Climate Action

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| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Adaptation and Mitigation Synergies and Trade-Offs

  • Marco FreyEmail author
  • Federica GasbarroEmail author
Living reference work entry



Mitigation (of climate change): “human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases (GHGs)” (IPCC 2014a).

Adaptation (to climate change): “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects in order to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC 2014a).

Synergy: “The interaction of adaptation and mitigation so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their effects if implemented separately” (Klein et al. 2007: 749).

Trade-off: “A balancing of adaptation and mitigation when it is not possible to carry out both activities fully at the same time (e.g., due to financial or other constraints)” (Klein et al. 2007: 749).

Differences Between Mitigation and Adaptation

Mitigation and adaptation are two complementary strategies for addressing the risks of climate change (IPCC 2014b). Mitigation of climate change refers to a “human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases (GHGs)”, while adaptation refers to “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects in order to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC 2014a). In other words, if the risks of climate change are expressed as the combination of the probability or likelihood of occurrence of hazardous events or trends related to climate change, and of their impacts if these events or trends occur (IPCC 2014a), mitigation aims at reducing the former, adaptation aims at addressing the latter (Swart and Raes 2007). On the one hand, mitigation would lessen the pressures on natural and human systems from climate change, which would allow more time for adaptation, on the other, adaptation has the potential to limit adverse effects of climate change, but will not prevent all damages (IPCC 2001). It may seems that these are two alternative strategies, i.e. more mitigation requires less adaptation and vice versa (Swart and Raes 2007), these are two complementary strategies instead. Nevertheless of mitigation efforts the climate would continue changing in the future then adaptation to these changes is necessary, in fact, mitigation efforts influence the scope, the time and the rate of adaptation, and since adaptation will not be able to avoid all negative impacts, mitigation is fundamental to limit changes in the climate system (IPCC 2014b). Adaptation can be meant as direct damage prevention, while mitigation as indirect damage prevention (Verheyen 2005). Without mitigation, adaptation for some natural systems would be impossible, while for most human systems it would imply very high social and economic costs (Klein et al. 2007). Both strategies encompass technological, institutional and behavioral options, which can be encouraged with the introduction of economic and policy instruments (Klein et al. 2007).

From the definition of mitigation and adaptation previously reported can be derived another difference between the two strategies. In fact mitigation reduces both negative and positive impacts of climate change, whereas adaptation can take advantage of positive impacts and reduce negative ones through a selection (Goklany 2005). From the definition also follows that the former addresses the cause of climate change, whereas the latter addresses the consequences (Swart and Raes 2007).

The spatial scale of mitigation and adaptation can be interpreted as different, while mitigation would be mainly aimed at resolving a global problem, adaptation would be aimed at addressing local impacts (Wilbanks et al. 2003). Whereas this is generally true, both strategies necessarily depend on decisions taken by individuals at the local level (Swart and Raes 2007), therefore the two options can be implemented at local or regional scale, and may be driven by local and regional motivations, as well as global concerns (Klein et al. 2007). In terms of consequences of these actions, mitigation typically entails global benefits although ancillary benefits might be achieved at the local level, for example reducing local air pollutants; adaptation typically entails benefits on the local scale of an impacted system although some adaptive actions might result in spillovers across national boundaries, such as when they trigger a change in international commodity prices in agricultural or forestry sector (Klein et al. 2007; Swart and Raes 2007).

Another difference is represented by the time scale, in fact, reducing GHGs emissions in the atmosphere will have effect on climate change only in the long term because of the long permanence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, whereas adaptive actions can have a short-term effect on the reduction of vulnerability (Locatelli 2011). Again the ancillary benefits of mitigation could be also evinced in the short term; whereas as climate change continues, the benefits of adaptation (e.g. avoided damage) will increase over time, except in the cases climate change does not materialize or the consequences are different from expectations (e.g. expected climate extreme) it may not have any benefit at all at any time scale (Klein et al. 2007; Swart and Raes 2007).

Regarding the way the costs and the benefits of both strategies can be determined, compared and aggregated, mitigation in terms of emission reduction achieved can be accounted for and compared in a single metric (i.e. CO2-equivalents emission) and, if the costs of this strategy are known, its cost-effectiveness can be determined and compared; however the benefits of adaptation can be accounted for in terms of monetary damage avoided, human lives saved, losses to natural and cultural values avoided, there is not a single metric, limiting the comparison between adaptation options (Klein et al. 2005).

