Expert Perspectives

A Qualitative Approach to Assess the Transformative Potential of Long-Term Climate Strategies

The Paris Agreement calls for countries to communicate "mid-century long-term low GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions development strategies" by 2020. In their long-term strategies (LTSs), countries show how they plan to pursue economic development while phasing out net GHG emissions over time (WRI 2018), thereby enabling achievement of the Paris temperature goal: limiting the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°. A country’s long-term strategy outlines its midcentury emissions trajectory in line with the needed ambition at a global scale. It lays down a pathway to guide and prioritize short- and midterm actions aligned with the long-term goal.

Long-term strategies have the potential to bring transformational change—fundamental, sustained change that overcomes established high-carbon practices and contributes to a net zero emissions society in line with the Paris temperature goal and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNEP DTU and WRI 2018). Countries can assess the transformative potential of their strategies and build a foundation to monitor and make course corrections over time. Regular review and the flexibility to make modifications are particularly important given the long-term nature of these strategies.

Qualitative approach to assess transformational potential

The Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT) Transformational Change Guidance, being developed by the United Nations Environment Programme and Technical University of Denmark (UNEP DTU) Partnership (lead) and World Resources Institute (WRI) (co-lead), lays out a qualitative approach to assess the extent of transformational change expected or achieved as a result of policies. This note, which derives from the Transformational Change Guidance, discusses how decision-makers can start to examine the transformative potential of their long-term strategies.1 The ability of decision-makers to assess this potential will depend in large part on whether the long-term strategy is sufficiently detailed. To lend itself to such an assessment, a strategy must include clear goals and describe a vision for transformational change, preferably with short-, mid-, and long-term goals and underlying policies and actions. These can be related to emissions as well as to sustainable development that reflects national priorities and objectives (related to health, gender, air quality, economic growth, etc.). Economy-wide goals could be accompanied by sector-specific targets and policy pathways specifying how the strategy will be implemented in the near and medium term.

The qualitative approach helps assess the extent to which a long-term strategy can deliver large-scale, sustained outcomes and how effective various interventions are likely to be in realizing the transformational vision. It gives decision-makers an "outcome-process" framework to assess whether the measures in place are sufficient to support the long-term goals. Decision-makers can use this framework to innovatively and creatively think about developing instruments and policies to achieve the goals of their long-term strategies.

Transformational outcomes and processes

Transformational change is characterized by outcomes that are (1) large in scale and (2) sustained over a long period of time. Designers of long-term strategies should ask themselves these two questions:

  • How can we create a long-term strategy—with its vision, goals, and underlying actions—that will lead to large-scale outcomes?
  • How can the long-term strategy be designed to ensure that these outcomes are sustained over a long period of time?

In the first question, "scale" refers to the large magnitude of impacts affecting a large population, impacts brought about by, or catalyzed by, interventions under the long-term strategy. These could be emissions and sustainable development impacts across environmental, social, and economic dimensions. What constitutes "large-scale" depends on the context, for example, large for a sectoral 2050 pathway in a small island state is different from a large-scale outcome of an economy-wide long-term strategy for China. Further, multiple smaller-scale changes may collectively lead to large, sustained, system-wide impacts.

In the second question, "outcomes" are considered transformational only if they can also be sustained over time. This can be achieved through expanding support for interventions and putting in place mechanisms that make it difficult to undo the changes or outcomes, that is, when a zero-carbon production and consumption model is "locked-in." Systemic transition is often accompanied by positive as well as negative impacts (e.g., loss of employment, loss of income). A shift toward net zero emissions has a strong likelihood of being sustained only when it is a just transition where the gains and losses are equitably distributed.

Interventions taken to achieve these outcomes are as critical, particularly in the case of transformational change that becomes visible only over a longer period. Therefore, when assessing the underlying policies and actions in a long-term strategy, it is important to ask questions such as the following (Levin et al. 2012):

  • What measures are in place to counteract high-carbon pathways and facilitate a transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy consistent with temperature and sustainable development goals?
  • What is being done to enhance ambition over time?
  • What is being done to create stickiness making reversibility difficult and sustaining the impacts? How is support being entrenched over time? How is the population that supports the strategy going to expand over time?

The literature describes some of the ways transformational outcomes can be realized, including through technological change, involvement of change agents, creation of incentives, and altering behavior and norms. Accordingly, when designing the vision, goals, and underlying policies and actions in a strategy, one must take into account several considerations:2

  • How will the LTS affect technology change? Such change is driven by research and development and measures that promote adoption and scale-up of clean technologies.
  • How will the LTS engage change agents? Crucial change agents include governments, entrepreneurs, private sector, civil society, and cross-cutting coalitions and networks.
  • How will the LTS shift incentives? Economic and noneconomic incentives, as well as disincentives, can shift the balance and promote cleaner technology and behavior.
  • How will the LTS affect norms? Processes that enhance awareness and influence behavior can change societal norms and practices.

