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OPINION: Climate change – time for development (studies) to lead the charge

CDKN’s Executive Chair Simon Maxwell shares his outlook on the pivotal role of development studies in taking forward meaningful action on climate change.

Paris is a success

Now that the Paris deal has been done, it is time to take a day or two off to celebrate – then get back to work. And as momentum builds, development studies needs to lead the charge.

Paris has landed more or less where expected (see my pre-Paris piece in Devex on this): not enough on its own to end climate change, but a strong signal, probably stronger than expected, and a good start. Those who have worked on climate change for years are unsurprisingly euphoric. They have secured a global agreement, with an ambitious long-term goal, universal commitments, regular review, and a raft of necessary instruments, including finance for both mitigation and adaptation. Further, the participation and commitments of many non-state actors in Paris, including cities and the private sector, augurs well for rapid technical and institutional innovation, and thus over-delivery on the agreed targets. The emission curve may have begun to bend, and will bend further.

We needed the Paris agreement, which is why I spent much of the Conference tweeting with the hashtag #justgetitdone. As my Devex piece observed:

‘In the end, the diplomatic process has fulfilled its principal function, bringing all countries together in shared recognition that ‘something must be done’. . . . (The) process has created a platform and incentivised change in the real world. That is a real success.’

Unresolved problems

Amid the celebrations, it is pertinent to recognise the magnitude of the task ahead.

Why is this? Not because of any disagreement over ends. The adoption of the SDGs and the finalisation of the COP together highlight the urgency of a new approach and open a new chapter for climate compatible development. Achieving the SDGs will require close integration of poverty, environmental and social action, well captured by the idea of ‘zero-zero’: zero poverty by 2030 and zero net emissions of CO2 by about 2065. ‘Deep decarbonisation’ will be required in all countries and all sectors. Furthermore, whatever the pace of change with respect to emissions, current warming will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. That means resilience, disaster risk management and social protection will grow in importance.

Thus, the Paris agreement is a necessary milestone, and it is right to celebrate success.

The unresolved problems lie elsewhere. There are four main issues.

First, for all the fanfare, the Paris agreement is alarmingly modest. Adding up all the national commitments, the INDCs, shows that the world has so far formally committed to only 25% of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to achieve 2 degrees, let alone 1.5. The UNEP Emissions Gap Report makes the point with chilling clarity. I have summarised the main conclusions in a previous piece. I was careful then not to draw too many conclusions, but it is clear that some countries have done their share and many have not. The Climate Action Tracker names and hopefully shames.

Second, the implications of current commitments are truly terrifying – only a two thirds chance of holding warming to between 3 and 3.5 degrees. At this level of warming, sea levels rise by up to 10 m, heat stress has a major impact on crop yields and human health, and extreme weather events become commonplace. There is a high probability of triggering systemic tipping points. It is not surprising that scientists continue to warn that much more needs to be done in the future. One blogger described the emotional turmoil of trying to balance optimism and pessimism.

Third, there are questions about the additionality of non-state action. There is a relentlessly positive narrative about Paris which is that non-state actors, mainly cities and businesses, will ramp up their actions so as to deliver major additional cuts in emissions. There were astonishing numbers of events and announcements in Paris, including big contributions to renewable energy in general, for example the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, supported by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, among others; and the roll-out of solar in particular, including the solar initiative launched by Narendra Modi from India. But how many of these are already ‘priced into’ INDCs?

Fourth, even if there are major new commitments, which there will be – because Paris is indeed the departure station, not the arrival station – and even if, let us say when, a robust review process leads to more ambitious targets in the future, we are left with the question of who gains and who loses, whose interests dominate, and how the major transformations implied by zero-zero will be handled.

It is worth remembering in this context that new approaches and trajectories need to be integrated into the transformations that accompany development, with or without climate change: changing demographics, urbanisation, inter-sectoral shifts, integration into the world economy, and the management of financial and trade shocks. Some see complementarities, pointing to the win-win benefits of combining climate action with poverty reduction. ODI’s zero-zero work emphasises this point, making use of analysis on the new climate economy by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. There is emphasis in this work also on co-benefits like reduced air pollution. But is it not reasonable to ask how we are going to handle the disruption that lies ahead, and the political problems likely to be associated with what Schumpeter calls ‘creative destruction’. I made this point in my review of the new climate economics report.

The case of the private sector

An illustration of the need for a balanced approach is what seemed to be an unquestioning acceptance in Paris of the role of the private sector – and I write his as someone who has been (and is) an enthusiast for the contribution that the private sector can make to poverty reduction. For example, read my review of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, disagreeing with her proposition that the way to frame the issue is in terms of a stark contradiction: capitalism versus the climate.

Naomi Klein is forcefully critical of approaches which rely on the profit motive to save the planet, and especially scathing about the enthusiasm for new technological magic bullets. She is far from alone in making these points, in general and in particular places (for example, Hilton Trollip gave a good presentation at the Development and Climate Days on the political economy of energy reform in South Africa). See also the nine ‘theses’ criticizing the green economy, published by the Heinrich Boll Foundation.

My disagreement with Naomi Klein rested on three propositions: that sometimes business does try to be good; that the private sector does respond to regulations and incentives; and that Governments are more able than Naomi Klein allows to make rules and set incentives. It would have been good in Paris to hear more about the rules and incentives, alongside the oratorical flights and the new commitments. Fair trade anyone? A new fair trade climate standard was launched in Paris.