The responsibility issue dominated the international agreements in past decades. In fact, since mitigation provides mainly global benefits as previously explained, this can induce a free-riding behavior; in contrast, adaptation mainly entails local benefit, then it does not induce a free-riding behavior but is driven by self interest (Dang et al. 2003; Swart and Raes 2007). These asymmetries have led international agreements and national public policies to trigger mitigation, and self-interest of affected private actors and communities to drive adaptation actions (Klein et al. 2007).

The last difference between mitigation and adaptation concerns the actors and sectors involved in their implementation. Mitigation primarily involves those which are the main contributors to climate change in terms of GHGs emissions such as the energy and transportation sectors in industrialized countries, the energy and forestry sectors in developing countries, and the agricultural sector (Klein et al. 2007). The number of sectors involved in adaptation is wider and these coincide with the most vulnerable sectors, including agriculture, tourism and recreation, human health, water supply, coastal management, urban planning, nature conservation and energy (Tol 2005; Klein et al. 2005).

There are some common enabling factors and constraints for mitigation and adaptation strategies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report includes among the former effective institutions and governance, innovation and investments in environmentally sound technologies and infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods and behavioral and lifestyle choices. The inertia of global and regional trends in economic development, GHG emissions, resource consumption, infrastructure and settlement patterns, institutional behavior and technology limit mitigation and adaptation strategies. Some barriers can be overcome through innovation and investments in environmentally sound technologies and infrastructure, financial resources, increased institutional effectiveness and governance or changes in social and cultural attitudes and behaviors (IPCC 2014b). In fact, environmental innovation and investments are significant both for reducing GHGs emissions and for improving resilience to climate change, these can expand the availability and the effectiveness of adaptation and mitigation actions (IPCC 2014b). For example, innovation and investments in low-carbon and carbon-neutral energy technologies often imply a decreasing of: the energy intensity of economic development, the carbon intensity of energy, GHGs emissions, and the long-term costs of mitigation. At the same time, innovative technologies and infrastructure can be designed to improve the resilience of human systems while reducing the impacts on natural systems. However, innovation and investments in environmentally sound technologies and infrastructure are in turn underpinned by a favorable policy and economic environment, and access to finance and technology (IPCC 2014b). Livelihoods, lifestyles, behavior and culture strongly influence mitigation and adaptation. Clearly, an energy-intensive lifestyle entails high energy and resource consumption, triggering energy production and consequently GHGs emissions to increase, therefore a shift in consumption patterns toward low energy-intensive lifestyle can lower emissions. These changes in lifestyles or behaviors improve the social acceptability and effectiveness of climate policies. In addition, livelihood depending on climate-sensitive sectors or resources can be particular vulnerable to climate change, together with human settlements and natural systems exposed to climate hazards and interested by economic developments and urbanization (IPCC 2014b). Mitigation and adaptation strategies are also enabled by the capacity of managing climate risks, which are place- and context-specific, in fact, although developed nations are supposed to have greater capacity to manage the risks of climate change compared to developing countries, through financial, technological and institutional resources, such capacity does not necessarily translate into the implementation of adaptation and mitigation actions (IPCC 2014b). Therefore, improvements in institutions and governance, or in some cases new institutions and institutional arrangements that span multiple scales, can help to overcome the constraints related to mitigation and adaptation strategies (IPCC 2014b).

Synergies and Trade-Offs Between Mitigation and Adaptation

Significant synergies exist between mitigation and adaptation and among different adaptation responses both within and across regions (IPCC 2014b). The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report refers to synergy as “The interaction of adaptation and mitigation so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their effects if implemented separately” (Klein et al. 2007: 749). However climate change research community, development organizations, policy makers, NGOs and practitioners on the one hand look at synergies through the positive consequences or impacts of adaptation over mitigation actions and vice versa, also relying on other terminology (e.g. links between, complementarity of, integration of and interaction between adaptation and mitigation), on the other, examine synergies in a broader sustainable development context rather than only between mitigation and adaptation (Illman et al. 2013).

A trade-off is defined by the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report as “a balancing of adaptation and mitigation when it is not possible to carry out both activities fully at the same time (e.g. due to financial or other constraints)” (Klein et al. 2007: 749), however in the common sense can be meant as a negative influence that mitigation and adaptation can have on each other’s effectiveness. The positive or negative sign of these inter-relationships often depends on local conditions (Klein et al. 2007).

