Climate Change and Development Policy

James Thurlow

UNU-WIDER recently hosted an international conference on ‘Climate Change and Development Policy’. We were motivated by the apparent disconnect between research and policy on this issue. On the one hand, we see growing evidence, and some would argue consensus, that climate change poses a major challenge for developing countries—one that might not only undermine ongoing efforts to reduce poverty and vulnerability, but also raise the financial cost of sustaining economic development in the future. On the other hand, and despite the evidence, climate change has yet to be effectively integrated, or ‘mainstreamed’, within most countries’ national development strategies. For many decision makers, climate change remains a distant environmental concern, secondary to more immediate economic and social needs.

Bridging the gap between climate research and development policy is crucial for at least two reasons. First, current trends indicate that developing countries will be the main contributors to future global greenhouse gas emissions, and so they will have to play a substantial role in any global agreement to limit climate change. This means that new development pathways will be needed for the very countries where gaps in development and finance are greatest. Secondly, even if a global agreement is reached, it will need to be implemented by individual countries themselves and in ways that recognize trade-offs with other national goals. Addressing climate change will require action and compromise across government ministries and public and private sectors. Research could play an instrumental role to navigate these processes.

Three key messages from the conference

UNU-WIDER’s conference was held on 28-29 September 2012, and brought together more than 140 researchers and decision makers from about fifty countries. Researchers came from both developed and developing countries and spanned a wide range of disciplines, including the social, engineering and natural sciences. Through a series of parallel and plenary sessions, conference participants were asked to reflect on the reasons behind the gap between climate research and development policy. Although the dialogue was wide-ranging, three key messages emerged from the conference that could help guide future research.

First, climate change is characterized by ‘deep uncertainty’, which makes planning for climate change extremely difficult. The onus is on researchers to bridge this gap by finding new methodologies that explicitly consider uncertainty when evaluating policy options. One of the conference plenaries presented an approach developed under UNU-WIDER’s ‘Development under Climate Change’ project, which converts climate uncertainty into risk, and then into ranges of socioeconomic outcomes. These risk-based impact assessments can be incorporated more readily into national planning processes. However, in order to be useful, the findings of such complex methods will need to be communicated to policy makers in a clear and succinct manner. This is a challenge to us all, and UNU-WIDER will be communicating as clearly as it can the results of its research on climate change and development.

Secondly, climate change will continue to affect many sectors of the economy and society. Therefore alongside an economy-wide perspective, we need research on sector impacts to inform policy in these areas. The parallel sessions at the conference covered a wide range of topics, including food security, human conflict, urban transport, and renewable energy. One reason for the gap between research and policy is the challenge of integrating studies of individual impact channels. The onus is on researchers to find new ways of integrating sector studies in order to provide the economy-wide evidence needed to inform national strategies. However, the need for integrated assessments must be balanced with the need for specificity in policy recommendations.

Finally, research on climate change often fails to consider critical political economy dimensions. This was clearly highlighted during a conference plenary that involved policy makers from three of the world’s most carbon-intensive economies, Australia, China, and South Africa. The speakers described the conflicting interests of national stakeholders and the difficulties of negotiating a compromise between environment and development goals.

Overall, the conference represented a valuable step towards a more integrated approach to climate change and development policy. The conference underscored the need for far greater interaction between researchers and decision makers to ensure that policy-relevant questions are researched, and that findings are effectively communicated. This is especially important given the uncertainty and complexity of climate change.

If you are interested in learning more about the topics discussed at the conference, we encourage you to visit the conference website Here you will find all of the research papers presented at the conference, along with video recordings of the plenary and parallel sessions.

James Thurlow is a Research Fellow at UNU-WIDER .

WIDERAngle newsletter
November 2012
ISSN 1238-9544