COP26 is not just about limiting climate change. It is also about learning to live with it.

Delegates in the conference – and protesters and campaigners outside – are trying to save the planet, but their big aim is to keep the increase in global heating to1.5C. Even if they succeed, we will still have to adapt to a warmer world with higher seas, more storms and more wildfires.

So today COP26 is talking about “delivering the practical solutions needed to adapt to climate impacts and address loss and damage”.

Larissa Naylor, a professor of geography at Glasgow University, is on the front line of this work in Scotland, helping authorities with maps showing how our coastlines could change.

After all, one of the ways we are going to have to adapt is pretty simple: not building on land that may become sea.

But what do we mean when we say “adaptation”? And how is it different from the “mitigation” COP26 is also debating?

“Mitigation of climate change means actions we take to reduce the amount of dangerous greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere. This is why the COP26 pledges on methane, coal and fossil fuels are so important, as well as individual behavioural change, such as walking more, driving less.

“Mitigation can also occur by working with nature and supporting nature to absorb more carbon, such as in trees, salt marshes and kelp forests in Scotland. That’s why the COP26 [talks] on deforestation is important and why we also need one for blue carbon too,” said Prof Naylor.

“Adaptation is changing how we all live and work – ie our lives – to live with the changing climate we are already experiencing. 

“As climate change is expected to increase the negative impacts on society – flooding, heatwaves and coastal erosion – it’s really important we start to adapt now so society is more prepared, and suffers less loss and damage, such as flooding and erosion of key infrastructure assets such as roads and railways, due to the impacts of climate change.

“This is why a firm agreement for actions and finance for adaptation is really important at COP26.”

A lot of the reporting and campaigning around the summit has focused on the need for concerted global action on mitigation. But adaptation, Prof Naylor stressed, cannot be an afterthought. Yet in some countries, she said, “adaptation is not keeping pace with mitigation”. 

She added: “Given the urgency, the pace, with which the climate is changing, the storms and the wildfires, we are not doing enough.

“Even if we achieve net zero and we achieve it rapidly, sea levels will continue to rise. 

“If we can reach net zero rapidly, then the sea levels will rise less. But there is a kind of lag in the system, where between temperatures warming translating in to sea level rise. We are already committed to a certain level of sea level increase based on how much carbon we have already emitted into the atmosphere.

“In a Scottish context, in low-lying areas there is no option but to adapt, but how much we have to adapt depends on how much we mitigate.”

Scotland has a government agency, Adaptation Scotland, to advise state, private and third sector bodies on how to become more resilient to some of the changes to our climate. 

Other parts of the world do not yet have such national plans. Prof Naylor contrasts Scotland with England, where there is no national benchmarking but where, for example, there is already challenging coastal erosion.

Will COP26 come up with binding targets for adaptation? With aid for poor countries to make their infrastructure more resilient? 

With a framework for planning and development that takes account of climate change that is already locked in?

Prof Naylor hopes adaptation will be part of any Glasgow pact or agreement to come out of what she calls the “nitty-gritty talks behind closed doors”. 

Adaptation will vary from one part of the world to another. Prof Naylor is a former youth climate activist from British Columbia. She jokes she was one of the Gretas of the past.

Her home region has been decimated by wildfires over recent summers following record temperatures. Elsewhere in the global north, an area of Russia the size of Britain burned this year.  So adapting in Canada or Russia means making homes safer from fire – no easy thing to do.

Prof Naylor and her colleagues, meanwhile, offer a sobering analysis of how much Scotland will have to adapt to coastal changes alone.

Their Dynamic Coast study finds 46 per cent of Scottish soft shorelines – such as beaches, dunes or marshes – are eroding; that could rise to 75% under a high emissions scenario by 2050.