These key considerations are relevant in differing proportions, at different times, depending on the context, to the production of a transformational outcome. Ongoing monitoring is critical so that these components can be tweaked or altered to stay on course. It is a constant learning process. Interventions that target the above shifts can be employed in coordination with each other and reinforce each other. Some interventions may not be relevant at a given time but may become highly relevant later because of the dynamic, ever-evolving context.

In assessing the potential for transformational change, decision-makers should examine all aspects of the long-term strategy—from larger questions about its vision and goals, to the choice of individual interventions, to relatively minor questions related to the design of the intervention. It is also important to think creatively about how seemingly smaller tweaks in the design of individual aspects of the long-term strategy could help achieve the goals. For example, to the extent there are any detailed interventions in the long-term strategy, when considering a policy to put a price on carbon, the question is not only whether it should be a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program but also how the instrument itself should be designed to produce transformational results. For example, if a carbon tax is selected, could revenues go toward rehabilitation of new populations that would be adversely affected by the transition, or to school boards investing in the community, and thus potentially expand the population that supports the policy over time?

Decision-makers should assess the potential impact of the interventions in the long-term strategy in terms of achieving transformational outcomes over a longer period of time, through the duration of the long-term strategy. This is a largely qualitative exercise involving expert judgment and information gathered through stakeholder consultations, though quantitative indicators can also be monitored to further ground-truth the assessment.


Decision-makers should examine to what degree the long-term strategy supports research and development and promotes innovation, for example, through measures that establish a budget for new testing facilities and support experimentation, contribute to early adoption of low carbon technologies such as by mandating performance standards, and enable scale-up and diffusion, for example through public-private partnerships to make low carbon technologies more economically attractive. Depending on the state of technological innovation and deployment in a sector or across the economy, different measures may need to be employed to achieve the transformational goal set out in the long-term strategy.

Agents of change

Assessing the ability of the long-term strategy to engage agents of change involves understanding to what extent the measures identified in the long-term strategy expand stakeholder support over time, how these enable the participation of a range of actors to create political pressure for low-carbon development or organize against unsustainable practices, to what extent the strategy facilitates  local involvement in implementation and encourages entrepreneurs and investors to catalyze a paradigm shift, how it creates networks and coalitions to broaden and deepen support for low carbon development, to what extent it promotes or leads to political leadership and vision, and how it creates spaces to discuss innovative ideas to ensure a just transition.


Decision-makers should assess how well the long-term strategy utilizes incentives and disincentives to shift behavior and improve technology adoption and diffusion. Key examples include measures that enable access to low-cost finance, create feed-in tariffs, provide long-term institutional and governance support, introduce a price on carbon through markets or a tax, introduce a fuel tax or traffic-congestion charge, phase out subsidies that promote high-carbon fuels and technologies, and prohibit the importation of inefficient technologies. Further, decision-makers should evaluate the likely level of success of interventions promoting development of an institutional and regulatory ecosystem that supports low carbon development.

Norms and behavior change

The most difficult interventions but the ones with the highest potential to bring lasting change are those that change social norms and behavior. Which mechanisms in the long-term strategy increase awareness, disseminate information, and catalyze deep shifts in consumer behavior and expectations? To what extent can the policy affect prevailing norms and lead to new norms that favor low carbon lifestyles?

The ICAT Transformational Change Guidance further discusses how to aggregate and consolidate the assessment of the above questions to arrive at a result regarding broader transformational potential. Decision-makers can use the Guidance to ask relevant questions at any point in strategy development—to orient the design of new strategies, monitor their implementation, or modify existing strategies. The Guidance can also be combined with quantitative approaches to gain further insights.


Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S. et al. 2012. "Overcoming the Tragedy of Super Wicked Problems: Constraining Our Future Selves to Ameliorate Global Climate Change." Policy Sciences 45, no. 2: 123–52. doi:

UNEP DTU Partnership and WRI. 2018. Transformational Change Guidance: Guidance for Assessing the Transformational Impacts of Policies and Actions. May 2018 version. Washington, DC: Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT). Available at

WRI. 2018. "What Is a Long-Term Strategy?"

1 This essay does not provide a full summary of the ICAT Transformational Change Guidance. It focuses on assessing transformative potential (ex-ante or forward-looking assessment), though a similar approach can be applied to understand whether the impacts are transformational (ex-post or backward-looking assessment). For the full methodology and steps, see UNEP DTU Partnership and WRI (2018).

2 There may be other areas not fully captured in these four broad areas of interventions, and users of this approach can add other categories as necessary.

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