Are Sector Policies Delivering “Wins” for Climate Change Adaptation, Mitigation and Development?

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Professor, Sustainability Research InstituteUniversity of Leeds
13 July 2018

Effective action on climate change needs us to make sure that the efforts of one group aren’t undermined by those of another. In the policy realm, this means we need policies to work together across different sectors, rather than against one another. We also need to make sure that the steps we take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric CO2 concentrations don’t prevent us from adapting to the climate changes we are already seeing. We need to prevent our policies from locking us in to pathways that undermine our overall development too. Working out how we can achieve these things in a coherent manner across policy sectors presents a substantial governance challenge.  

The idea of “climate compatible development” is one concept that can help us to examine these issues. Climate compatible development aims to sustain inclusive and sustainable economic and social development whilst simultaneously supporting adaptation to climate change impacts and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. It therefore encourages development that reduces damage caused by climate impacts while harnessing human development opportunities offered by a low emissions, more resilient future. It shares conceptual territory with other concepts like green growth and climate resilient development, providing a useful framing for researchers to try to understand where policy approaches complement one another and where they conflict or undermine one another in terms of each of adaptation, mitigation and development.

Research carried out at the University of Leeds through the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, recently published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy, looked at how well policies do across water, agriculture, forestry and energy sectors in pursuing climate compatible development pathways. We focused on ten southern African countries: Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Economies of these countries are heavily natural resource dependent, with millions of people relying on land and ecosystems that are vulnerable to climate change. We used document analysis and adapted a subjective scoring system that has been effectively applied elsewhere in the literature, to identify ‘wins’ and ‘potential regrets’ for the ways in which each of adaptation, mitigation and development is prioritized within the policies of each of the sectors.

Energy policies emerged as very clearly mitigation focused. However, those in our sample prioritized both an increase in fossil fuel energy generation (particularly through use of coal), and renewables, due to the economic development imperative of enhancing the proportion of national populations attached to on-grid electricity. This leads to mitigation regrets (through an increase in CO2 emissions) as well as potential development regrets (e.g. through increased air pollution), decreasing the mean climate compatible development assessment score for the sector. The energy sector also had the lowest number of potentially viable approaches capable of achieving adaptation, mitigation and development.

Forestry policies were also largely mitigation orientated, with priorities such as conservation and restoration of forests and biodiversity, forest surveys and data dissemination, gender sensitive community management of forests and strategies to enhance market access for forest products. These approaches further promote development by strengthening rural and forest-based livelihoods, and are classified as potential double wins with no regrets.

Agriculture policies offered the greatest number of potentially viable approaches capable of achieving all three of the development, adaptation and mitigation aims inherent in climate compatible development, with water policies also heavily oriented towards adaptation. Mitigation wins are less common in water policies, with the most frequently mentioned being hydropower investments.

Overall, we found that the sector policies in our sample only partially support shifts towards climate compatible development, with governments prioritizing approaches that both support and detract from achieving adaptation, mitigation and development.

So, what needs to be done?

If national governments want to deliver triple wins, reduce potential climate and development regrets, and also make progress towards global commitments such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement, focus could usefully be placed on developing more coherent, cross-sector policy approaches that explicitly take into account potential consequences for adaptation, mitigation and development. These approaches often require substantial changes to existing structures and processes, but appear necessary given the findings from our assessment. More research is needed to better understand where wins and regrets sit in the current policy landscape, across other sectors not just natural resource based ones, identifying where the opportunities are for coherence and climate compatible development into the future, as well as to explore the potential magnitude of the adaptation, mitigation and development impacts linked to each kind of approach within the sector policies. Our research has advanced baseline understanding of how different sectors are handling adaptation, mitigation and development. However, further assessments are vital if we are to identify the scope for conflicts and mutual benefits between different sectors for each of the climate compatible development components, and if government policies are to be more appropriately oriented to help protect our future.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.