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OPINION: Moving beyond a ‘mitigation first’ approach to development


From 27-29 January, the Development and Mitigation Forum was hosted in Cape Town. The Forum provided a space for climate mitigation and development researchers, practitioners and experts from the developing world to present and discuss their work and experiences on this complex challenge. Emily Tyler, the lead Forum organiser, reflects on how the climate change community can progress from ‘mitigation first’ approaches to development.

When I embarked on the DevMit Forum journey in May last year it was, with the benefit of hindsight, from a mitigation entry point. About half way in, steeped in the logistical nightmare of blindly peer reviewing papers and envisioning the DevMit Cafe, I attended a workshop of the South African National Treasury’s REDI 3×3 research project, focused on inclusive growth and attended by senior South African development experts from across the spectrum. To cut a long story to blog-length, the experience blind-sided me. Firstly by realising afresh that development, or ‘inclusive growth’ as it was phrased in that context, is multi-faceted, attended by numerous disciplines, consisting of many discourses played out in different contexts, and in climate mitigation speak, lacking in silver bullets. Secondly, that neither climate impacts nor mitigation really featured in the discussion, and where they did get air-time, the perspectives were decades out of date.

So, to put it mildly, this got me thinking. If there can be such misunderstanding from both sides (the development and mitigation communities) at a senior meeting of academics and policy-makers in a country that has relevance to the international climate negotiations, then it is no wonder that we are making such grossly inadequate progress. As a mitigation community we have to enquire what the world looks like from the perspective of ‘development’. From this, I introduced the ‘Development Provocateurs’ into the DevMit Forum planning; development experts from various fields whose task it was to comment on our mitigation expert dominated discourse at the Forum. From this vantage point the DevMit programme became increasingly about enabling discussion on development priorities and perspectives. I anticipated that the Provocateur insights would confirm the shift to a development-first approach, and give us insights into our blind-spots and help us to identify productive areas to look for mitigation progress.

But as the Forum progressed over the three days, held by the stocktaking sessions, I realised that I’d underestimated what peppering our cosy climate community with ‘outsiders’ would do! The shift in focus was initially gradual. The sessions where climate was the entry point (NAMAs, climate finance) were feeling static and less productive in contrast to the sessions which had a more general starting point (transport, energy, land-use, development planning).  The latter is where the Forum’s energy appeared to lie, and where momentum built, in the discussions on urban space, political economy, the utility of motor vehicles, how to ensure that the incumbents are part of the future.

However, by the final day the shift, in its final realisation, was not from a mitigation-first to a development-first approach as I had envisaged. Rather I’d propose that the DevMit Forum hinted at a shift even more profound in its implications. From mitigation-first to a ‘multiple benefits’ approach which at its heart frames humankind’s 21st century challenges (including poverty alleviation, inequality reduction and mitigation) in a forward-looking and productive way. The Forum was only able to outline this new discussion indistinctly, a lot of work on articulation is required. For one it needs a better name! We also need to collectively define the ultimate goals of such an approach; interrogating our current understanding of the term ‘development’ and all the baggage which that carries in both the mitigation and ‘development’ communities. So perhaps it’s back to basics: what are we really striving for at a global level? Things like mobility, communication, interconnectedness, creative outlets, equality, comfort and more. And how can we achieve have these in a carbon neutral age?  Through which technologies, economic systems, social and organisational practices, and political processes?

And yet the Forum was also reminded not to throw the mitigation baby out with the DevMit bathwater. We understand from climate science that carbon neutrality by mid century is a necessity to realise any of these human aspirations. In addition, the NAMA and climate finance discussions at the Forum held within them important and hard-won realisations and approaches. It’s just the framing which is not helpful. As a mitigation community our challenge is to bring this knowledge and experience into the broader ‘multiple benefits’ approach in a way which is accessible and can be taken up at all levels and within different knowledge and practice communities. The Development Provocateurs certainly sobered us up as to how poorly we were doing on that front; we are too inward looking, too focused on divvying up the small carbon budget left in 2060 (which at that point will probably be a relatively valueless relic of our past rather than a scarce commodity), we are ignoring people, contexts other than national, and are obsessed with our models of a future which is rapidly reinventing itself in other spheres.

In sum, I experienced three areas of progression at the Forum. The first was one of focus, from co-benefits to ‘multiple benefits’. The second was one of tools, we have some important ones, but we need more in areas where we currently haven’t seriously looked, mostly dealing with time frames and uncertainty (e.g. options analysis, backcasting). And perhaps most importantly, the third was one of communities of practice. The mitigation expert community needs to move from being internally focused, to playing a small but important role amongst many diverse communities, both expert and grassroots, in building a better future.

As a mitigation expert community we have a long journey ahead of us, to take what this Forum (and others like it elsewhere) has suggested and to explore it, interrogate it, define it, embed it and act on it by extending our connections and networks. As a starting point I’d like to attend (note, not host!) another Forum, one which takes the final DevMit Forum Provocateur panel discussion session as its starting point. And we all need to go openly, and roll up our sleeves.

Emily Tyler is an independent consultant focusing on carbon policy in South Africa and the programmatic carbon finance mechanism, particularly its application to sustainable development. The Forum was supported by the Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios (MAPS) Programme and co-hosted by the Energy Research Centre (University of Cape Town) and the Policy Research Centre (New Delhi, India)

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