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OPINION: Close to home, learning from subnational initiatives for climate compatible development


Mairi Dupar and Ali Cambray report on a CDKN-ICLEI programme to learn about climate compatible development at city and subnational level.

This week, we convened a group of CDKN project partners to reflect on what we’ve learned from our work together to promote climate compatible development. Project leaders came from such diverse countries as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Mozambique, and such diverse settings as the high mountains and the coasts. Some are working on climate resilient development strategies in very low-emitting communities that bear the brunt of climate disasters. Others are grappling with low-carbon development strategies in middle-income cities with rising emissions profiles. All have one thing in common: they are trying to design and deliver climate compatible development at the subnational or urban level.

Two questions dominated our discussions: how is climate compatible development at the subnational level different from the national level? And what can we learn about the success factors for subnational climate compatible development that are distinctive from the success factors for ‘conventional’ development?

What’s different about working at the subnational level?

The first big story to emerge from the projects was that climate change is hitting home now, and local leaders are on the frontline of responding, whether they are government officials or informal or traditional community leaders.  As we have noted, ‘When it floods, you don’t call the president, you call the mayor’.

We heard about how unseasonably heavy snowfall is killing livestock in India’s Ladakh province, high in the Himalayas, and increasingly frequent heatwaves in the huge, sprawling city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat province are causing human deaths. As well as these climate extremes and disasters, we heard of slow-onset climate impacts that are slowly eroding human settlements and livelihoods, as in the vulnerable city of Cartagena, Colombia, or in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where food insecurity is a deep concern.

In all these cases, subnational and urban leaders are much closer to climate-affected communities than national leaders: they are, in a sense, more accountable to the people because they are more accessible. (Often they are a part of the communities, too, experiencing climate impacts first-hand.)  When an extreme weather event occurs, local leaders are normally the first to mobilise resources – whether that’s organising assistance for displaced community members, or deploying engineers to mend infrastructure. By contrast, help from the national level or from overseas can take weeks or months to arrive.

Subnational areas also suffer because many of the levers to control climate compatible development are out of reach. Take the example of urban districts in Metro Manila, Philippines, where Partners for Resilience is working. Widespread deforestation in rural areas has degraded watersheds, which worsens water quality and flooding downstream in the cities, particularly when unusually heavy rains occur. Environmental mismanagement outside the city jurisdiction exacerbates Manila’s climate vulnerability. Many of the legal and policy levers and the financial, human and technical resources for effecting positive change lie outside city leaders’ control.

Here, we identified a broader point about the unique position of subnational and urban leaders. Not only do they play a special role in allocating community resources but also in mobilising external resources – whether it’s resources for longer term climate compatible development or for  disaster response, whether it’s cash flows or in-kind resources.  We heard many instances of how local leaders draw on personal networks of influence and broader political channels beyond their locality to muster these resources.

This closeness to climate-affected people brings new opportunities, as well as responsibilities. Gulrez Azhar of the Indian Institute of Public Health was recently part of a mass awareness campaign in Ahmedabad, which brought life-saving information to communities in the event of a heatwave. “We can congratulate ourselves on the communications campaign we had about heatwaves in the city because we have reached the ‘hard-to-reach’ people,” he said.

Another distinctive aspect of subnational climate compatible development is the frequent courage to innovate and try new solutions.  S. T. Kodikara described how he was responsible for food security in Sri Lanka’s most urbanised province. “We started to introduce home gardening because space is very limited for households. Initially, we couldn’t get a very good output, but following my work with Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF), I build more confidence, a more scientific base, and better results.” Now, Mr Kodikara has shared his results with the other eight provinces in Sri Lanka and has worked to obtain the “blessing” of the national Ministry of Agriculture for a scaled-up version of this programme at national level.

What’s different about development that is ‘climate compatible’?

Some of the lessons we have captured about successful subnational climate compatible development could certainly apply to successful development, more generally. For instance, we heard of the importance of multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approaches to cultivate buy-in for a programme, improve its design, and ultimately make it more ‘implementable’.  These range from a multistakeholder dialogue process to devise options for low carbon transport in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to a flood risk planning process in Gorakhpur, India that is addressing climate resilience and disaster risk management ‘blind spots’ among multiple district agencies.

