Expert Perspectives

Long-term Low Carbon Development Strategies: Why Have Them and Where to Start?

Many national and subnational governments, and even some companies, are in the implementation phase of their first low carbon development strategy (LCDS) on the road to meeting their Paris Agreement targets. This is a complex phase composed of negotiations with different actors, recalibration or design of sectorial or territorial mitigation plans, and technical discussions on the different implementation routes and projections of complex monitoring systems, as well as their design. In the midst of this titanic effort, these actors are being asked about their long-term low carbon development strategy (LTS), and many are wondering if they should have one and why, when it should be developed, and how they will integrate it into ongoing work.

So why develop an LTS? For the same reason that you may have both a monthly and a long-term family budget. If you only look at next month’s income and your family’s needs, the decisions you make may be very different than ones that factor in the vacation you want to take this year, the braces your child will need next year, and his or her college tuition in a few years. The same thing happens with low carbon plans. For example, if you only look at your 2025 or 2030 targets, you might consider changing your coal-fired power plants to gas plants, but if your 2050 target is carbon neutrality, you will have invested in an expensive technology change that is incompatible with your long-term goal. You will probably have to decommission the plants before the end of their normal life span and the recovery of your investment, creating a stranded asset. If, however, you think about your 2050 goals, you might decide to invest in renewable energy (RE) from the start, setting an intermediate target of 100 percent RE penetration in 2025 or 2030.

The rest of this essay will address how to start the process of designing an LTS, how it can strengthen a country’s capacity and deliver cobenefits to its productive sectors, the coexistence of LTSs and LCDSs, and how to set the highest level of ambition in an LTS in light of existing capabilities and unknown future needs and constraints.

The creation of a long-term low carbon development strategy (LTS)

LTSs can be created before LCDSs or in parallel to their development, implementation, and/or adjustment phases. The goal in all cases is to have a concrete idea of where the country wants to be with regards to climate change, economic, social, and environmental development in 2050 and develop potential pathways to get there. This is known as backcasting.

An LTS should not be a document that is produced in a “one-off” fashion. Instead, it should be an iterative process that allows for revisions, tweaks, and improvements as a country’s circumstances change, as new technologies come into play, key indicators evolve, and better information becomes available. A process like this lends itself to creating a cooperative multiactor process where government officials, academia, and sectorial representatives and experts can collaborate to answer critical research questions and generate important understanding in the process.  An LTS should “identify risks (e.g. carbon lock-in, sectors in decline in the low-carbon economy), opportunities (e.g. new activities and growth prospects, improved energy access or better air quality, use of emerging technologies), potential (for near term action and adaptation) as well as any remaining uncertainties (e.g. low-carbon technology availability, future fossil fuel prices). Ideally, pathways could also shed light on impending risks from climate change impacts, recognizing that adaptation and mitigation analyses require different sets of scientific knowledge and expertise” (Pathak 2017). The LTS should also combine climate change adaptation and mitigation goals with the country’s plan for reaching its sustainable development goals (SDGs) to ensure that economic, social, and environmental development needs are considered.

A good place to start is to assemble a team with representatives from these actor groups. From my experience developing Colombia’s low carbon development strategy, I recommend identifying a core team to guide the general decisions and define central parameters that will cut across different sectors and models, and also assemble specific sectorial teams. With these teams in place, the long-term targets (those related to climate change and others, as mentioned above) should be defined and the different paths for their accomplishment discussed and prioritized in order to have a limited amount of inputs for modeling.  It is useful to create narratives around the targets and paths in order to facilitate communication among members of the LTS team, and with external actors. Modeling tools, core information, and databases should be agreed upon and revisited as needed. This is particularly relevant when there are multiple sources of data or divergent indicators and projections (e.g., discrepancies between projected growth in gross domestic product [GDP] by the government and sectorial associations).

This process has another advantage, which is its identification of capacity and technical needs, thereby enabling a country to start addressing these by incorporating experts into government, training its existing staff, and making alliances with academia and think tanks. There are also many opportunities for capacity building as part of bilateral cooperation, work with multilateral organizations, and participation in different platforms dedicated to work in LCDSs and LTSs (I give examples below). In addition, the same people who work on LTSs can work on different aspects of implementing climate actions, such as project and program design, planning, implementation, and monitoring and reporting, adding value to interdisciplinary teams in sectorial ministries and other institutions working on implementation.