Moreover, the synergies/trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation can be direct: when affect the same sector or stakeholders, e.g. urban planning could pay proper attention to climate-safe siting and low carbon transportation requirements; and indirect, when affect other sectors or stakeholders, e.g. mitigation could reduced stresses other than climate change such as reduced air pollution, which in turn can lead to lower health impacts and increasing resistance to climate stresses, in other words a vulnerability reduction to climate change (Klein et al. 2007; Swart and Raes 2007). While studies on synergies and trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation are limited and scattered, within these the recurring exemplary sectors with potential for synergies and trade-offs include: agriculture, forestry and land-use, energy, and construction and urban infrastructure (Klein et al. 2007; Swart and Raes 2007; Swart 2008).

Synergies and Trade-Offs in Agriculture

In agriculture there are several synergies between mitigation and adaptation. Carbon sequestration in agriculture represents a positive inter-relationship between the two strategies, through the creation of an economic commodity for farmers (carbon sequestration) and the increase of land value by soil improvement and water conservation, thus positively affecting adaptive capacity (Butt and McCarl 2004; Boehm et al. 2004; Dumanski 2004; Klein et al. 2007). Many mitigation actions involving soil carbon sequestration also improve plant nutrient content and water retention capacity, then entail synergies with adaptation in terms of higher yields and greater resilience (Dang et al. 2003). Many adaptation actions have positive effects on mitigation. As an example under wet scenarios, shifting from fallow systems to continuous cultivation entails on the one hand a maximization of production under the new precipitation (i.e. adaptation response), on the other an increase of the ability of soils to sequester carbon (Rosenzweig and Tubiello 2007). Similar enhanced sequestration potential is achieved with the increasing of irrigation and fertilization to continue the production in marginal semi-arid regions under climate change conditions (Rosenzweig and Tubiello 2007). However this last synergy could be compensated by the increase of the direct energy input for pumping irrigation, if not produced with renewable energy sources onsite (e.g. wind, solar) (Klein et al. 2007).

Several synergies between adaptation and mitigation in agriculture have been identified and analyzed by the FAO including low tillage, utilizing residues for composting or mulching, use of perennial crops to cover soil, re-seeding or improving grazing management on grasslands (FAO 2009).

In terms of trade-offs, in agriculture, the use of nitrogen fertilizers to avoid yield losses increases greenhouse-gas emissions (McCarl and Schneider 2000; Klein et al. 2007), similarly it happens with operating irrigation works and pumping irrigation water, as previously recalled, if the increased energy input is not produced with renewable energies onside (wind, solar) (Klein et al. 2007).

Synergies and Trade-Offs in Forestry and Land Use

Many synergies can be found within the forestry and land use sectors. Positive impacts from forest mitigation projects on local livelihood and their adaptive capacity can be observed in terms of increasing provision of local ecosystem services, incomes and activity diversification, and local governance (Caplow et al. 2011; Locatelli et al. 2011). In general, forestry mitigation projects (e.g. forest conservation, afforestation and reforestation, biomass energy plantations, agro-forestry, urban forestry) while increasing carbon sinks can lower water evaporation and lower vulnerability to heat stress (Klein et al. 2007). In addition, competition for land related to mitigation projects would increase land values thereby enhancing the adaptive capacity of landowners through improving their economic position (Lal 2004). It should be noted, that these synergies are not always guaranteed. For example, large-scale afforestation and reforestation implemented to sequester carbon could instead reduce run-off and water available off-site (Locatelli et al. 2011). In fact, the effects of reforestation projects on water resources depend highly on the plant species and the geographical and climatic characteristics of the area where they are implemented: in regions with high water resources even under a changing climate, afforestation can have positive effects, such as soil conservation and flood control; in regions with few water resources, intense rainfalls and long period of dry weather, forests increase average water availability; in arid and semi-arid regions, afforestation strongly reduces water yields (UK FRP 2005; Klein et al. 2007). Concerns have also been raised regarding REDD+ projects, in fact these may limit the rights and access of local people to land and forest resources, and increase their dependence on insecure external funding (Locatelli 2011). Adaptation projects in forestry and land use can directly affect ecosystems and carbon sinks, thus benefiting mitigation. As an example tree species’ resilience to water stress can be improved by using drought-resistant varieties of tree species in planted forests, which also increases potential for carbon sequestration (Illman et al. 2013). Mangroves simultaneously contribute in the protection of coastal areas from storms and in carbon storage (Locatelli 2011). Reforestation can also limit the risk of flooding and erosion while sequestering carbon (Swart and Raes 2007), nonetheless the trees species more effective to flood prevention may not be the most effective in sequestering carbon (Dang et al. 2003). The improvement of forest fire management represents another adaptation action with synergic opportunities, in fact early warning systems and fire fighting can prevent or limit emissions from fires, and at the same time improving adaptation to increasing frequency and intensity of climate-related extreme events such as droughts or storms causing forest fires (Illman et al. 2013).

