By reducing emissions, mitigation reduces society’s future contributions to greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Ultimately, this can help reduce the amount that climate will change and thereby increase the potential that societal impacts will remain manageable. However, climate has already changed and the planet will continue to warm due to past emissions, which makes some climate impacts unavoidable. Mitigation does little to help with these ongoing and entrained changes in climate.
Approaches to reducing emissions fall into several categories. These include 1) regulation; 2) research, development, and deployment of new technologies; 3) conservation; 4) efforts to increase public awareness; 5) positive incentives to encourage choices that lower emissions; and 6) adding a price to greenhouse gas emissions, which creates incentives to reduce emissions broadly.
At least some policy options for mitigation require allocating scarce resources toward emissions reduction efforts (e.g., investing in low-emission technologies). In the event that the consequences of climate change turn out to be less significant than expected, investments in mitigation could constitute an inefficient use of limited resources. Note, however, that this does not apply to approaches that reduce market failures (i.e., adding a corrective price on emissions). Although emission pricing seems to require the use of scarce resources because energy prices may rise, it is actually reducing a hidden subsidy (i.e., emitters avoiding the costs of climate damage that they cause) as previously described.
Mitigation could also cause overly high energy prices, or the premature retirement of capital equipment. Similarly, some efforts to reduce emissions could lead to adverse secondary consequences. For example, policies to promote biofuel production could lead to inefficient uses of land, water, or agricultural crops. The use of biofuels could also exacerbate air pollution or contribute to the degradation of water quality.
However, mitigation might also confer benefits unrelated to climate change risk management (often called cobenefits). For example, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases would likely reduce some traditional forms of air pollution (e.g., emissions from coal-fired power plants), which would benefit public health. Similarly, mitigation would likely lead to a reduction in oil consumption. This would help reduce environmental impacts associated with oil drilling, transport, and use while lessening dependence on foreign oil, which could improve national and economic security.
Adding a price to greenhouse gas emissions is a particularly noteworthy policy option because it would be expected to have a broad-reaching impact on emissions, has received a great deal of attention from the research community, and has been a focus of policy discussions since climate change emerged as a public issue.
Regulations often specify what activities are permitted and the manner in which they may be conducted.
Research, development, and deployment can help create or improve next-generation technologies, including those that might help reduce emission.
Conservation of energy or biological resources (e.g., forests and wetlands) can help reduce emissions associated with energy use or deforestation.
Public awareness campaigns can help ensure that people understand the implications of their choices and encourage individuals to adopt practices that reduce emissions.
Positive incentives such as tax breaks or subsidies can help shape consumer preferences toward products and choices that result in lower emissions.