Dealing with climate change

From increased heat and more intense rainfall to rising sea levels and biodiversity loss, societies around the world are already experiencing the physical impacts of climate change. But the social and economic responses to climate change will also have a significant impact. Efforts to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) will need to be ramped up, and services and infrastructure such as healthcare, transport and food supply will need to be retooled to ensure they remain reliable in a climate-changing world (adaptation).

Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emissions of greenhouse gases, which can be achieved either by using new technologies and renewable energy, or by making older equipment more energy efficient and changing management practices, supply chains or citizen behaviour.

Adaptation measures include large-scale infrastructure changes – such as building defences to protect against rising sea-levels or improving road surfaces to withstand hotter temperatures – as well behavioural shifts like encouraging individuals to use less water and farmers to change crops continuously.

As we make the necessary transition to a low carbon society both these measures – adaptive and mitigation – will bring great disruption and opportunity, entailing a radical change for most industries, cities and communities. Whole new approaches may be needed for city planning or for the insurance industry, for instance. But in some cases adaptation may not be possible.

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Current trajectory


  • Countries, cities and companies are increasingly setting decarbonisation targets. Towards the end of 2014, more than a dozen global companies including BT, Commerzbank, FIA Formula E, H&M, IKEA, KPN, Mars, Nestle, Philips, Reed Elsevier, J. Safra Sarasin, Swiss Re, Walmart and Yoox made multi-year pledges to switch to 100% renewable power. 1
  • Investments in mass transit to meet city carbon targets. Copenhagen, which aims to be carbon-neutral by 2025, plans to invest £3.6 billion on cycling infrastructure to reduce transport-based carbon emission.2
  • Car companies such as Ford and Jaguar Landrover are shifting from steel to aluminium to improve fuel efficiency and hit carbon targets. By 2025, 18% of US vehicles will have all-aluminium bodies, compared with less than 1% in 2014.3
  • The Potsdam Institute calculates that to reduce the chance of exceeding 2ºC warming to 20%, the global carbon budget for 2000-2050 is 886 gigatonnes (Gt)CO2. Minus emissions from the first decade of this century, this leaves a budget of 565 GtCO2 for the remaining 40 years to 2050.4

Investing in alternatives

  • Institutions such as Stanford University, World Council of Churches and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, as well as individuals responsible for at least $50bn of investment, have said they plan to sell some or all of their fossil fuel holdings.1
  • More digital companies are insisting on lower carbon products and components. The British Sky Broadcasting Group’s (BSkyB) life-cycle assessments of greenhouse gases enabled Sky to identify ‘hot spots’ of energy and resource use during the production and use of their products. This allowed them to identify the top 50 carbon-intensive suppliers that they work with, and promote more effective carbon management through workshops and other engagement initiatives.2

The need for adaptation

  • A 2012 World Bank report suggested that the cost of climate change adaptation1 in developing countries will be US$70–100 billion a year between 2010 and 2050 – the same order of magnitude as the foreign aid that developed countries provide each year. Some studies even suggest this figure is on the conservative side: estimates used by ODI, for example, show that between US$100-450 billion per year of financing may be needed. Despite this only US$2.17 billion has been pledged by developed countries since 2003.2
  • In April 2014, San Francisco hired the world’s first Chief Resilience Officer to plan the city’s long-term adaptive response to climate change. The role was created through Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, which will see Rockefeller provide US$100 million to fund 100 chief resilience officers in selected cities, along with a suite of other services designed to build future-proof cities.3


  • Climate change is transforming the operational context for every organisation on the planet. As well as its direct physical impacts, the social, economic, political and technological implications will also play a major role in shaping the future.
  • As the understanding of links between climate change and its impacts becomes stronger, the pressure from civil society on governments and institutions to act is likely to rise, along with accountability for any failure to do so.
  • Forward-thinking organisations are not only considering their impact on the climate, but also the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on them. For example, how will the supply of essential commodities be affected? What new products, services or business models will succeed in a world that is responding to climate change? Leadership may also be defined less in terms of tackling direct emissions; and more by efforts to address overall emissions, impacts and risks.
  • The most expensive adaptation measures involve modifying infrastructure and improving coastal and flood protection. Costs will not necessarily be highest where vulnerability is greatest, but in regions with lots of infrastructure that needs to be climate-proofed.1

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