Synergies and Trade-Offs in Energy Sector

Regarding the energy sector, several synergies have been identified in the past years. Renewable rural electrification, for example, avoids emissions from traditional fossil fuel energy generation and at the same time builds adaptive capacity (Ayers and Huq 2009). Hydropower plays an important role in reducing fossil fuel-based energy production, although it is a climate sensitive form of renewable energy. In fact, in some regions a high dependency on hydropower could increase the vulnerability to precipitation reduction (Swart and Raes 2007). While hydropower is one obvious mitigation option to shift to energy sources with low greenhouse-gas emissions, the future water balance influenced by climate change might trigger conflicts for water resources with agriculture sector, in particular if irrigation is a feasible strategy to cope with climate-change impacts, and power sector, where lies a significant demand for cooling water (Klein et al. 2007). In addition, in case of flooding of reservoirs, GHGs emissions can increase (e.g. the methane) due to vegetation decay, in particular in the case of shallow, warm tropical dams (Mata and Budhooram 2007).

A further example is the diffusion of cleaner, energy-efficient stoves to households and institutions in developing countries, which reduces GHG emissions due to more efficient burning and at the same time reduces deforestation with implication both for mitigation and adaptation (Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves 2017). Shifting to cleaner, energy-efficient stoves implies some trade-offs if the renewable energy generation is climate sensitive as well as it happens for hydropower generation (Illman et al. 2013). The same discourse is applicable to the diffusion of sustainable charcoal briquettes produced from agricultural waste. Using agricultural waste and other biomass residues improves reforestation with a positive effect in terms of soil erosion prevention and watershed management improvement and is carbon neutral (Illman et al. 2013). Further synergies can be found in vegetable oils and biodiesel production since some of these crops can survive in severe drought conditions, therefore resulting in emissions mitigation and climate change adaptation (La Rovere et al. 2009). Shifts in space heating and cooling is often considered an adaption option to the warming climate, however the associated increase in energy needs could have a negative effect on mitigation strategies if the energy is not produced from renewable sources (Klein et al. 2007).

Synergies and Trade-Offs in Construction and Urban Infrastructure

In urban areas a significant sector where mitigation and adaptation synergies take place is infrastructure construction and planning, in particular in location vulnerable to climate change. In fact, urban design have an important role in considering climate-safe siting, energy efficiency in building and low carbon transportation requirements (Swart and Raes 2007). These measures would both limit energy consumption (and associated GHG emissions) and also reduce vulnerability to the possible negative consequences of climate change, e.g. avoiding siting in coastal areas or areas prone to flooding. Other examples are represented by green roofs, cool materials, pocket gardens, canopies, urban forestry etc., which decrease the temperature in urban areas reducing the vulnerability of buildings and humans to urban heat-island effects, while leading to decrease the building energy uses (e.g. for air conditioning) and therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as increasing carbon sequestration in urban areas (Dessì et al. 2016). In addition, decreasing impermeable areas in order to limit flash flooding decreases the need to pump rainwater from the city and therefore decreases energy consumption (Illman et al. 2013). Building weatherization and design measures can reduce energy use and protect buildings from severe storms (Winkelman and Udvarady 2013). In addition flood prevention for subway systems and shading of pedestrian and cycling facilities combine low-carbon transportation systems and alternative modes for emergency evacuation (Winkelman and Udvarady 2013). In general the planning of the public transport networks and mode selection could combine resilience against sea level rise, flooding and extreme weather events and at the same time emissions reduction (Illman et al. 2013).

According to IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, the largest amount of construction work in terms of adaptation will be in water management and in coastal zones. In fact, coastal management is increasingly dealing with floods and water management both with floods and seasonal variations. Adaptation measures for flood protection encompass dykes, dams, flood control reservoirs, and embankment, storm surge barriers when concern coastal zones, whereas those addressing water seasonal variations encompass storage reservoirs and inter-basin diversions (Klein et al. 2007). Therefore, these additional construction projects entail an increase of energy needs, then have a negative effect on mitigation strategies if the energy is not produced from renewable sources, even though this increase in energy demand represents a small percentage of the total energy use and energy related emissions in most countries (Klein et al. 2007).

Synergies and Trade-Offs in Other Sectors

Further examples of potential for synergies and trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation have been identified in other sectors such as waste treatment, water management, and tourism.