Finally, the format that will be used to present the LTS should be envisioned from the start. This may sound trivial, but the way the LTS and the framework in which it will operate are communicated can be quite important. If possible, the LTS should be a process, and this process should be housed in a central government entity that has planning and intersectorial coordination responsibilities (as opposed to a sectorial ministry or ministry of environment). This institution should have political and technical influence in the country. Ideally the LTS process should be made mandatory by the highest possible level and/or part of legislation that regulates long-term planning. Finally, the results of each iteration can include recommendations mandated to become policy documents meant to guide the ministry’s policies, programs, and specific actions, the development of the country’s LCDS, and the different iterations of the nationally determined contribution (NDC) within its timeframe. These measures will ensure its survival beyond the government that initiates it, as well as its relevance and impact.

How the process of developing a low carbon development strategy strengthens a country’s capacity and delivers cobenefits to its productive sectors

Having an official process for developing and regularly updating an LTS helps identify needed expertise and gaps in knowledge and data, build capacity in the country for long-term modeling and planning that incorporates climate change sustainability, and plan for medium-term low carbon development.

These types of processes also prepare productive sectors for the future, leapfrogging technology that would not be the right investment in the long run and promoting economic diversification in countries reliant on fossil fuels. In a country like Colombia, this may mean a push for new types of renewable energy instead of coal-fired power plants, considering the implications of climate change on water availability and the country’s current reliance on hydropower to meet over 70 percent of its electricity needs. It would also mean that the country, which relied on oil and coal exports for more than 40 percent of its GDP last year (DANE 2017), would have to start planning and implementing strategies to strengthen other productive sectors to offset reduced revenues from the export of commodities that the world is leaving behind.

The integration of low carbon development strategies (LCDSs) and long-term strategies (LTSs)

The parallel development of these medium- and long-term plans may seem cumbersome, but one will guide the other and there will be no need to start from scratch every 5 or 10 years to develop the new phase of the LCDS or NDC. This is particularly important considering the difficult process of identifying the right experts from all sectors and relevant actor groups, convincing them and their institutions to participate, initiating technical dialogues, and creating the necessary dynamics for the work on these types of plans to happen. Ideally, many of the experts would work on both strategies, and there would be planned stocktaking moments for the LTS to inform the LCDS, and for the latter to be adjusted accordingly. This will help ensure strong strategies and actions that are coherent with the direction the country or jurisdiction needs to take for a climate-proof future, resulting in economically sound decisions and a more resilient workforce and economy.

Does the future economy require a shift in some agriculture practices? Does the country need to train more people to manufacture and install renewable energy technology? Does the transport system need to incorporate more technological advances, faster? These examples of guiding questions could result in training and extension programs, incentives for low carbon agricultural practices and the RE industry, as well as a technological shift for cities and the transport sector, all of which need planning and financing. Such needs can be identified in the LTS process and incorporated in the LCDS and plans embedded in national, sectorial, and territorial planning tools.

How can countries set the highest level of ambition in their long-term strategies in light of their capabilities, unknown future needs, and constraints?

The final benefit of LTSs that I will address is the creation of a “safe space” for ambition. Since a country’s LTS is not part of its NDC or any other official international commitment, it has the freedom to set aspirational targets that are as ambitious as possible. The nature of the LTS process includes continuous revisiting of targets as a country’s capacity, economy, and access to different technologies evolve. The LTS targets should therefore be considered as tools rather than commitments, as a system to continuously challenge the status quo and think about the maximum levels of ambition in the long term. After all, setting a high bar pushes people and institutions to aspire to greater objectives, and knowing what is needed to get there produces greater results.

Finally, for those of you who are involved in thinking, planning, or developing an LTS and LCDS, you are not alone. Many countries, jurisdictions, and companies are engaging in this process, and multiple resources and exchange platforms can support you in yours. To name only a few, the 2050 Pathways Platform is full of useful resources, the NDC Partnership has countries helping each other meet this challenge, and the LEDS Global Partnership and its regional chapters are a great way to engage with others doing this work, learn from their experiences, and access support.

References

DANE (National Statistics Division of Colombia). 2017. “Colombia, exportaciones totales, según CIIU Rev.3. 1995.” November. https://www.dane.gov.co/files/investigaciones/comercio_exterior/exportaciones/2017/anexos_export_nov17.xls" \t "_blank" \o.

Pathak, Siddharth. 2017. “Why Develop 2050 Pathways?” 2050 Pathways Platform, July. https://www.2050pathways.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Whydevelop2050Pathways.pdf.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.