Addressing climate change equitably requires a better understanding of policy coherence

Experiences from Kenya, Colombia and Australia show why

By: Zoha Shawoo, Associate Scientist, Stockholm Environment Institute

Climate and development challenges are becoming increasingly intertwined. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), limiting warming to 1.5°C this century would make it much easier to eradicate poverty and make progress on critical development goals such as health, education and food and water security. 

The need to address inequality has also never been more pertinent. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the systemic inequalities embedded in our societies and demonstrated how the poorest and most vulnerable are most heavily impacted by such global crises. Evidence indicates that climate change is only worsening these inequalities. 

Addressing climate change is therefore critical to advancing sustainable development and addressing inequality. Yet climate  progress can also be inequitable and leave certain populations behind. For example, without guard rails in place, shifting away from fossil fuels could damage the livelihoods of coal workers or poorer populations through rising energy prices or job cuts. Similarly, policies aiming to preserve forests negatively affect Indigenous populations through land-grabbing by governments or private companies in cases where property rights are poorly defined.

COVID-19 laid bare systemic inequalities that have been ignored for decades – inequalities that can be worsened by climate change. But the crisis is also an opportunity for systemic change.
Photo: UNDP PAPP/Ahed Izhiman

Many argue that policy coherence, defined as coordinated policymaking across goals and objectives, would help governments navigate these trade-offs in a transparent and equitable manner and ensure that climate solutions truly leave no one behind. However, dominant understandings of policy coherence remain highly technical in nature, focused on communication or coordination between institutions. 

Such institutional measures, while critical, can overlook essential questions such as: Which actors does policy coherence serve over others? How do vested interests inhibit coherence? What dominant ideologies do coherence efforts uphold? Not accounting for these more political dimensions of coherence risks ignoring how climate policymaking can negatively affect certain groups over others. 

In Kenya, challenges related to policy coherence arise from the need to address climate change and the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Photo: UNDP Kenya

Drawing on our research at the Stockholm Environment Institute, I provide three short examples below demonstrating the need to move beyond conventionally institutional understandings of policy coherence to address climate change equitably:

  1. Renewable energy deployment in Australia
    In Australia, tensions occur between the aims of expanding renewable energy and meeting climate goals on the one hand, and objectives to expand gas supply and maintain the coal industry’s ongoing economic benefits to rural communities on the other hand. Such conflicts are difficult to navigate due to policy coherence challenges caused by political polarisation and partisan disagreement on climate policy, as well as the fossil fuel industry’s significant influence over decision-making. This hinders the country’s progress on meeting both its emission reduction targets and addressing national inequalities.

  2. Economic growth advancement in Kenya
    In Kenya, conflicts arise between the need to address climate change and the country’s reliance on fossil fuels to drive its economic growth and reduce poverty and inequality. The country does have a strong policy framework in place to promote coherence, such as a long-term development plan that aims to mainstream the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across different levels of government. However, challenges to policy coherence also arise due to not only poor institutional coordination but also a lack of political will and a failure to implement existing laws and policies, inhibiting efforts to reconcile such trade-offs. 

  3. Mining and Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use in Colombia
    In Colombia, environmental conflicts include deforestation and biodiversity loss through agricultural expansion and forced migration of rural communities due to nearby mining activities. The country has an inter-institutional agreement in place for SDG implementation, with government bodies specifically responsible for coordination. However, policy coherence challenges arise from the country's socio-economic development efforts and interests, where the mining and Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sectors have received significant financial support from the government over climate-focused measures.

An inter-institutional agreement supports policy coherence in Colombia – but challenges remain in terms of integrating climate action into other sectors.
Photo: UNDP Colombia

As illustrated by these short examples, political factors play a key role in hampering policy coherence efforts and can inhibit policy-making that transparently and equitably manages the trade-offs. Designing climate policies that are fair and equitable therefore needs to include not only greater institutional coordination, but also an assessment of who certain policies may serve and what ideologies they may uphold.   

As a next step in our research, we aim to work closely with policymakers in our case study countries to assess how coherence can be enhanced, including how they can navigate deep-rooted political barriers to incoherence to still make progress on climate and development goals. This will involve developing tools that enable national governments to identify synergies and make transparent trade-offs in different political contexts.

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