with roughly three years (by 2025) to reverse the trend.

It is worth noting that mitigation and adaptation are two interdependent dynamics: the more we will mitigate climate change, the less adaptation will have to be radical and sudden.And the more we adapt to climate change, the better we will be able to mitigate it.

The IPCC suggests, in its very helpful glossary, a simplified definition of mitigation. It concerns "human intervention to reduce emissions or reinforce greenhouse gas sinks".

Mitigation subsequently consists of taking action regarding the number one cause of climate change:greenhouse gases (commonly referred to as "GHG") that we, as humans, release in excessive quantities into the atmosphere through our manufacturing and commercial activities.

The IPCC tells us that to achieve this, we have two levers:

-  to reduce these GHG emissions. It essentially means abandoning the fossil fuels that are the major emitters of these gases and radically transforming our lifestyles.

- absorbing GHG that are already in the atmosphere. These are the famous "carbon sinks": natural (wood, soil, plants) or artificial (human technologies) reservoirs that trap and store carbon outside the atmosphere.

Mitigation requires initiatives and policies on a whole host of levels: individual, municipal, regional, state and international. The good news is that today we have almost everything at our disposal to put these in place. Scientific knowledge, technologies, financial resources… : yes, humanity has "the tools and know-how required to reduce global warming", forcefully insisted yet again the IPCC president, Hoesung Lee, in April 2022, when the 6th report was published.

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Examples of mitigation measures

- reusing and recycling products;
- switching from fossil fuels to renewable energies (wind, solar, etc.);
- limiting the quantity of industrial and domestic waste;
- prohibit the use of the combustion engine;
- insulating homes;
- implementing industrial processes that emit less CO2;
- reducing air traffic;
- stopping deforestation and reforestation;
- protecting biodiversity ;
- etc.

Mitigation is also possible at an individual level.It requires a form of energy conservation and a change in our lifestyles (eating less meat in our diet; reducing consumption of electricity and products, etc.).

Adapting to climate change… isn't it a bit early?

Well no… it is even already a bit late. It therefore brings us to the second part of the fight against climate change:evolving our lifestyles and living environments to avoid suffering (too much) from this crisis.

The issue of adaptation, due to a certain denial, arrived late in the international discussions on climate. As if 1 or 2 degrees on the planet would have no consequence… On top of this, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, water shortages, floods and other dramatic consequences due to global warming have multiplied. The Paris Accord, the major international treaty signed in 2015, finally recognised, in black and white, a "worldwide objective in terms of adaptation".

The IPCC defines adaptation as "adjustment to the current or expected climate and its consequences", with the objective of "mitigating or avoiding adverse effects and exploiting beneficial opportunities".

Adaptation is a colossal undertaking. It concerns, in effect, our entire lives:: our cities, our agricultures, our housing, parks, gardens, our public health systems, etc. And it is worldwide: according to scientists, between 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live today in environments that are highly vulnerable to climate change. 

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Examples of measures to adapt to global warming

- greening cities to protect them from the heat;
- change the varieties of fruit and vegetables that are grown, as well as the planting and harvesting dates;
- increase rainwater collection and storage capacity;
- relocate housing areas threatened by rising waters and erosion ;
- develop seawater desalination to compensate for freshwater shortages;
- monitor and anticipate the emergence of new diseases;
- etc.

It is worth noting that adaptation measures will necessarily vary: we are not going to fight climate change in the same way whether we be in Iceland or Botswana, in the French Alps or on the Pacific coast. Moreover, the same costs are not involved… We are, in effect, not very equal. Put simply, the "developing" countries are far more exposed to climate change than richer nations. What are the most vulnerable areas? Small island states, the Arctic, Southern Asia, Latin and Central America, and much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Geographical inequality then couples with economic inequality."The capacity to adapt, closely linked to socio-economic development, is unevenly distributed among and within societies", the IPCC subsequently points out. For example, the wealthier Netherlands is better equipped to deal with rising water levels than Pakistan.

Hence the absolute need for international cooperation and a fair redistribution of costs. The IPCC estimates that the financial requirements of adaptation will reach 127 billion dollars in 2030 and close to 300 billion by 2050.This kind of invoice means we will need to help each other out.

And what about DECATHLON ?

According to reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to limit global warming to 1.5°C, achieving carbon neutrality by the middle of the 21ᵉ century is essential. This objective is defined in the Paris Agreement signed by 195 countries. It is in this global context that Decathlon is implementing a climate strategy.

Decathlon commits to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the value chain by 2050.

Mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand, which is the real challenge: managing to do them simultaneously. The Paris agreement (2015) stipulates by the way that the financial resources allocated to mitigation and adaptation should be equivalent. Which is not always the case. The IPCC recently warned that the pace adopted by politicians to fund adaptation to climate change is too slow.

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