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Cascading impacts: Mitigation and adaptation need to go hand in hand

10.6.2019 Joan Gouverne and Mikael Hildén
Gouverne and Hilden

Ever since acid rain, long range transboundary pollution has been an issue. Climate change is transboundary, but how do the cascading impacts appear and how should we address them?

Climate change effects are already being felt worldwide and are likely to amplify in the course of the next century, given current indications of insufficient emissions cuts. This raises the question of how impacts of climate change may be felt beyond the places where they are first recorded.

One way to start is by identifying the impacts of climate change: how they spread, interact with each other, and impact human livelihoods. A recent study uses the term 'pathways of propagation' to describe the international systems likely to transmit impacts, whether from neighboring countries or further away. In these ‘cascading impacts’ recurring culprits are the financial system, international trade, migration, the infrastructures that link countries together and biological connections such as the migration of birds or other organisms But the main task is to think about how systems actually interact across borders and also globally.

We are well aware of connections between our global economic and financial systems. Looking at the financial system’s ties to other pathways highlights the issues at hand. Ensuring the stability of societal systems is key for being able to resist sudden shocks. Examples of shocks include price volatility in the agricultural industry or damages to critical infrastructures. But to build that stability in the decades to come requires a pro-active stance in investing into sustainable assets and disinvesting carefully from so-called 'stranded assets'. This implies massive investments in sustainable assets such as renewable energy or energy saving while disinvesting in stranded assets, such as coal based energy production.

Sustainable investment practices are necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement target of staying well below an increase of 2°C in the global average temperature. This means that mitigation is important for risk management. There are no clear-cut distinctions between adaptation and mitigation, and the concept of pathways of propagation gives us a way to think about how different measures interact.

The recognition of potential cascading impacts also raises the question of how to implement robustness at different levels of governance. The transmission of impacts happens at different points of international trade, energy transmission networks and investment chains. The interconnected effects on the environment needs to be recognized in efforts to enhance security and stability.

The research on cascading impacts is relatively new but it has the great potential to make us see the connections between global and local impacts. The climate change crisis requires us to see that adaptation goes hand in hand with mitigation and has to be consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals. If we do not do this, then we may face disastrous chains of events.

Joan Gouverne and Mikael Hildén

Joan Gouverne is a student in the Philosophy & Economics Programme at the University of Bayreuth in Germany and is an (almost former) intern at the Climate Change Programme in SYKE. Mikael Hildén leads the Strategic Climate Change Programme in SYKE and the programme on a carbon neutral and resource efficient Finland of the Strategic Research Council.

Opinions of blog contributors do not necessarily reflect the official views and opinions of the Finnish Environment Institute.

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