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FEATURE: Eight lessons on climate compatible development from Colombia


Simon Maxwell, CDKN’s Executive Chair, reflects on a recent week of meetings with climate leaders in Latin America.

I have just come back from a week with CDKN’s Latin America programme, mainly in Colombia.  I came away with eight lessons about climate compatible development.

First, find graphic ways to tell the story of climate change, and personalise the implications. It’s all very well to say that the IPCC report reinforces the science, but talking about 400 parts per million of CO2 or emissions of 50 gigatonnes per year doesn’t really mean anything. I spent a lot of time trying to find graphic ways of concretising these numbers, but in the end fell back on personal carbon budgets and what they can ‘buy’.  For example, a personal budget for 2050 is estimated at 2t per person per year. That’s enough to fly to Beijing from Colombia, but not fly home. Another example is that Colombia is currently growing at 4%, which means the economy is doubling in size every 18 years and will multiply four times by 2050 – as it needs to do to reduce poverty. However, the country currently emits 1.6t per capita, so has to find a way to deliver all that growth with hardly any additional carbon.

Second, the CDKN Venn diagram to explain climate compatible development is really powerful, but could be refined at least in certain contexts so that the three circles read mitigation, adaptation and transformation – the first two as at present, but the third changed from development. This is because the diagram doesn’t easily capture the key point that climate change and the actions we take will transform the world economy, opening some opportunities and closing others. The example that for me best illustrates this remains the export of some $US 30m of solar panels annually from China to the EU, finding a market niche even though there is relatively little installed solar capacity in China. This needs to be emphasised, partly because of the policy implications, but also because there is a need to see the big picture and anticipate the seismic shocks that are about to change all the rules of the game.

Third, and partly because of the previous point, it is important to balance both macro and micro. It is fine to work on big macro issues (like the fact that Colombia has to grow without emitting more carbon) provided that the implications for poor people are constantly held in mind (‘who gains, who loses?’). Equally, it is fine to work on more micro issues (like adaptation plans for particular communities), provided that the big picture is also considered (how will employment prospects be changed if Colombia can no longer grow on the back of oil and coal exports?).

Fourth, all CCD planning, whether for mitigation, adaptation or transformation, has to be embedded in long-term planning or scenario exercises which are not linked to climate change. Thus, it is impossible to answer the question ‘what will be the impact of climate change on this locality or economy to 2030 or 2050?’ without first answering the question ‘how is this economy or locality likely to change in general by 2030 or 2050?’. I call this ‘hitting a moving target’. CCD planners need to complement other work not substitute for it.

Fifth, it is essential to focus on implementation and results, not just plans. Plans are relatively easy compared to actually getting things done. I talked a lot about results frameworks, delivery units and the politics of implementing cross-sectoral programmes. Examples: Tony Blair’s delivery unit and the contrast between Kennedy (the visionary) and Lyndon Johnson (the President who actually worked Congress and delivered desegregation).

Sixth, successful policy needs successful politics as well as successful economics. There are many examples in the world of climate change policy potentially going backwards (Australia, Germany, in some respects the UK (green levies, wind farms, fracking . . .). Ways out of the cul-de-sac include: relying on administrative action (cf Obama); building alliances via co-benefits (e.g. reducing pollution or congestion); saving money through disaster prevention; focusing on the growth and jobs potential of a green industrial strategy; and taking advantage of new financing options. Building alliances is the key. Peer pressure from other countries often helps.

Seventh, leadership remains a critical ingredient, but has several aspects. First, leaders need to be convinced, in their hearts and souls (ask me about Bill Clinton’s tsunami story). Second, they need to be able to convince their publics (see Drew Westen or Jonathan Haidt. Third, they need to be able to frame and enact policy is stable and long-term. Fourth, they need to be able to deliver (see Kennedy-Johnson above).

Eighth, it follows from all the above, that the forming of strong epistemic communities lies at the cutting edge of climate change action: linking researchers and civil servants, to be sure, but also civil society organisations, political parties of all persuasions, business groups and the media. The think-tank role is essential. The UNESCO-AVINA initiative is a step in this direction.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons, Friends of Europe

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