Developing countries exploring pathways to climate compatibility


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

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’.

These findings were confirmed in a series of conversations between South African climate mitigation researchers and our ‘development’ counterparts  hosted by MAPS later that year. 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, political economy 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. 

To illustrate the discussion, 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, is included. The case reveals that the approaches that dominated how climate mitigation was placed on the South African policy agenda may not be sufficient to enable successful implementation, and that focusing on issues of political economy and implementation capacity may now be productive.  

The paper concludes by suggesting that 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.  

Bio: Emily is a climate policy specialist based in South Africa who focuses on mitigation policy in developing country contexts. View Emily’s website here 

1 Comment, post your comment ...

  1. Emily Tyler’s blog on Climate mitigation policy in a development context: How we do what we do? makes interesting reading. She argues that we, the mitigation community of practice, are insufficiently aware of how disconnected we are from development, coming from an international environmental perspective. I’d agree only partly.

    The blog argues that “we do not explicitly acknowledge [our disconnect from development], nor adapt our approach appropriately.” My sense is the problem is acknowledged, the challenge is to adapt the approach. Emily suggests “exploring additional theoretical and practical approaches”, I’d suggest framing that as moving from theory into practice.

    The mitigation community has long considered the link to development. The connections were outlined in the Third Assessment Report in 2001, eloquently in chapter 1. And AR4 integrated sustainable development throughout the 2007 assessment. Perhaps this is theoretical, and one may also argue that things went slightly backwards in AR5, with a discourse dominated by (Northern) economists. There’s a long literature, which I won’t cite in a blog. My point is that there is an extensive and long-standing literature on development and mitigation that has been assessed for well over a decade.

    The challenge is to move deeper into practice. Or to misquote a famous German political economist, “The mitigation thinkers have only interpreted the development world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

    I’d entirely agree with Emily that we have not sufficiently made the case that addressing mitigation is compatible with addressing poverty and inequality. This has been pointed out to us for some time now.

    Tyler’s blog rightly points out the provenance of mitigation, that it has entred “the domestic policy environment from an international and environmental perspective”. Not much to be done about history, though it is worth pointing out that climate change is now widely considered, both in the IPCC’s assessment and the negotiations centered in the UNFCCC, as an economic issue. Not sufficiently social? I’d tend to agree.

    There is a suggestion that we use tools of natural science. That would be true for physical science of CC, or even adaptation – but not for the mitigation community. Perhaps what Tyler means is the tendency to quantitative, economic approaches, e.g. energy and economic modeling. Certainly would do well to broaden our range of tools, to political economy and other approaches that she suggests.

    An interesting thought is that 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.” In modeling terms, it seems that multiple objectives are crucial in supporting analytically the shift in mind-set that the blog is driving at. When one considers how modeled scenarios might actually happen in the ‘real economy’, or by whom they may be blocked, then the constraints are perhaps more relevant. Overall, it’s a probably both/and issue, rather than an either / or choice.

    Karen O’Brien put it well in a keynote speech at the Paris Science Conference in July. We have tended to address questions as technical problems, that can be diagnosed and solved by improving established knowledge, know-how and expertise. Adaptive challenges, she argued, call for addressing beliefs, values and world-views (both individual and shared). We have made progress in the MAPS community in going beyond the technical, with the co-production of knowledge by stakeholders addressing interests and values. Certainly we can go further, and I’d argue that since the LTMS (in 2007), which was climate-first adding on some economic modeling, to significantly fuller analysis. The process approach is well-suited to adaptive management. Certainly there is more to learn – as we dive deeper into development.

    But then it is hard to under that Emily questions “whether (perhaps paradoxically) development or sustainable development are relevant entry points to advancing our agenda?” My sense is that we need to dive deeper into development practice, simply acknowledging where we come from – that mitigation researchers are not development practitioners (though some of us have been worked on ‘development’ in the past, and may move between communities).

    We cannot wait to resolve the problems theoretically. The approach must be continuous cycle of action-reflection-action, as Paolo Freire outline in his brilliant Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The integration of theory and practice – praxis. Implementing SD-PAMs (long written about), NAMAs or PAMAs, while continuing the conversation with the development community. Sure it’s complex, but the climate is already changing. Transformative change is needed (being careful to think about who determines transformational change ), but it needs to start urgently, really yesteryear.

    Is that simple? No, it’s highly complex. Oliver Wendell Holmes captured more eloquently than I can a personal response to complex challenges: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

    Comment by Harald Winkler — 17th Jul 2015 @ 07:58

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