Least developed countries lead on low-carbon resilience

Some of the least developed countries are at the forefront of an approach that combines efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to climate change and achieve economic and social development.

Susannah Fisher's picture
Insight by 
Susannah Fisher
16 October 2013
Children go to school on boat in flood-prone Bangladesh. Photo: G.M.B Akash/Panos

Children go to school on boat in flood-prone Bangladesh. Photo: G.M.B Akash/Panos

As the world waited for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to release its latest report last month, the climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern emphasized that: "It cannot be a case of either achieving growth or tackling global warming. It must be both."

In rejecting a trade-off between addressing climate change and securing growth and development, Stern supports a low-carbon resilient development approach, which brings together three traditionally separate goals: the reduction of climate change emissions (climate change mitigation), adaptation to the effects caused by climate change and economic and social development.

This approach has been pioneered by nine of the least developed countries (LDCs) — Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Laos, Mozambique, Nepal and Rwanda — over the past four years. These 'early adopters' offer important insights into how low-carbon resilient development works in practice, providing lessons for other countries that may develop such strategies in the future.

This is something I have been looking at  through IIED's work on Drivers for low carbon resilient development, whose first findings we have just published.

The assumption that drives low carbon resilient development is that addressing two or three policy areas together can produce successes across the three agendas and be more cost effective.

However, efficiency is just part of the approach’s appeal. The LDCs value low-carbon resilient development for many other socio-economic and political reasons, including the way they can use it as a moral weight in encouraging developed nations to curb their own emissions. It bolsters the approach of the LDC group at the international level to move from following other countries to asking other countries to "follow us".

Adopting different approaches

Countries have treated low-carbon strategies and resilience in different ways. For example, in Bangladesh they are separate policy areas; in Ethiopia and Rwanda they have been brought into one overarching policy framework.

There are different options available for bringing policy areas together or finding synergies between them:

  • One single policy. For example, a policy to build new schools on boats using decentralised, renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, could bring about benefits in all three areas. This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and help communities to not only adapt to more severe weather patterns, floods and rising water levels, but also develop through their increased access to education.
  • An overarching policy objective within which different policies in each of the three areas help a country or community become more low carbon resilient. For example a national policy objective of low carbon resilient development that is achieved through a policy on low carbon agriculture in one ministry, resilient housing in another and development policies on education and health.
  • Establishing a special climate change fund or financial mechanism that supports all these policy areas. Departments or other actors can usually apply for funding for a specific programme or intervention that addresses one or more of the policy objectives, but this does not necessarily imply links in implementing the policies beyond a general political will to support all three goals.

It is not yet clear, however, how these different approaches affect the extent to which governments can meet goals to develop, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience to climate change. This is a crucial issue, but one which policymakers tend to overlook in their enthusiasm to bring the three agendas together.

Trade-offs and costs

Everyone involved in planning low-carbon resilient development must also address other challenges, which include costs, local contexts, and how these affect the potential benefits. While some policies create ‘triple wins’, as in the school boats mentioned above, others will bring benefits in only one of the three areas — or strong benefits in one but only weak benefits in the others.

Using this three-way analysis to look at low-carbon resilient development strategies can help assess where a policy, sector or programme might fit. This in turn helps determine the appropriate policy approach and level of policy-making. It also helps policymakers to recognise that there may be trade-offs between agendas and possible extra costs.

For example, research on coastal management in Belize, Ghana, Kenya and Vietnam shows how some policies are able to produce benefits in all three areas, yet others are 'creating development losses, mal-adaptation, and worsening emissions'.

Learning by doing

While there is no evidence yet of these costs or losses in what the LDCs have planned and implemented, governments there must monitor these risks. And as they search for synergies and win-win strategies, it’s important they don’t overlook climate justice and people’s rights to development.

Governments and development partners must also be prepared to change direction when it becomes clearer which strategies yield the best results.

It is critical then that the least developed countries – and others that follow their lead – learn from the evidence that is beginning to emerge from their experiences of adopting new strategies and approaches to climate-resilient planning.

Policymakers and analysts still know very little about the advantages and disadvantages of bringing together these agendas in practice. A learning-by-doing approach will generate robust evidence about where to find, and how to support, 'win-win' strategies and plans from which we can all learn.

Susannah Fisher is a researcher in IIED's climate change group.

Download Susannah Fisher's new paper: Low carbon resilient development in the least developed countries.