Expert Perspectives

The Role of Qualitative Approaches in Developing Long-Term Strategies

Under the Paris Agreement, Parties have agreed to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C. In a step toward this goal, Parties are invited to communicate “mid-century, long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.” The ambition of the long-term strategies process is for decision-makers across key sectors of the economy to rethink policy, development, and technology pathways in order to facilitate the alignment of national action with the Paris goals. As countries have the flexibility to formulate their plans in a manner that is consistent with their national circumstances and capabilities, the structuring of such long-term strategies by its very nature will require finding ways to address the relationship between greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation and sustainable development. These issues are particularly important to developing economies, which face rapid and transformative changes, resulting in immense potential to avoid lock-in to high-carbon and low-resilient-development pathways. A conventional approach to the development of long-term strategies would focus on quantitative research methods, such as using model-based scenarios for specific mitigation actions. But, alternatively, qualitative methods can explore why and how the necessary shifts will happen to achieve long-term goals, which traditional quantitative data and metrics might overlook. This essay discusses the role of qualitative approaches in developing long-term strategies.

Why is qualitative input necessary?

The mainstreaming of climate objectives in national development contexts through the Paris Agreement poses new conceptual challenges for policymaking. This shift forces a more explicit consideration of the embeddedness of climate change in broader social and environmental development contexts and the resulting linkages. As a consequence, the synergies and potential trade-offs between development and climate considerations are of growing significance. Determining such synergies, or trade-offs, is not a trivial matter, especially because, since such analysis entails economic, social, environmental, and institutional input, often simultaneously, it cannot be undertaken by quantitative approaches alone.

Take for instance, the consideration of implementation obstacles, which is central to an analysis of rigorous and effective long-term strategies, but which is often hard to determine by numbers alone. Historically, such information is often dropped from policy decisions, and instead technological solutions are presented and implemented without heeding to issues of local capacity needs, whether in the form of implementing institutions or know-how. A perspective that cannot accommodate non-quantitative input constrains, rather than prepares, countries for more probable futures. Further, qualitative methods can also complement quantitative approaches to gain deeper and richer insights, and enable practitioners to focus on socially acceptable strategies that could achieve politically agreed goals, rather than to identify the cost optimal target.

Methodologies to integrate qualitative input

While some national studies track achievement ex post of their climate and development objectives, a primary challenge is to move beyond an illustration of their potential to a methodology that allows an ex ante focus during policymaking. Particularly, methodologies for how to practically and effectively apply this in policymaking, particularly in developing economies, are limited. The literature is increasing pointing to multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) as a set of tools to achieve this goal. An MCDA approach provides important benefits: a structure for addressing multiple objectives simultaneously, a means to account for information that is not easy to quantify (such as distributional questions), and a rigorous consideration of choices involving synergies and trade-offs when there are different stakeholder opinions on policy priorities. Each of these is integral to successful long-term strategies, because the very processes of developing such strategies requires juggling disparate social and political judgments about what, and often whom, to prioritize. Further, given their deliberative process for careful consideration of qualitative information and subjective weighting of objectives, MCDA approaches are necessarily underpinned by an early involvement of stakeholders. These include technical experts, policymakers, industry, end users, and civil society.

The key steps of such an approach are anchored in the identification and definition of the policy challenge, ideally by bringing all stakeholders onboard from the start. This is followed by an identification of the policy objectives and specific metrics for their assessment, which stems from an understanding of national priorities, followed by identification of the different policy strategies to evaluate. A sectoral schematic of problem structuring and potential strategies or solutions is shown in Figure 1. The next phase, analysis and evaluation of the alternatives, helps detect data gaps and provides a transparent basis for discussions. To this end, stakeholder preferences are elicited and quantitative and qualitative information is normalized and integrated. Methodologically, qualitative criteria can be assessed on constructed categorical scales. Further, the information is aggregated by including weights, which capture the relative importance of the evaluation criteria of the different strategies, to different actors. Finally, after running uncertainty and sensitivity analysis, the preferred policy strategy is chosen for implementation. Ideally, the results are evaluated to feed back into the policymaking process. In sum, an MCDA approach makes these subjective, implicit, and qualitative assumptions explicit and rearticulates them in order to build a more robust base of knowledge and technologies for transformative action.

Figure 1. Multiple Objectives and Policy Strategies for the Cooking Sector Study

<p>Source: Radhika Khosla et al., Towards Methodologies for Multiple Objective-Based Energy and Climate Policy, <em>Economic and Political Weekly</em>, December 5, 2015</p>

Source: Radhika Khosla et al., Towards Methodologies for Multiple Objective-Based Energy and Climate Policy, Economic and Political Weekly, December 5, 2015

Looking ahead to the development of long-term strategies

Policymaking for long-term strategies is a complex undertaking. It involves multiple objectives that can be quantitative and qualitative in their metrics, and various actors operating at different levels of governance. An MCDA approach offers a useful way to work within this complexity, as it allows policymakers to place relative weights on a range of development and climate objectives, and allows transparent assessment of their complementarities and trade-offs.

At the same time, such approaches can be time and resource intensive, and can often require large amounts of data, all of which pose limitations, especially in developing countries. So while approaches that integrate qualitative and quantitative information in such a manner do not provide an easy answer, they offer a way to focus on a good process as the starting point for a good answer. And, over time, they refine understanding starting from the current benchmark.

To seriously incorporate such approaches that systematically map interactions between different low-carbon and development-related strategies, with their qualitative underpinnings, would require involving stakeholders from the start with a commitment to deliberation. This can require working against current policymaking processes, which may not foster engagement across groups with differing agendas. As a starting point, however, policymakers can lead long-term strategies by introducing these principles into the process, such an identification of all stakeholder groups and explicitly using the information gathered in the discussions for decision-making. An identification of enabling conditions and supporting tools is also useful to operationalize more transparent policymaking about underlying assumptions, sensitivities, and threads of argument that lead to a particular result. Ultimately, successful implementation of such a framework will likely generate evidence to build capacity within and outside government to have a more open, considered, and involved approach toward long-term strategies that are compatible with broader social, economic, and environmental country goals.

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