The DevMit Forum, held in January 2014, brought a group of nine brave South African ‘development provocateurs’ into an academic conference of the international climate change mitigation community working in developing countries. The results of this experiment were somewhat uncomfortable, but simultaneously energising. The provocateurs held up a mirror to the climate mitigation community, showing us up as a fairly inward-looking bunch, who rely heavily on the data, models, rationality and linearity of science. Whilst this has enabled us to make not-insignificant progress in our field, the challenge is such that much more progress is required, ever faster and ever deeper. I heard the provocateurs suggesting that development was a messy, multi-faceted affair, which didn’t fit neatly into linear models or nicely contained terms like ‘Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions’. I also heard a murmuring that we might need to look beyond a discourse dominated by materialism and determinism in order to achieve the pace of change needed.
The MAPS Programme has since undertaken a series of DevMit Conversations during the course of 2014 to explore these suggestions a little further. Each two hour Conversation has involved up to three external experts from a particular field (usually one practitioner and one academic), three MAPS International climate mitigation researchers, and a facilitator. The series has covered Cities, Adaptation, Consumption, Employment, Finance and Poverty, with Economic growth and Transport still to come. Discussion is prompted by a brief outline of the intention to explore both the theme itself, and the space between the theme and climate mitigation, and some starter questions. Naturally, the Conversations have been steeped in their South African context, and context revealed itself as being fundamental to the discussions.
Whilst the discussions have been wide-ranging and very different from each other, some key themes do seem to be emerging. First and foremost, I’ve been struck by the complexity of this ‘developing country system’ we are trying to influence; complex and dysfunctional, although that might be a particularly contemporary South African perspective. There is no clear preferred development path. There is actually little that is clear. There are lots of experiments, wide-ranging failure, and pockets of success. There is a lot of interconnectedness, many moving parts. There is little rationality, things happen and we seldom understand why. This system is very human, very spatial, very messy, highly irrational, and struggling with a serious dearth of capacity and skills.
What is clear, is that there are few neat answers and solutions to the ‘development’ challenge, a challenge that is textured and multi-layered. Often the groups were not on the same page in our discussions: what exactly does development mean anyway? Sometimes it felt like the climate mitigation space we inhabit is situated on another planet, at other times it felt like we were one big ‘development’ community grappling with exactly the same issues. I was surprised to learn that in some cases climate mitigation was seen as a possible solution to development issues where no others were to be found. I’m debating whether the recent ‘development-first’ approach to climate mitigation is perhaps not yet the right framing, and that we should rather be considering ways and areas where low carbon perspectives can in and of themselves enable development, as the system evolves?
Mitigating climate change requires the stringent application of a carbon budget over decades, whilst climate impacts will escalate over a similar timescale. So as a climate community we work with the very long term, and the issue of timeframes is a core aspect of our work. This issue was conspicuously absent from the Conversations, the development perspective seems to be steeped in the present. But I wonder whether there isn’t actually more alignment here than first meets the eye? South Africa is making infrastructure investment decisions, and its Cities are absorbing a pace of urbanisation over the next decade, the form of which will significantly determine our economy and society’s emissions profile for decades to come. So perhaps climate’s ‘long term’ is actually a lot more embedded in the present than the current focus of our work suggests.
During the Conversations we received feedback on how we as a climate mitigation community are perceived, sometimes invited, other times not! Significantly, we are not being understood. We heard that we talk a different, acronym-filled language. We were also criticized for being naïve about the complexity of development challenges, and arrogant in our dealings with other experts. However in one Conversation we self-reflected that as a climate mitigation community of practice we have had to make a case for our cause and defend this against an active and ‘vicious’ campaign against us, which possibly accounts for some of the focus and arrogance. We are relatively unique in this amongst development fields, although perhaps a parallel could be drawn with those working on the HIV AIDs epidemic in South Africa under the Mbeki administration. What does this history mean for how we do what we do? And is there room to breathe out a little going forward?
Amongst many questions raised by the Conversations, I’m left wondering how as a climate mitigation community of practice we can continue to go deep, to work on issues such as timeframes, and advocate more stringent emissions cuts, but also to start going broad. Climate mitigation, or a low emissions profile is a non-negotiable aspect of a well-functioning society. How do we communicate and embed this across all the many decisions and leverage points of the complex, evolving system that is the developing country of South Africa? How can this be done similarly in other development contexts?
Finally, a pause to reflect on what these questions bring to the MAPS Programme. In some MAPS countries we are moving towards dealing with the very long term. In others such as the MAPS Africa countries we are just beginning a process of planning for a future low carbon economy and society. We are simultaneously looking at how we can leverage the southern-based network and community we have developed over the years. It may be useful to consider where should MAPS be in terms of deep vs broad, and the Programme’s particular role in inserting low emissions as a non-negotiable aspect of a well-functioning society.
Bio: Emily Tyler is a climate policy specialist based in South Africa who focuses on mitigation policy in developing country contexts. View Emily’s website here