Developing countries exploring pathways to climate compatibility

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A developmental approach to mitigation

The challenge of development and climate

The challenge at the heart of the Development and Mitigation (Devmit) Forum is about the relationship between development and climate – how to improve our understanding and change our practice.  Next week we seek to theorise more fully the relationship between development and climate through a conversation between development and climate discourses and through engagement between two communities of practice, work towards new solutions.

The current reality of climate change is one of inadequate and fragmented action. That is starkly at odds with the required future, which has to involve massive redirection of the entire economy.  How do we get from where we are heading to where we need to go?  It requires a developmental approach to climate change.

Climate change is a socio-economic challenge, in that it is connected to development paths. It is development that drives greenhouse gas emissions, not vice versa. Climate change in turn has the potential to undermine the prospects of development – by virtually any definition of what development or human well-being means. The development community has arguably not yet fully realised the potential of the latter threat.

The climate community has understood that differences in emissions of alternative development paths matter at least as much as, probably more than, emission reductions due to climate policy. Yet it has not fully integrated development as a goal into its understanding and analysis. We need a developmental approach that addresses not only niche low emissions technologies and systems (wonderful as these are), but even more so the high-emissions parts of ‘development’.  We have started the analysis of the socio-economic impacts of mitigation. A more developmental approach needs to analyse and enable development paths that are different. Such an approach will set development and the policy goals, and explore differences, including in GHG emissions.

Political economy of a developmental approach

A “developmental approach” is easily said. But it needs to address policy questions that are rather different from the traditional ones raised in climate policy.  The questions we need to address include:

  • Can extreme poverty and hunger be eradicated without increasing GHG emissions?
  • Can middle-income households shift to consumptions patterns of high-income households without an effect on emissions? Are such aspirations compatible with a carbon-constrained future world?
  • To what extent are GHG emissions a problem of consumption – and who are the consumers?  If it is the affluent part of the population, how might they change to a more low-carbon pattern?

Responses to such questions clearly involve political economy. And the pedagogy that I think will be more effective is one that iterates between theory and action.

Pedagogy of action-reflection-action

Such a pedagogy can draw on many theorists, but for me, Paolo Freire stands out with his Pedagogy of the oppressed. Grossly simplifying, Freire suggests an iteration between action, reflection and (improved) action. Applied in this space, a conceptual approach should start from development goals, reflect on development pathways from a climate perspective, in order to change the action – possibly the quality of development. Reconsidering development by reflecting on climate should make us reexamine development goals, more than pursuing climate goals. That may be a sound basis for ‘mainstreaming’ mitigation into development planning and implementation.

Levers for change

If a developmental approach is not to be purely theoretical, it will need to identify if and how development paths can be changed. This is a question of complexity and systemic change. To make a difference, we need to consider the levers to change development paths.

How might a development path be changed? Even more fundamentally, can we change development paths? Probably not, at least not in the sense of any agent (even a “country”) taking a single decision. Changing development paths is by its nature complex, and needs an understanding of how complex systems change. Indeed, how a variety of complex systems – the economy, society, the climate, to name just three – interact.

So the levers of change we have focused on, including policy, investment and technology, will remain critical factors. But they are not likely to be enough on their own. We need to think about major changes in economic structure and behaviour required.  Analytically, we need to integrate structural change better in mathematical models, but also in improved analysis of behavioural change.

We need to rethink the quality of development.  Which suggests a debate about development and its nature. The obsession of the existing economic order (and much climate analysis) is with economic growth and development. We need to understand the composition of an economy, not just its size; the distribution issues of who benefits, and what constitutes well-being – consumption of material goods or other aspects – ‘bien vivir’.  In a developing country context, ‘development’ is focused on providing basic needs, whereas in developed countries it may be about sustaining quality of life. In developed countries, it may mean dealing with ageing populations, or the effects of overconsumption.

What are the levers of change to address developmental problems such as public debt and growing inequality? Can those be applied in a way that rapidly eradicates fossil dependency from the economy, that reduces both poverty and emissions?

Here a return to systems thinking seems appropriate.  We need to think about goals, mindsets, paradigm shifts, rules, and the power of information in self-organising systems. Development paths are the function of many decisions by multiple agents, across many sectors, with some cross-cutting policies, and not necessarily under the control of anyone. We clearly need to address not only patterns of production, but also consumption – who  consumes, and to what degree (sustainably or overconsumption that is good neither for the individual, the society, nor the planet. Addressing the consumption patterns in developed countries, but also more generally for the emerging middle class across all countries, is crucial. It will require, in policy terms, a new social contract

Social contract

What we need is a social contract. The poor need to be lifted out of poverty, with little increase in emissions. The rich need to actually use less. Middle classes need to change aspirations.

Changing mindsets are needed to support such a social contract. Such a contract will require the rich to pay for mitigation, use less, and assist the poor – which does not imply significant increase in emissions; and change aspirations of the middle class. All should aim to live well, rather than with more.  Clearly such a social contract will require time-scales beyond short-term political terms or economic interests, and longer-term thinking.

Concluding thoughts

If we can take steps in these directions in the DevMit Forum, we will make a difference in addressing the interdependent challenges of development and climate. Not for the sake of understanding, but understanding to inform our role as change agents, and to enable a new social contact capable of solving ‘wicked problems’ of development and climate.

Professor Harald Winkler is Director of the Energy Research centre at the University of Cape Town.

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