We now know the urgency and criticality of the climate challenge. We know well what needs to be done: stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or risk catastrophic warming; and prepare for the impacts already, irreversibly, in train.
Just one question: how?
Responding to opportunities and obstacles
It is not as if there were a pre-existing, clear, roadmap for economic development and poverty reduction. Now the way forward is further obscured by the need for pervasive changes in the way that we produce energy, grow food, use water, and prepare for droughts, floods, and storms. There are lots of good ideas, but not all of them will pan out as expected. What’s needed, at every level from the community to the planet, is the acuity to recognize both dead ends and promising pathways as rapidly as possible.
For instance, the Clean Development Mechanism was based on an elegant idea to promote renewable energy: pay for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions against a ‘business as usual’ scenario. In practice, while an elaborate regulatory system was set up to establish those baseline scenarios, much funding went to hydropower plants that probably would have been established anyway. Evaluation shows that prevailing carbon prices were too low, and payments too late in the game, to make much difference to investor incentives. A more promising approach is to find ways to offer longer-term loans and to increase the proportion of the time that facilities are producing power.
Donors, recognizing that climate financing needs dwarf currently available funds, have sought to amplify their effectiveness by pursuing catalytic investments. This is notably true of the $8 billion Climate Investment Funds, which seek to support ‘transformative’ investments, and of the Green Climate Fund, which pursues ‘paradigm shifts.’ The recently-completed Independent Evaluation of the Climate Investment Funds (CIF), ratifies the rationale for catalytic investments and points to some promising examples. However, both this, and IEG climate evaluations caution that catalytic aspirations must be based on a solid well-thought out logic of intervention. For instance, demonstration and pilot projects – which prove technical feasibility, work out regulatory issues, and reduce perceived investment risks – can have far-reaching impacts, but are successful only when they specify what is being demonstrated to whom, why, and how. The CIF evaluation found that some would-be transformative energy interventions were likely to be stymied by unfavorable national energy policies.
Using evaluation for evidence on what works
This is all new, unfamiliar territory. A stronger orientation towards rapidly learning what works, and debugging what doesn’t, could accelerate progress on climate mitigation and adaptation. This means rethinking an outmoded view of monitoring and evaluation as a burdensome add-on to ‘real’ action. Instead, M&E can be an investment with huge returns. For instance, the Sujala watershed project in Karnataka, India addressed poverty alleviation in mainly rain fed areas of India by improving the productive potential of degraded watersheds – an intervention relevant to climate adaptation. An important feature of the project was an exemplary monitoring and evaluation system, integrated into project management. It enabled project managers to detect and correct failures in targeting and implementation. The project rigorously documented an average 24% increase in household incomes and overall environmental improvements, feeding lessons into expanding Indian investments in watershed management. Plausibly, if good M&E represents 1% of overall project costs and boosts the project returns by just 1 percentage point, it would make M&E an investment with a 100% economic rate of return – one of the best, and most catalytic, bargains available.
Learning for results
So learning and feedback can supercharge development effectiveness. But IEG’s recent Learning Evaluation found that the World Bank’s internal incentives still strongly favor disbursement over learning. At the international level, IEG’s Climate Adaptation evaluation found that a largely quixotic effort to tally climate adaptation expenditure, rather than results, risked distorting effort and promoting inefficiency. As global leaders gather in New York for the UN Climate Summit, they would do well to keep in mind that raising funds, awareness, and commitment for climate action, while hard, is only the first step. What then to do, and how to do it – this is where collective learning will play a crucial role.