Climate policy needs a new vision

National Climate March in London
Copyright: David Rose/Panos

Speed read

  • Splitting efforts to stop climate change from efforts to adapt to it won’t work
  • Policy should support local development that’s in tune with environments
  • Paris climate talks should drop ‘sectoral’ policy and refocus on local needs

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Policies that split mitigation and adaptation don’t work. It’s time for a shift, say Asim Zia and Caitlin Waddick.
The climate change policy endorsed by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and adopted by member countries tends to split into two approaches: mitigation (cutting emissions or ‘soaking up’ carbon pollution) and adaptation (coping with climate change). This holds true across sectors from forest management and agriculture to energy, transportation and city planning. And it makes allocating scarce resources for sustainable and resilient community development much harder.

When governments divide policies  between mitigation and adaptation— and then add them on to existing bilateral and multi-lateral development funds, without integration — precious resources get wasted as they trickle down to local communities.

“Conversely, adaptation projects may build roads and bridges in light of increasing flood risks — but more roads and bridges also increase greenhouse gas emissions, undermining mitigation targets.”

Asim Zia and Caitlin Waddick

‘Mitigation is a global problem but adaptation a local issue’ is a statement often repeated like a mantra in the annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings. It is literally true. But, in practice, splitting efforts along those lines often works at cross-purposes.

For example, bio-fuel plantations may meet global mitigation goals — but if they replace temperate and tropical forests used by indigenous communities, those communities struggle to adapt to food and water security challenges that would have been better met by conserving old-growth forests. Similarly, mega hydropower dams meet mitigation goals but moving communities from familiar environments undermines their capacity to adapt to climate change.

Conversely, adaptation projects may build roads and bridges in light of increasing flood risks — but more roads and bridges also increase greenhouse gas emissions, undermining mitigation targets.

Policy that backfires

To catalyse action for both mitigation and adaptation, countries need a sharper focus on ‘integrative and regenerative community development’. This means they need to value the ecosystem services their environments provide, grow these using the principles of ecological design, and coordinate policy so it fits with natural, ecological and community boundaries (bioregions).

This will require shifting narrowly conceived ‘sectoral’ policies so they integrate better with people and places. And it will require any treaty agreed at the 21st UNFCCC COP in December to a focus on development that works for different bioregions.

In the forestry sector, for example, the leading international agencies such as UNFCCC and UNEP want to tackle emissions with schemes that pay for the ecosystem services forests provide. The REDD+ mechanism (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation: the ‘plus’ refers to conservation, sustainable management and enhancing carbon stocks)  stimulates payments from rich industrialised countries to tropical developing countries that store carbon by conserving forests.

“The Western vision of economic development through globalisation, international trade and conventional aid needs to be replaced with a place-based vision that emphasises care for people, the Earth, and the future.”

Asim Zia and Caitlin Waddick

But it does little to stem the deforestation caused by large-scale development projects that support trade — contrary to conventional thinking, this is causing the most deforestation.

Crucially, because many poor local communities do not have clearly defined land-tenure rights, states — not local people — are most likely to benefit from REDD+ payments. [1] And such schemes can push deforestation pressures into adjacent communities and countries without REDD+ payments.

In the energy sector, the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and other emission trading schemes may promote energy efficiency in some areas, but their net effect can be to increase overall emissions. [2] This is because some CDM beneficiaries, such as companies generating power or producing cement in developing countries, may artificially increase their carbon emissions for the Mechanism’s baseline period and then bring them back to business-as-usual for the project period. Or greenhouse gas emissions may be displaced within or across countries, and so be missed in the CDM calculation used for issuing ‘certified emission reduction credits’.

And when it comes to disaster management, sponsoring early warning systems with adaptation funds may induce expensive investments in weather and climate monitoring but without the means to communicate early warnings and risks to vulnerable people.

Refocus on local resources

Fundamentally, our adaptation and mitigation policies fail to challenge the ‘Western’ model of economic development that fuels climate change. Instead, they sustain inequitable globalisation and disrupt communities by, in fact, increasing exposure to floods, droughts and other climate change impacts.

The problem with Western development is that it ignores local ecologies and cultures, and so it fails to allow for home-grown adaptation and innovation. It recommends the same building style and agricultural approach for every ecosystem — a worrying precedent for climate policies which, to limit rising greenhouse gas emissions in the 21st century, will require fundamental changes in how we do things. 

To be truly effective, international climate policy needs a radical shift: it needs to encourage enterprises and ventures that grow local resources, use ecological design principles and meet local and regional needs.In practice, this means building houses with local materials and labour; growing diverse varieties of food in carbon-rich soils; and generating electricity and heat locally, such as from sun, wind, water, biomass, and geothermal resources. Above all, it means regenerating and respecting the indigenous human, animal and plant communities that are currently being uprooted and wiped out — and doing that by caring for the connections between them.

The COP talks in Paris this December are an opportunity to replace the business-as-usual sectoral approach with climate policy that is integrated with community development and that works with, not against, nature. For example, negotiators should insert explicit rules tying REDD+ projects to integrated community development that fulfils local needs for healthy air, food, water, housing, and medicine.

The Western vision of economic development through globalisation, international trade and conventional aid needs to be replaced with a place-based vision that emphasises care for people, the Earth, and the future.

Asim Zia is an associate professor of public policy and Director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security at the University of Vermont, USA. Caitlin Waddick is a permaculturalist, social justice activist and environmental planner. Zia can be contacted at [email protected] and followed on twitter @asim_zia_

This article is part of our Spotlight on Joint action on climate change


[1] Betsy Beymer-Farris and Thomas Bassett The REDD menace: resurgent protectionism in Tanzania's mangrove forests (Global Environmental Change, 2013).
[2] Asim Zia Post-Kyoto Climate Governance: confronting the politics of scale, ideology and knowledge. (Rutledge, London, 2013)