The political economy of climate change

The political economy of climate change

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Date: 28th September 2011
Author: Simon Maxwell
Type: Feature
Tags: adaptation, climate finance, climate negotiations, UNFCCC

The IDS Bulletin offers an excellent format for pulling together articles on a specialist theme, which are informed by research but accessible to policy-makers. I should know: I edited at least four in a previous life. Of course, special issues of ODI’s Development Policy Review, with which I am also familiar from a previous life, offer the same possibility. It is a pity in both cases when these special issues are treated as just another journal publication. They deserve a higher profile and a longer life.

The IDS Bulletin on the political economy of climate change is a case in point. There are twelve papers here, edited and with an Introduction by Tom Tanner and Jeremy Allouche. Four papers cover the international dimensions, focusing on the Adaptation Fund and the Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience, two of the main vehicles for funding climate-related work on adaptation. Five papers explore country-level climate initiatives, covering Bangladesh, Mozambique, Nepal, Brazil and India. And three papers deal explicitly with the policy process, especially with local voices. Some thirty authors in total have contributed.

The over-arching framework for the volume is rooted in work at IDS on the political economy of process, brought felicitously together with specialist expertise on climate. As Tanner and Allouche set out in the Introduction, the intention is to demonstrate the value of a ‘new political economy approach’ to climate policy: moving away from a technocratic and linear process, operating mostly at national level and with a science-based rationality, towards an understanding which takes account of ideologies and power relations, incorporates the views of local people, and recognises the social construction of dominant scientific and policy narratives.

The joy of the volume is that the analysis is rooted in the theory, but also in careful empirical work, ranging from analysis of international agreements and the constitutions of global funds, to interviews with stake-holders in national policy processes, and action-research with villagers and indigenous peoples. The volume ranges from Klein and Mohner’s meticulous unpacking of what different organisations mean by the term ‘particularly vulnerable’, to Harmeling and Kaloga calculating how much better a country’s chances are of securing funding from the Adaptation Fund if it sits on the Board (about one and a half times better, as it happens), to Guthiga and Newsham reporting on how traditional rain-makers in Western Kenya and professional meteorologists were helped to understand each other and work better together.

Tanner and Allouche focus in their Introduction on the value of the theoretical framework, which is fine. From the perspective of those of us at the interface of research and policy, there are also valuable operational insights.

First, the papers illustrate a well-known tension about whether to operate within the framework of the UNFCCC or to mainstream climate action through other existing institutions. When it comes to climate finance, for example, the choice (actually one choice, because there are others) is between the Adaptation Fund and the PPCR. The former sits within the UNFCCC architecture and is funded partly by a levy on carbon trading. It has a majority of developing country governments on its governing body. The latter is a modality of the Climate Investment Funds, established following a G8 initiative, to help the multilateral development banks mobilise additional resources to ensure their investment portfolios are climate compatible. It is perhaps not surprising that developing country Governments, especially the Environment Ministries which lead at the UNFCCC, show a preference for the Adaptation Fund. Donors, on the other hand, prefer the PPCR, and vote with their feet: the PPCR has received close to a billion dollars in donor funding, the Adaptation Fund only about $US 100m. Will the Green Climate Fund, currently under negotiation, look more like the AF or the PPCR? And which should it look like?

That depends. A second tension running through the papers is about who owns climate planning and implementation at country level. Is it, should it be, the Ministry of Environment, or should climate planning be mainstreamed through the Ministries of Finance and Planning? This tension plays out in many of the countries studied, most clearly perhaps in Bangladesh, where Khurshid Alam and co-authors trace the evolution of the Bangladesh Climate Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) and the disputes over ownership of the climate change trust funds. Again, different perspectives come into play: Ministries of Environment may prefer stand-alone projects, purveying what Alam et al call ‘planning exceptionalism’. Ministries of Finance will want to embed climate in national planning, policy frameworks and expenditure plans. Personally, I’m a development specialist not particularly a climate specialist, and with a background in multi-sectoral planning for food and poverty reduction. That puts me firmly in the Ministry of Finance camp, but I have written about the need for central planning units to adopt a process approach and see themselves as enablers of sectoral ministries rather than command and control organisations operating across Government. Will climate units manage that?

Not on the evidence here. A third tension reported in the papers is between the alleged, and sometimes demonstrated, top-down and technocratic approach of the large donors, especially the World Bank, on the one hand, driven by transformational ambitions, urgency to spend and a results-oriented culture; and, on the other hand, the imperative of country ownership and leadership. The papers provide evidence, for example in Shankland and Chambote’s paper on Mozambique, or Ayers, Kaur and Anderson’s paper on Nepal, that donors tend to trump Governments. Further, the papers show that when this happens, technocratic, engineering solutions to climate change tend to trump community-led projects. Flood defences in Mozambique are a case in point: more money for concrete structures, less for village-level mangrove rehabilitation projects.

The argument is not one-sided, however. The Mozambique case study reports on the donor struggle to secure funding for climate adaptation in Beira, a city held by the opposition, and therefore, it is hinted, denied access to funding by central Government. Country ownership, it seems, sometimes yields perverse results.

A fourth operational issue in the papers is about the exclusion of civil society voices in planning, especially when time pressure is imposed from the outside and when technocratic solutions shape the agenda. The implication is that environment-led processes are more open and consultative; finance-led processes, supported by the MDBs, less so. The mangrove case is only one example of the allegedly sub-optimal outcome. Other examples come from the Brazil case by Shankland and Hasenclever and in the piece by Chinsinga, Mangani and Mvula on Malawi. Participatory planning, surprise, surprise, takes time. It can also lead to changed priorities.

Finally, though, there is reason to hope, since the papers offer practical pathways to better planning. The Brazil case study, for example, describes a programme, interestingly funded by the Packard Foundation, which brought civil society and indigenous organisations together to discuss ‘Socioenvironmental Principles and Criteria for REDD+ projects in the Brazilian Amazon’. The so-called ‘Principles and Criteria’ project is described as having been very successful in shifting the terms of debate and encouraging convergence. Another example is the meteorology project in Kenya. In Malawi, the National Consultative Group (NCG) created a multi-stakeholder dialogue process which had a positive impact on policy-making. Bette process may not upset the power imbalance which characterises international and national-level decision-making; but it can help at least to make different perspectives visible.

I said these issues all had operational significance. They do. Policy-makers are making choices in the climate field, about the architecture of engagement, the management of planning, the allocation of resources, and the locus of accountability. I have written elsewhere about the difficulty of reaching consensus on climate change policy, and about the role of parliaments – and think-tanks – in helping to cut the Gordian knot. It would have been good to see more on that in the IDS Bulletin.

A crude implication of a political economy approach might suggest that policy-makers’ approach to all these choices is pre-determined by positioning and power, by adherence to a particular narrative. This volume makes it possible to reach a more nuanced conclusion: that positioning and power do matter, but that a better understanding of interests and narratives, and a better process for managing disagreement, can lead to a more consensual solution - which also, we can hope, better serves the need for climate compatible development.

This blog originally appeared on Simon Maxwell's website. A full review of the IDS Bulletin will appear in Development Policy Review, Vol.29 Iss.6. November 2011.

Photo: Kathmandu, Nepal,

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