Hidden handbrakes – what’s holding back climate action?: Make Change Happen podcast episode 25

In this first Make Change Happen episode of 2024, Tom Mitchell and Sejal Patel unpack what we mean by ‘hidden handbrakes’ to climate action, helped by contributions from Megan Rowling, David Shukman and Achala Abeysinghe.

Article, 31 January 2024


In IIED’s ‘Make Change Happen’ podcasts, our researchers and guests discuss key global development challenges and explain what we are doing to support positive change.  

This episode is a conversation between Tom Mitchell, executive director of IIED, and Sejal Patel, a senior researcher in IIED focusing on climate finance and climate-resilient development. The episode also has vital contributions from three climate and environment specialists: Megan Rowling and David Shukman, both highly regarded journalists, and Achala Abeysinghe, regional director and head of programmes at the Global Green Growth Institute. 

Despite global efforts to tackle the impacts of climate change, we are failing to achieve critical climate objectives. IIED’s hidden handbrake campaign aims to reveal and explain the bureaucratic, political, legal and practical barriers to countries taking effective action in response to climate change.  

Progress on mitigation and adaptation measures and anticipatory actions to reduce the potential of loss and damage is drastically slowed where these barriers exist. They must be brought out into the open, challenged and removed.

Invisible obstacles to climate action 

In this episode, we invited climate experts to share their perspectives on the hidden handbrakes: 

  • Megan Rowling urges difficult questions to be asked of governments and the critical need for action to be considered an issue more important than short-term political gain.  
  • David Shukman highlights the many ‘enablers’ working with oil and gas companies: the law firms, marketing and advertising companies, management consultancies and accountants. While they may think they are working to achieve a net zero target, are they asking whether carbon emissions are actually being reduced? 
  • Achala Abeysinghe cites what she sees as a critical hidden handbrake to climate action: the lack of a pipeline of scalable and bankable projects. As part of fulfilling their commitment to the Paris Agreement all countries must produce nationally determined contributions and national adaptation plans against which progress can be assessed. But are countries thinking enough about how to shape these plans so that they can be funded? 

IIED’s Tom Mitchell and Sejal Patel reflect on all these points and more during their conversation.  

Investor-state dispute settlements, for example, between private companies and national governments, are backed by international treaties. These cases penalise countries wanting to take action to phase out fossil fuels and switch to more sustainable energy supplies. Billions of dollars are awarded to fossil fuel investors when positive climate action damages fossil fuel asset values.  

Or the clash of objectives between schemes whereby indebted countries can suspend payments to invest public money in rebuilding their societies after the COVID-19 pandemic, only to find that by doing this, their credit rating plunges and they become too much of a risk for future investors. 

As Patel points out, there are countries challenging these barriers: she tells us about her work with the Malawian government which is taking a ‘business-unusual’ approach to getting climate finance to the levels were it can be spent effectively, defying current systems and doing things in different way. 

But there are still many ambitious climate initiatives being held back. IIED wants to shed light on the reasons this is happening. Mitchell, at the end of the conversation, encourages listeners to consider what they can do, how their work can contribute to this campaign and to join IIED and others in making sure these ‘handbrakes’ are no longer hidden, so that they can be challenged and changed. 

Please get in touch and become part of our hidden handbrakes campaign!


Headshot of Sejal Patel.

Sejal Patel is a senior researcher in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets and Climate Change research groups

Headshot of Tom Mitchell.

Tom Mitchell is IIED's executive director

How to listen and subscribe

The ‘Make Change Happen’ podcast provides informal insights into IIED’s work to create positive change and make the complex issues we face more accessible to wider audiences. The title refers to IIED’s 2019-2024 strategy, which sets out how IIED plans to respond to the critical challenges of our time.


Listen to this podcast on IIED's Youtube channel.

You can follow some of the people you have heard in this episode on Twitter at @tommitchelliied, @sejipatel, @meganrowling, @DavidShukman, and @AchalaC. Follow the podcast on @IIED_Voices for all the latest updates.