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Transformational change in climate policy: triumph or travesty?

Written by Lindsey Jones

​We all know that climate policies need to be ambitious in promoting real change. Climate policy circles are awash with talk of ‘transformation’, and for good reason: the size and scale of the climate change challenge is daunting. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on extreme events points out changes in climate ‘can make it difficult for systems to adapt sustainably without transformational changes’. Clearly climate policies need to be wide- and far-reaching. Combine this with how much action is needed to prevent the most serious impacts of climate change (irrespective of whether we reach two or three degrees above pre-industrial levels), and the necessary level of ambition starts to become clear.

So how are developing countries planning for ‘transformation’?

Though many countries have designed national mitigation and adaptation plans, few have actually put them into practice. Fewer still have meaningfully integrated climate-change priorities into wider development policy. Where they have, it has often been through weak efforts to promote ‘mainstreaming’, or small isolated projects. Indeed, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of climate actions fall squarely into the bracket of ‘incremental adaptation’ – small adjustments to preserve or enhance existing infrastructure and institutions.

There are plenty of reasons for this. A lack of climate finance for supporting the range of activities needed to deliver transformational change, and lack of awareness or political apathy amongst key decisionmakers are two key obstacles that immediately spring to mind. Above all however, it boils down to the familiar issues of politics and governance.

So, how is climate change dealt with at the national level? Responsibility for tackling issues of climate change within developing-country governments has for many years typically fallen to Ministries of Environment (or their equivalents). While these might seem the natural fit for a challenge that is primarily about the environment, they are usually weak and lack the power of more influential ministries, such as those responsible for planning and economic development. The result is that, for the most part, climate change has received scant attention within the policy documents that matter most: national development plans and key sectoral strategies.

Ethiopia’s climate strategy bucks the trend.

Ethiopia is in the process of finalising its Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy. The brainchild (and pride) of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the CRGE lays out an ambitious pathway for Ethiopia to achieve carbon-neutral middle-income status by 2025. Notable is the development of a Green Economy strategy and a Climate Resilient strategy in parallel.

A new ODI study points to a few of the enabling factors behind Ethiopia’s pioneering climate agenda.

·       First, the importance of strong ownership and vision from the country’s political leadership – a commitment that few other countries can rival (and due in no small part to Ethiopia’s particular structures of governance).

·       Second, the framing of the strategy has moved past conventional narratives of the necessity for mitigation and adaptation, into taking advantage of the economic and development opportunities from their delivery. The CRGE is pitched heavily towards international climate finance and domestic resources for the promotion of economic (green) growth.

·       Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the involvement of key line ministries. Both the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development and the Environmental Protection Agency (now promoted to Ministerial status) have driven the agenda from the start, with core roles for each relevant Ministry through various planning committees.

Each of these factors has helped to ensure that the CRGE is one of the most far-reaching climate and development plans internationally (see this OECD study for more country lessons learned in the development of similar green growth strategies).

A clear example of transformational climate policy. A triumph, surely?

No, not entirely. Though Ethiopia should be commended for taking the initiative and moving past traditional rhetoric, the case of the CRGE highlights a number of pitfalls. The relatively top-down nature of the design process helped to push forward the agenda, but this sacrificed meaningful bottom-up engagement. Failures and, in some cases, unwillingness to involve wider stakeholders meaningfully in critical stages of the strategy’s hasty development mean local communities’ needs could be misrepresented. Ethiopia’s Green Economy Strategy is a clear example of this. The stategy was pushed through in a short period of time, and was heavily dependent on external consultations; it is unclear how it sits alongside the Government’s 5-year development plan (the Growth and Transformation Plan), and it is largely void of the complex social, cultural and political implications of the main recommendations of the strategy.

The consequences of these are significant. As the label suggests, ‘transformational policy’ results in considerable structural changes to society, creating distinct groups of winners and losers. This creates a particular need to ensure that all views and perspectives are represented, as well as on the implications of reform on cultural institutions and the complex local political economy (for more on the importance of local political economy in the delivery of adaptation see this ODI study). Failure to do so will not only make a travesty of the call for transformational climate policy but also risks promoting maladaptation and undermining the capacity of already vulnerable communities.

What can we learn?

The Ethiopian example provides a number of useful insights into the successes and pitfalls of developing transformational climate policy. It is one of the few developing countries to meaningfully embed climate change into the heart of its development policy. Yet, in many ways this has come at the cost of effective stakeholder engagement and without careful assessment of the  implications on people, culture and society.

Above all, it is essential to remember that not everyone will benefit from transformation to the same extent, indeed some may end up worse. The gains and risks that arise out of transformational climate policy need to be better transferred and shared across society. Examples such as weather-indexed insurance, social protection schemes, and other social safety nets are starting to be considered in the context for climate adaptation and disaster risk management. In the right contexts, many of these mechanisms can help spread the risks of transformational change, but more needs to be done to scale these up.  

The main lesson learned from all of this is that transformation is both essential and inevitable, but our present task is to ensure it does more good than harm.

Now that really would be a triumph.