Adaptation strategies attempt to protect the functioning of the existing system from substantial change.

Photo by: Singkham

What is an adaptation coping strategy?

Adaptation strategies attempt to protect the functioning of the existing system from substantial change. Those who engage in adaptation strategies recognise and accept that there are inevitable impacts from decarbonisation efforts. In response, they try to minimise the disruption caused by decarbonisation efforts by modifying their behaviour or operations.

Common adaptation strategies include:

  • Attempts to try to preserve the status quo in a ‘softer’ way than through outright resistance by adapting incrementally
  • Attempts to avoid the negative consequences of the energy transition.

Importantly, incremental adaptation strategies are often insufficient to fully address the implications of decarbonisation strategies. In these situations, it will be necessary to make further adjustments. For example, coal plants that install solar PV to help power operations are likely to eventually have to adapt in deeper ways since they are continuing to engage in carbon-intensive activities (i.e. coal mining).

Who engages in adaptation strategies?

Adaptation strategies are undertaken by all types of actors at all levels.

At the international level, these strategies are mainly adopted by national EU parliamentarians in Brussels, and politicians from carbon-intensive regions. At the national level, adaptation strategies tend to be undertaken by two main sets of actors: fossil fuel industry company representatives, and governments. At the regional and local levels, adaptation strategies are adopted by local citizens, mainly at the individual level, as well as by local authorities.

What do adaptation coping strategies look like?

Adaptation activities “[seek] to reduce vulnerability to present and future change by minimising the direct and indirect impacts” (O’Brien 2012: 669).

For example, national politicians at the EU level, and coal industry representatives at the national level, argue that implementation of emissions-reducing innovations in power plants will allow for a more gradual phase-out. They adapt to decarbonisation policies by supporting implementation of these technologies in coal plants.

Major coal mine and coal-fired power plant operators in North Rhine-Westphalia have responded adaptively to German climate policy by:

  • Laying off large numbers of workers
  • Downsizing and restructuring their operations
  • Starting up new renewables divisions or companies, and beginning to offer energy services, while confining their loss-making carbon-intensive activities to separate companies

Regional, provincial, and local authorities often decide to implement energy efficiency plans for schools, hospitals or other public buildings. National or regional governments sometimes also work with local universities to design training programs suited for low-carbon industrial activities.

For workers in fossil fuel industries, it is increasingly necessary to adapt by seeking out different jobs. There is also evidence, particularly from Estonia, of migration to other regions or countries to find other economic opportunities.

Example – National adaptation

Since the early 2010s, Polish national administrations, supported by fossil fuel industry managers, have been stimulating projects on carbon capture and storage in Silesia in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from thermal power plants and keep the coal industry running.

Example – Individual adaptation

In Ida-Virumaa, some oil-shale workers who have lost their jobs have responded by migrating out of the region to seek employment elsewhere. Others, including young people who may previously have assumed they would enter the oil shale workforce, have anticipated more cuts to the sector and chosen to relocate to other locations where there are better job prospects.

Example – Regional adaptation

Since 2019, the regional government of Western Macedonia has included several energy efficiency projects in schools, hospitals, and other public buildings in their budgets.


What prompts adaptation strategies?

Strategies for adaptation can be undertaken either in response to impacts that are already occurring, or in anticipation of decarbonisation activities that are expected to occur. For example, industry-led adaptation strategies can be prompted by a government’s announcement of a precise date for coal phase-out (response), or by ongoing progress of technological innovations that might help reduce industrial emissions (e.g., air pollution) (anticipation).

Individual-level adaptation strategies can be prompted by actual or threatened job loss or salary cuts, or by anticipated consequences of the energy transition on energy prices.

When are adaptation strategies most likely?

Adaptation strategies are more likely to occur in regions that are experiencing significant destabilisation of existing industry. This usually happens in mid- to advanced transition phases. In these regions, it is apparent that decarbonisation policies will be created and enforced and there will be a need to find ways to live with these policies. While many actors will still adopt resistance strategies, others will begin to make changes to adapt to new circumstances.


What are other types of coping strategies?

  • Resistance strategies seek to preserve current conditions and resist drivers of change. Read more.
  • Transformative coping strategies challenge the stability of the existing system by introducing fundamentally new ways of thinking, acting, doing and organising. Read more.


Barnes, M. L., Bodin, Ö., Guerrero, A. M., McAllister, R. R., Alexander, S. M., & Robins, G. (2017). The social structural foundations of adaptation and transformation in social–ecological systems. Ecology and Society22(4).

Nacke, L., Jewell, J., Cherp, A. 2021. A diagnostic framework for feasibility of low carbon transitions in coal dependent regions. CINTRAN Project Report. European Union Horizon 2020 grant agreement no. 884539.

O’Brien, K. (2012). Global environmental change II: From adaptation to deliberate transformation. Progress in Human Geography36(5), 667-676.




The project CINTRAN has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 884539. The sole responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the authors and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of INEA or other EU agencies or bodies.