The waste treatment sector provides further synergic opportunities for mitigation and adaptation as shown in a project in Bangladesh, where organic compost is produced from organic waste from landfill. This, on the one hand, reduces methane emissions from anaerobic processes at landfill, on the other, the use of organic compost reduces vulnerability to drought thanks to the improvement in moisture retention and soil fertility and increases carbon sequestration rates (Ayers and Huq 2009).

In terms of trade-offs of adaptation actions for mitigation it should be noted that several adaptation options, such as coastal protection infrastructure, additional cooling requirements and expanded irrigation, as already recalled, all increase energy use, often with associated GHG emissions, and thus increase the need for mitigation (Swart and Raes 2007).

Adaptation to changing hydrological regimes and water resources will also imply an increase in energy demands. As an example, in regions with few water resources, the increasing reuse of wastewater and the associated treatment, deep-well pumping, and especially large-scale desalination, would lead to an increase of energy use in the water sector (Boutkan and Stikker 2004; Klein et al. 2007). As recalled for other energy-intensive adaptation options, if energy is provided from carbon-free sources such as nuclear desalination (Misra 2003; Ayub and Butt 2005), these measures do not jeopardize the mitigation efforts. Another significant trade-off happens in winter sport sector. In fact, in order to deal with the decreasing snowfall, artificial snowmaking is becoming a common practice. As an example in Switzerland it increased from less than 10% of the total ski area in 2000 to 36% in 2010 (EEA 2017). However, artificial snowmaking implies large water and energy requirements (Swart and Raes 2007).


Mitigation and adaptation are two complementary strategies for addressing the risks of climate change (IPCC 2014b), however beyond the common goals and some enabling factors, there are several differences which might mislead to perceive these strategies as alternative in terms of different final goals, cause/effect, time and size scale, sectors concerned, beneficiaries, metrics (Table 1).
Table 1

Common wisdom of differences and similarities between mitigation and adaptation (based on Dang et al. 2003; Swart and Raes 2007; Locatelli et al. 2011)




Common goal

Aiming at reduction of climate change risks

Common enabling factors and barriers

Institutions and governance; innovation and investments in environmentally sound technologies and infrastructure; sustainable livelihoods and behavioral and lifestyle choices; capacity of managing climate risks

Final goals

Reduces negative impacts of climate change risks

Takes advantage of positive impacts and reduces the negative ones of climate change risks


Primarily reduces the cause

Primarily addresses the consequences

Spatial scale

Primarily an international issue, as mitigation provides global benefits

Primarily a local issue, as adaptation mostly provides benefits at the local scale

Time scale

Mitigation has a long-term effect on climate change because of the inertia of the climatic system

Adaptation can have a short-term effect on the reduction of vulnerability


Some sectors are mostly concerned by mitigation (e.g. energy, transportation, forestry and agriculture)

Some sectors are mostly concerned by adaptation (e.g. agriculture, tourism and recreation, human health, water supply, coastal management, urban planning, nature conservation and energy)


There is a single metric to account for and compare the costs and benefits (i.e. monetary terms and CO2-equivalents emission respectively)

There is not a single metric to account for and compare the costs and benefits (e.g. monetary damage avoided, human lives saved, losses to natural and cultural values avoided)


Mainly global benefits, then free-riding behavior

Mainly private benefits, then motivated by the self-interest of affected actors

Significant synergies exist between mitigation and adaptation which could enable simultaneous prevention of further emissions increases as well as accelerating adaptation and increasing resilience. These have been identified mainly in those sectors that can play a major role in both mitigation and adaptation such as agriculture, forestry and land-use, energy, and construction and urban infrastructure. However, sometimes these synergies can be very uncertain, or worse the strategies for addressing climate risks can give rise to trade-offs. To our knowledge, studies on synergies and trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation are limited and scattered, with a few recurring examples. Some further evidences emerged from studies in different sectors (e.g. waste treatment, water management, and tourism). We may suppose this is due to the perception of these strategies as alternative and to a limited climate change awareness, together with the complexity of carrying out a study on mitigation or adaptation (including the inter-relationships would be even more complex). In addition, many mitigation or adaptation options seem not to have any clear link with each others. However, understanding synergies and trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation strategies is crucial in order to promote the former and avoid the latter. Studying in depth synergies and trade-offs of mitigation and adaptation can be useful also to understand the scope of the repercussions from one strategy to another, which might be significant, but in most sectors, ‘the adaptation implications of any mitigation project are small and, conversely, the emissions generated by most adaptation activities are only small fractions of total emissions’ (Klein et al. 2007, p. 760).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Scuola Superiore Sant’AnnaPisaItaly

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  • Federica Doni

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