The challenges ahead

I guess what this amounts to is that I am pleased to see progress in Paris and excited about the opportunities ahead, but also somewhat nervous about the win-win narrative. We have just published a CDKN book on mainstreaming climate compatible development. This is what I wrote in the Preface:

‘No-one should pretend . . .  that achieving climate compatible development will be friction free. We have seen that there are inevitably choices to make, trade-offs to consider and political battles to win. There are also leadership and management challenges aplenty as finance is raised and programmes scaled up. . . Leaders know that ‘Business As Usual’ will not be enough to deliver climate compatible development. Do they sufficiently understand how different ‘Business Unusual’ is likely to be?’

If I think about the main challenges ahead, the key issue is mainstreaming. Every country will need to mainstream climate compatible development. Deep decarbonisation and resilience will need to be central to development thinking and planning in all countries. The model of climate compatible development, which includes mitigation and adaptation, but also cognisance of what is happening in the world economy, will be an essential tool.

Practically, there will be many specifics. From a longer list, we might think of the following priorities:

  1. Delivering sustainable energy and energy services at scale.
  2. Building sustainable cities in an urbanising world.
  3. Decarbonisation of agriculture.
  4. Industrial policy, and especially the implications of climate action for competitiveness.
  5. Leveraging private sector engagement in ways consistent with poverty reduction and sustainable development (including through regulatory re-engineering).
  6. Linking resilience and social protection.
  7. Green fiscal policy, with important links to public expenditure management and tax structures.
  8. Follow up on INDCs after Paris, supporting negotiators with a stream of work on the emissions gap, MRV, and related issues, including IAMs. Additional work is also needed on capacity and on the art form of negotiation.
  9. Parliamentary and legislative processes, including working with think tanks.
  10. Building the capacity of knowledge brokers.
  11. Further work on climate finance and the simplification of the financial architecture.

Central to this whole agenda is managing the politics: balancing winners and losers, managing trade-offs, and dealing with the vested interests. See my piece Winning the Argument on Climate Change. There will also be huge challenges associated with scaling up and long-term implementation. The CDKN book has chapters on those issues.

This is a development agenda

The agenda can be presented as a climate agenda, but what is really striking, especially if the conversation veers to mainstreaming, is that this is also a development agenda, one with which development studies is entirely familiar. There is not an issue here, in Bangladesh, Burundi or Bolivia, which is not well known. There are large literatures on each, active debates, and deep reservoirs of expertise. Speaking in Paris, at the final plenary of the Development and Climate Days, I said that development studies needed to get back in the saddle and really own the climate change agenda.

Some will say it does already. I certainly recognise much good work on climate in development studies institutions, as well as in development agencies like the World Bank – Stephane Hallegatte, for example, made an excellent presentation on behalf of the World Bank at the Climate and Development Days, introducing the report ‘Shock Waves: Managing the Impact of Climate Change on Poverty’. Over in Le Bourget, there were stands run by development centres like the German Development Institute. ODI has a strong climate programme (and Ilmi Granoff was just one of those helping lead discussion at the D and C days). IDS, too, has work on climate and development, including the politics of green transformations. IIED was strongly present at the Development and Climate Days, including with work on climate change and social protection. There were events across Paris in which development strands could be discerned, including the launch of a new book summarising the work of the MAPS project on mitigation scenarios.

However, I am always surprised by how few pure development people I actually see at climate meetings. Perhaps it is not surprising that climate people should be prominent at climate meetings like those in Paris. But events like the Development and Climate Days serve to underline the need for greater integration.

The adoption of the SDGs makes integration imperative. The two key features of the agenda are that it links the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental) and that it is universal, applying to all countries. Exactly these attributes characterise the Paris agreement. Solving the SDG puzzle, however, is a ‘wicked problem’, even a ‘super-wicked problem’ – and who knew this, a Google search yields 49,300 hits for the combination super-wicked problem and climate change, nearly 17,000 of these on Google Scholar.

Anyway, a wicked problem has these characteristics, listed by the Australian Public Service Commission (and thanks to Chris Riedy for the link). If this does not sound like the core business of development planning and development studies, what does?

·         Wicked problems are difficult to clearly define – different stakeholders have different views of what the problem is and appropriate responses·         Wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal – there may be conflicting goals for those involved·         Attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences – wicked problems exist in complex systems that exhibit unpredictable, emergent behaviour·         Wicked problems are often not stable – understanding of the problem is constantly evolving

·         Wicked problems usually have no clear solution – there is no right or wrong response, although there might be worse or better responses

·         Wicked problems are socially complex – it is social complexity, rather than technical complexity, that is overwhelming

·         Wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation – these problems cross governance boundaries

·         Wicked problems involve changing behaviour – with all the difficulties that poses

·         Some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure – they have become intractable, despite numerous attempts at solutions.




A call to action

This, then, is the call to action for development studies:

  • To recognise the challenge and opportunities created by the adoption of the SDG and climate agendas;
  • To make sure that climate change is mainstreamed in all our work;
  • To make sure our values are transmitted to the climate community – especially trust-building, dialogue, independence, sharing, and a commitment to praxis.
  • To proselytise on behalf of our methods, including especially multi-disciplinarity, ranging across issues, and from macro to micro;
  • To be present in the climate debate, making the link between the ‘new’ climate issues and the existing bodies of knowledge we have accumulated; and
  • To engage on the ground at country and local level, to help make sure that climate change mainstreaming adheres to the development principles we have worked on for decades and contributes fully to the achievement of the SDGs.



Image: close of COP21, credit UNFCCC.


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