What makes climate compatible development planning different from conventional planning is that key investment decisions take place in a context of uncertainty about how, where, and when climate impacts will strike. This is particularly true at the local level, where down-scaling of climate models is not technically feasible and we lack the ability to project long-term climate scenarios for precise localities.

There are also vast gaps in our understanding about the human-climate dimension. How will climatic changes affect human development efforts? How will society respond to these impacts and also to the opportunities afforded by climate compatible development solutions? We are only starting to address these data gaps.

Given this backdrop of scientific uncertainty and data scarcity, CDKN’s project partners describe how an additional level of discourse among stakeholders is necessary to build trust and understanding around existing climate and emissions data. Only in this way can a common assessment of the problem be achieved, which provides the framework for  forward-looking decision-making.

Success factors for  climate compatible development at the subnational and urban level

The subnational level is characterised, then, by an acute lack of data and analysis on climate trends and climate-development interactions, together with a real sense of urgency for dealing with climate-related problems and high levels of motivation to get things done. In the spirit of innovating locally, and learning-by-doing, CDKN’s project partners have accomplished some impressive early, localised successes. Behind these successes, they identified the following key factors :

Innovative communication of the best available climate science – often tailored to specific audiences: Innovative methods of communication are needed that convey messages about impacts, vulnerability and the range of solutions to different stakeholder groups in appropriate ways. This could be about speaking the ‘right language’ to groups, depending on their level of education and understanding and their vernacular tongue, but also about picking the ‘right angles’ to discuss climate impacts on groups’ core interests – such as finding an investment lens through which to approach business communities.  Data visualisation methods to demonstrate how climate change will impact a locality have been used particularly effectively by CDKN’s Cartagena project, which bases the images on data from an authoritative national research partner.

Willingness of the scientific community to work with local people to record and validate local climate trends and adaptive practices: Because inadequate data exists on micro-climactic trends, there is an important role for citizen scientists to gather data on key climate indicators. This should be channelled to and validated by the scientific community, to aid broader understanding of local climate trends. Similarly, local communities have developed considerable knowledge in adapting to adverse or extreme climatic conditions. Such indigenous knowledge can meet scientific analysis and best practices from elsewhere, and lead to co-creation of locally appropriate solutions.

Networks of champions: Champions are needed to progress the climate compatible development agenda at local, state or province and national level, but embedded in institutions, for the sake of sustainability, and to be most effective, networks of multiple champions are needed, who speak to each other across scales. Sometimes these champions, too, are interpreters between the languages of different communities (see above) as well as the people who mobilise internal and external resources to address climate challenges.

Sustainability of funding for local initiatives: All these subnational initiatives have the potential to mobilise time-limited project funding, but a critical success factor for enduring change is the ability to finance over the long term. This can happen one of two ways and both involve mainstreaming climate compatibility measures into development processes so that they become ‘business as usual’. Either climate compatible development measures  lead to a reallocation of local development budgets and the municipality or subnational government programme is essentially self-financing, or the measures are hardwired into externally funded development programmes which are financed on a long-term basis by national or state governments.

A final, pressing question is, how might successful subnational initiatives in climate compatible development be scaled out: replicated at similar municipal and subnational scales, or adopted on a larger scale by state or national governments?  As Chopde Shashikant Kashinath said, “to become a real success, the process for extending support for similar actions elsewhere in other diverse settings is important. Otherwise, climate compatible development will be an island, dying out.” Here, participants agreed that it is vital to be able to document and demonstrate successes – especially in terms of quantifiable achievements such as lives saved and costs saved, but also unintended benefits such as perceived social cohesion, security and resilience of vulnerable social groups, etc.

Again, the role of individual champions emerges as a key success factor: champions who are adept at capturing and communicating these lessons and acting as ‘interpreters’ across different communities of interest play an instrumental role in the broader take-up of climate compatible development approaches. We concluded this inspiring workshop two days after the Resilient Cities Congress and Mayors Adaptation Forum 2013 which provided a shining example of this drive to innovate, share lessons learned and cross-fertilise best practices among cities and subnational areas.

This workshop was part of a larger learning programme about subnational climate compatible development that CDKN and ICLEI are taking forward together. You can also read more about this on ICLEI’s website.

Image courtesy of Indian Institute of Public Health.

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