Reflections on Rio: Reframing Environmental Negotiations

In the weeks post-Rio, wide consensus has emerged that the agreement reached is not ambitious and lacks creativity.  In light of this outcome, and the lack of progress witnessed in climate negotiations, it is important to reflect whether we are negotiating the right agreements.  I had the opportunity to attend the Rio+20 Conference, and take part in a panel discussion organized by the Fletcher School and the Tufts Institute of the Environment on reframing environmental negotiations.  You can read more about the side event and our panelists here.

The concept for the panel emerged from a paper written by Bill Moomaw and Mihaela Papa on reframing the climate negotiations in terms of energy access. My role in the panel was to discuss adaptation to climate change and how this can be reframed from a burden to an opportunity for resilient development.  Other panelists discussed clean energy and health.  In this post, I present a brief overview of some of the main arguments for shifting from burden-bearing to opportunity-sharing in negotiations.  Although many of these issues were addressed during the panel, each panelist brought their own ideas, and I don’t try to summarize all of the discussions of the panel here.  Hopefully, however, it will provide a flavor of the discussions we had during the panel, and throughout our time at Rio+20.

The current climate treaty focuses on burden-sharing, and negotiating to share burdens is unlikely to be successful.  No negotiator wants to go back to their capitol and say, “look, I got us this much burden.” If, instead, the negotiations could focus on opportunity-sharing, perhaps they will be more successful.  By focusing on sustainable development, there is potential to reframe the negotiations.  Three examples of issues that are currently framed in terms of burdens but may be reframed in terms of opportunities include mitigation, adaptation, and health.

The goal of reducing greenhouse gases immediately leads to a focus on burden-sharing- who has to reduce their emissions, and by how much? It is important to consider, however, why reducing emissions constitute such a burden.  It is because the services we desire, primarily energy services, are associated with emissions.  A more productive approach, therefore, could focus on how to provide those energy services without the associated emissions.  Providing energy services that are clean, reliable, and affordable is a major development objective, and an area where climate goals and poverty alleviation goals are closely aligned.  Clean energy technologies provide numerous advantages over traditional energy sources for poor, remote households, including the decentralized nature of many of these technologies, health benefits, labor-saving opportunities, and lack of reliance on high-cost fuels.  These advantages make clean energy ideally suited for providing access to energy services.  Focusing on these benefits, rather than on emissions directly, is likely to be a more successful strategy. For a deeper discussion of these concepts, see Moomaw and Papa’s paper.

Adaptation is typically framed as both a burden for vulnerable developing countries that have to adapt to negative climate impacts, and for developed countries that bear a responsibility to finance these adaptation measures.  However, if adaptation is viewed in terms of sustainable development, instead of focusing more narrowly on climate impacts, adaptation offers a lot of potential for optimism.  One reason for optimism is that adaptation is an inherently local process, and doesn’t suffer from the same need for global cooperation as mitigation.  Actions taken at a local level (even at the level of the household), can improve adaptive capacity successfully.  Another reason for optimism is that the incentives to adapt are high-people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake, so it is likely to be a high priority for individuals, particularly in the most vulnerable areas where people are already feeling climate impacts.

Adaptation is an area where the environmental agenda and the development agenda come together.  Particularly in light of the uncertainty associated with local climate impacts, one of the best ways to adapt is to build the resilience of individuals and communities and reduce vulnerability.  Although climate change adaptation may be a fairly new concept, many of the ways to implement adaptation are similar to approaches that have been successfully used in international development for years. While development and adaptation may look similar on the ground, there are a couple important advantages that an explicit focus on adaptation brings.  One is a focus on risk management. Helping households build assets and diversify their income is a common development strategy, but adaptation brings an explicit focus on risk management and the importance of diversification of livelihood options. Another advantage is that it provides the opportunity to reframe environmental goals in terms of development. By reframing natural resource management in terms of its ability to increase farmer’s resilience to drought, for example, households can begin to view natural resource management not as an environmental goal, but as a development strategy, increasing its relevance in their lives. A final benefit is that emphasizing adaptation can help shift the policy focus from disaster response and humanitarian interventions towards a focus on building resilience and sustainable development.  Instead of seeing disasters as inevitable, adaptation projects can help people recognize that they are both predictable and their impacts can be mitigated with proper planning.

A third example of reframing relates to health.  Health is often described as a sector that is influenced by climate change and unsustainable development.  Focusing only on health impacts provides few opportunities for health and health interventions to contribute to sustainable development.  However, from an adaptation standpoint, the health sector offers many opportunities.  Disease burden and illness are one of the greatest vulnerabilities that many households face, and poor health can lead to depletion of assets, reducing not just the immediate but also the long-term adaptive capacity of households.  Improving health and access to services like health insurance may be one of the most effective ways to adapt to climate change.


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