Normalising apples & pears: comparing trade offs for pro-poor mitigation options

Imagine the juggling act being asked of policy makers: they’ve got to spread limited resources between meeting the government’s objective of reducing poverty to zero percent; at the same time, they’ve got to make a handbrake turn on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

And since poverty alleviation is often linked with development, and development usually translates into emissions increases, it seems as though they’re being asked to do the impossible.

This week, the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre (ERC) hosted a workshop space to talk about precisely this: what kind of tradeoffs are needed if South Africa is to deal with the twin challenges of poverty alleviation and slowing climate change related emissions.

The ERC presented their latest research on poverty & mitigation from the group’s work under the UNITAR Climate Change Capacity Development (www.c3d-unitar.org) partnership and the Mitigation Action Plans & Scenarios programme (www.mapsprogramme.org).

20130306-150448.jpg
Experts from civil society, academia, private sector, local government, development practitioners, and technology experts were asked to grapple with the following question:
If you are a government with limited funds, how do you spend them in a way that addresses socio-economic challenges in the country, while trying to reduce emissions?

A myriad of national development objectives have been outlined across South African policy – job creation, GDP growth, energy security to name a few. But South Africa’s focus, as a middle-income country, is on poverty and inequality. The 2012 National Development plans sets targets to reduce levels of inequality and reduce the current 39% of the population living below the national poverty line[1] to 0% by 2030.

At the same time the national climate goal is to ‘implement mitigations actions that will collectively result in a 34% and a 42% deviation below its “Business As Usual” emissions growth trajectory by 2020 and 2025’ [2](DEA, 2011). Meanwhile internationally the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA’s) framework progresses, yet it remains unclear as to how sustainable development objectives will be assessed against mitigation potential – raising flags that emission reductions may trump socio-economic development objectives again (as with the CDM).

With climate mitigation objectives often being perceived to constrain development and with the risk of NAMA’s developing in an emissions-centric manner, how do we make sure the poorest don’t get ignored? How can mitigation and poverty reduction be achieved at the same time?

Comparing Apples and Pears

But one of the biggest difficulties in this kind of decision making is how to compare the socio-economic merits of mitigation actions that are as different from one another as a solar water heating programme is from a public transport initiative? How do you make key decisions around trade offs between continuing to grow a national economy currently dependent on cheap coal electricity versus building a local renewable energy industry? How do you gauge the ‘quality’ of a job created?

A sharpened tool for the toolbox: The Matrix

In a bold attempt to tackle some of these challenges and trigger debate amongst experts on these issues, the ERC developed a mitigation action impact matrix for South Africa. This is an excel based tool based on the Action Impact Matrix initially developed by Professor Munasinghe of the MIND institute in Sri Lanka[3]. The matrix allows researchers to combine the government’s main development goals with mitigation options. The matrix has been tailored for the South African context, and allows for a comparison between different mitigation actions and their implications on broader socio-economic issues beyond climate change & energy security – including poverty, job creation and inequality.

The initial thinking is informed by qualitative and quantitative research, namely case studies, macro-economic or so-called ‘CGE’ modeling, and experts’ inputs.

During the workshop, the ERC presented case studies for mitigation actions around solar water heating (link to poster), electric passenger vehicles (link) and wind energy (link). For context, a case study comparing different large scale electricity generation options of nuclear, concentrated solar power, wind, and photovoltaic technology (link) was also presented.

The purpose of the workshop was to bring together experts to interrogate the application and value of this approach, whilst providing an opportunity for participants from different backgrounds, to get their teeth into some of the unresolved issues.

The discussions bounced between:

  • Job creation: is local manufacturing possible and to what degree (bearing in mind how much China undercuts everybody)? Who are the jobs being created for?
  • Increased electricity costs: would increasing private renewable energy installations deprive municipalities of a key revenue stream and thereby increase the price of electricity for the poor?
  • Hidden costs and risks: we must be sure to reflect the hidden costs and externalities from both renewable and non-renewable energy options (embodied energy, health impacts, decommissioning costs).
  • Smart or dumb grids? Without the necessary grid capacity, how realistic is large scale and private level renewable energy?
  • Benefiting who? Even once socio-economic benefits have been estimated and modeled, how are these benefits getting to the poor?

‘There are no doubts that these actions can have positive benefits on the poor,’ noted one workshop participant, ‘but implementation is the main problem, how do these benefits filter down to the poor?’

The above issues require ongoing debate and analysis, but it is clear that bringing together poverty, development and climate change, will bring apples, pears and oranges to the surface. At the end of the day, as a workshop participant highlighted, we are dealing with trade-offs that are just impossible to make.

‘This is a difficult question, but [this research & workshop is] a very valuable contribution.’


[1] (418 ZAR per month/ 2009 prices)

[2] Depending on suitable technical, financial & capacity building support

[3] Based on the Action Impact Matrix of the Sri Lankan Munasinghe Institute for Development (MIND)