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Climate mitigation policy in a development context: How do we do what we do?

201507-09

By Emily Tyler, Energy Research Centre South Africa

Emily is presenting a poster on Friday 10th at 11:00 and 13:30 at UNESCO.

The positioning of climate mitigation as separate to development issues, and isolated in environmental departments, may lead to its implications for development and economic policy being misunderstood or side-lined by economic policy makers and development practitioners.  

I have worked on various aspects of climate mitigation policy in South Africa for over a decade, but it was only in early 2014 that I became aware that the climate mitigation policy community of practice, (of which I am a part) is dominated by particular approaches and that these approaches have limitations.   

On reflection, this is a fairly shocking admission! And yet I observe that, as a community of practice, we have a way to go to collectively acknowledge this, and to explore what it may mean for both what we do, and how we do it.  

The 2014 MAPS Programme Forum on Development and Mitigation opened up our community of experts on climate mitigation in developing countries to critique by ‘development provocateurs’ -- a group of South African experts and practitioners working on various development issues such as poverty, unemployment, trade, finance, and transport.  

Their reflections highlighted that our approach is one of an applied science; that mitigation enters the domestic policy environment from an international and environmental perspective, and that it is conceived as an issue separate to that of ‘development’ or even ‘sustainable development’.  

In a series of conversations between South African climate mitigation researchers and our ‘development’ counterparts hosted by MAPS later that year, these findings were confirmed.  The conversations also revealed the South African development context to be highly complex, interconnected, often counter-intuitive, irrational and messy.  

Beyond introducing a healthy dose of academic reflexivity, these experiences led me to question whether we, as the climate mitigation policy community working in developing countries, have stopped to consider what the salient aspects of the ‘development’ context we purport to work with are, and even whether (perhaps paradoxically) development or sustainable development are relevant entry points to advancing our agenda?   

I explore these questions in my paper entitled ‘Climate mitigation policy in a development context: how do we do what we do?  The paper notes that the internationally originated concepts of the Clean Development Mechanism, Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions and Low Carbon Development Strategies do not necessarily fit well with how transformational change occurs in a development context.  

The positioning of climate mitigation as separate to development issues, and isolated in environmental departments, may lead to its implications for development and economic policy being misunderstood or side-lined by economic policy makers and development practitioners.  

Our tendency as a community of practice towards tools and methods of the natural sciences means that we underplay political, economic and societal aspects to the low carbon transformation we seek.   

The paper further finds that the constant political dominance of the economic pillar of sustainable development over the social and environmental pillars renders sustainable development potentially unhelpful as a theoretical underpinning of domestic mitigation policy in developing countries.   

This is exacerbated by the ambiguity of the mitigation community to the role of economic growth. It may be that the development context of constrained capacity and irrationality may be more relevant than the presence of developmental objectives in guiding how we advance domestic climate mitigation policy in a developing country.  The paper argues that we do not explicitly acknowledge this, nor adapt our approach appropriately.

Take for example, a brief case study of the South African Long Term Mitigation Scenarios process of 2006-8, when climate mitigation first entered the country’s formal policy agenda.  The approaches that dominated how climate mitigation was placed on the South African policy agenda may not be sufficient to enable successful implementation. Focusing on issues of political economy and implementation capacity may now be productive.   

If the development context is irrational, complex and interconnected, and the current approaches of the mitigation community of practice tend towards the rational and evidence-based, perhaps we need to be exploring additional theoretical and practical approaches to domestic climate mitigation in developing countries. 

Emily is a climate policy specialist based in South Africa who focuses on mitigation policy in developing country contexts as part of the MAPS Programme.

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