The emissions costs of mitigation and adaptation

Published online 24 November 2022

Adapting to climate change, and transitioning to renewable energy, come with their own emissions costs.

Bianca Nogrady

Mimadeo/ Getty Images
The faster humanity transitions from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, the smaller the emissions cost of that transition, modelling shows. The finding is the result of a study that modelled both the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transition to renewable energy, and those that will be generated by keeping homes cool and adapting to sea level rise. 

The modelling, conducted by an international team of researchers, including from the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, considered three different pathways of mitigation: a rapid mitigation that keeps warming below 1.5°C, a gradual pathway to 2°C, and a delayed pathway to 2.7°C.

The results suggest that the level of emissions generated while deploying renewables, from the energy required to build and operate them, represents 5.5-8.6% of the total remaining estimated carbon budget for the transition to a stable climate.

The faster fossil fuels are phased out and renewables deployed, the smaller the emissions associated with that transition. In the rapid mitigation scenario, the transition to renewables would generate around 20 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, but in the delayed decarbonization scenario, that would increase to a cumulative 180 gigatonnes. 

The group also examined the emissions from residential air conditioning and coastal adaptations. Temperature and sea level rise are relatively certain, and both require adaptations that will consume large amounts of energy and materials.

Despite this, the modelling suggested that the emissions associated with these climate change adaptions were 20-100 times less than the emissions associated with the deployment of renewable energy.

Frank Jotzo, professor of environmental and climate change economics at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia says it is well understood that the huge investment needed in zero-emissions infrastructure will generate some emissions.

“The analysis in the research paper is useful in providing ballpark magnitudes of possible future emissions,” Jotzo says. However, he pointed out that, as industrial commodities such as steel and concrete become decarbonized, the emissions footprint of renewable energy infrastructure will also decline as it will be produced from zero emissions energy.


Lesk, C. et al. Mitigation and adaptation emissions embedded in the broader climate transition. PNAS (2022).