What Is Climate Change Mitigation?

Growing trees capture carbon dioxide, reducing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere. Walter Hodges/Photographer's Choice/Getty

Mitigation is the series of actions aimed at slowing down global climate change, with the goal to minimize the negative effects associated with warming. Global climate change is caused by man-made greenhouse gases, so mitigation focuses on reducing the gas concentrations in the atmosphere. This can be done by reducing emissions at the various sources, or by taking those greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

In the case of carbon dioxide, this capture process is called carbon sequestration.

In the context of global climate change, the term mitigation is often used in contrast with climate change adaptation, which refers to the adjustments individuals, organizations, and society need to make to live with the changes brought by global warming.

Approaches to mitigation will vary depending on the industry:

  • Energy. First and foremost, reducing energy use can have a substantial impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigation also means encouraging the use of carbon neutral energy sources by favoring renewable energies. Hydroelectricity, wind energy, nuclear energy, and solar energy, for example, all have environmental costs but they produce no or comparatively little greenhouse gases.
  • Transportation. The most important mitigation approach in transportation is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by reducing transportation needs. Companies can achieve this through employing efficient distribution logistics for goods, encouraging telecommuting, or favoring work meetings via teleconferencing. Mitigation also means encouraging methods of transportation that produce less greenhouse gases. Individuals can opt to carpool, use public transportation, bike or walk to work, and consolidate errands.
  • Improved urban planning can facilitate making these transportation transitions. Mixed-used development, walkable cities, and bike-friendly streets can encourage residents to leave the car at home more often.
  • Buildings. The main goal for residential and commercial buildings is to reduce energy needs for heating and cooling. Passive heating and cooling takes advantage of design and engineering solutions as much as possible before energy-hungry systems have to kick in. Proper house orientation, judicious use of shade trees and wind breaks, high-tech windows, and superior insulation materials go a long way to keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter. Energy efficient fans can then take further cooling duty. More energy reductions can be obtained through energy efficient LED lights and household appliances.
  • Manufacturing. A careful review of manufacturing processes can both lower costs and reduce energy needs. For example, waste heat can be collected and recycled, or production waste of raw materials can sometimes be reprocessed and brought back into the production stream.
  • Agriculture. The use of cover crops outside of the normal growing season reduces carbon dioxide releases from bare soil. No-till farming techniques reduce the number of times a tractor needs to enter the fields, reducing fuel use and emissions. Producing synthetic fertilizers uses a lot of natural gas; avoiding excess application and using organic fertilizers like manure reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Forestry. Forestry can have a unique role in reducing atmospheric concentrations in greenhouse gases: growing trees are very efficient carbon fixers. During photosynthesis, the sun’s energy and the carbon dioxide captured from the air are used to create molecules that become building blocks for the tree. Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a process called carbon sequestration.
  • Waste. Landfills contain large amounts of organic waste, which when decomposing produce methane. It used to simply escape in the atmosphere and play a very aggressive role as a greenhouse gas, but methane is now often collected and piped to a power generator. The emissions from the generator contain carbon dioxide, but with a lesser overall impact than methane would have if it was allowed to escape unburned. Similarly, animal waste at farms and wood waste from forestry operations can be put through a digester and turned into fuels.