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FEATURE: Synergies – a way to respond to the complexity of climate change

Paula Ellinger da Fonseca, Regional Climate Change Manager at Fundación Avina, joins the Low Emission Development Strategies Latin America and Caribbean (LEDS LAC) annual event and is inspired to hear of the many possible synergies between climate adaptation and mitigation actions.

Climate change is a complex problem – its causes and impacts are not single, straightforward or linear. Interventions to tackle it should be as complex as its properties, coming from all sectors, at all levels and interacting synergically to generate positive outcomes that are more powerful than the sum of the parts.

In October 2015, more than 140 stakeholders from different sectors and 33 countries met in Dominican Republic to discuss strategies for a low emission development pathway in Latin America. Mitigation was the primary concern of the meeting, but from start to end the debate reinforced that no future will be climate compatible if low emission development strategies (LEDS) fail to incorporate resilience and the sustainable development goals as joint purposes.

One of the highlights of the meeting was the presentation by Maria José Gutierrez on the findings of a specialists workshop organised by LEDS LAC, Euroclima and partners on ‘Strengthening resilience in LEDS’. Mitigation, adaptation and development strategies are often dealt with separately, although it is exactly in the interaction between them that climate compatible development lies (Mitchell and Maxwell, cited in Gutierrez). Efforts to build a more integrated approach can vary in degrees from complementarity to synergy, the latter being deeper in terms of scope and time.

What synergy means

Synergy between mitigation and adaptation, according to Vallejo (2015, in Gutierrez), is “that generated when the combined effect between adaptation and mitigation is larger than the sum of their effects when implemented in isolation”. Promoting synergies ensures an integrated approach, with less trade-offs, more efficiency and effectiveness (Duguma et al). For example, recycling as a mitigation action also improves income and reduces ecosystem impacts; promoting solar energy diminishes emissions while reducing air pollution and promoting energy security; and replanting mangroves helps store carbon at the same time that ensures various ecosystem services, such as regulating floods, controlling erosion and providing food and fiber (IPCC; CIFOR).

final ccd venn diagram small size


The importance of bringing together mitigation and adaptation has been increasingly recognised at the global level. The IPCC, in its 2014 Synthesis Report, states that there are “many opportunities to link mitigation, adaptation and the pursuit of other societal objectives through integrated responses” and the recently approved Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a framework for acting in such an integrated manner. As an analysis published by CDKN, HR Wallingford and Metroconomica shows, responding to climate change impacts the chances of meeting most of the SDGs at the same time that the SDGs impact the ability to deal with a changing climate. We are currently in a stage where advancing in an integrated approach is possible, but as time passes, so will the opportunity. Increased levels of emissions and greater change in climate implies less effectiveness in adaptation measures and lower chances to meet the SDGs (ibid; IPCC, 2014).

Towards synergic action

We have a window of opportunity and the urge to act. Negotiations in December in Paris are expected to deliver ambition and a long-term vision to climate governance and to promote synergic climate action among actors at all levels. The boost for climate action is shown by the Climate Summit of last year, where all wide range of different stakeholders made climate commitments through collaborative partnerships. Towards Paris, the role of non-state actors is being recognised by the Lima Paris Action Agenda (LPAA) and it will be the fourth pillar of what France calls “The Paris Alliance”.

Successful implementation of mitigation and adaptation linkages requires not only commitments, but also ‘relevant tools, suitable governance structures and enhanced capacity’, (IPCC 2014). At the LEDS LAC meeting, a few experiences of integrated approaches were presented, such as the Chilean case of agricultural measures in face of climate change, where mitigation actions proposed by the MAPS Programme (Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios) and adaptation measures defined at the National Agroforestry Adaptation Plan coincide and illustrate that synergic measures carry a double impact.

Looking for lessons

Despite the promises carried by synergies, promoting integrated approaches implies challenges. A good analysis to identify the real opportunities for synergies is fundamental, as the condition for an integrated approach is not always there and ‘forced marriages’ should be avoided (Vallejo, 2015). The analysis and search for an integrated approach also avoids trade-offs, where mitigation actions can have negative effects on adaptation or vice-versa.

Gutierrez presented seven considerations proposed by experts to enhance design and implementation of synergies between adaptation and mitigation:

  • Reframing the system: mitigation and adaptation have been treated separately and this needs to be reframed towards a more systemic and less sectoral view.
  • Information management: updated information should be available, co-benefits known and indicators created to reflect synergies.
  • Inclusive action: all parts should be integrated and the interconnection between bottom-up and top-down approaches should be recognised.
  • Capacities: capacities need to be built and existing cases documented and disseminated.
  • Governance: coordination, dialogue and ownership by all relevant parties are necessary.
  • Common language: messages and language need to be adjusted for different stakeholders.
  • Incentives framework: long term vision and financial and non-financial incentives should be aligned to the objectives of an integrated approach to climate.

Besides the challenges, participants at the LEDS LAC workshop acknowledged that there are risks related to overusing the term synergies. If used as a buzzword, it may promote a new label for the same pattern of actions, without actually promoting differentiated approaches – for example, under a ‘synergies’ narrative, finance may continue focused on mitigation efforts with insufficient increases in adaptation funding.

Despite all challenges and risks, though, the voice in Dominican Republic in October 2015 was unanimous about the opportunity to effectively engage in a transformational pathway through a more synergic approach between mitigation, adaptation and the Sustainable Development Goals. It is a promising voice, and it promises the change needed in a complex world.


Paula Ellinger da Fonseca is Regional Climate Change Manager at Fundación Avina and member of the Regional Center on Climate Change and Decision Making, an initiative funded by Fundación Avina and Unesco and run by a network of universities. This article was possible due to the support of CDKN, comments by Ramiro Fernandez and inspiration provided by the debates in the IV LEDS LAC Regional Workshop, which happened in October 2015 in Punta Cana.

Image: Monarch butterfly, flower, bees, credit USDA.


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