There can be no ambitious climate action without inclusive policy data

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Efforts to tackle climate change are at a critical stage. All governments are due to bring enhanced national commitments to international negotiations in November, and the next five years of implementation will determine whether warming can even remain at safe levels.

But the world just doesn’t have a good track record of implementing ambitious climate policy. At the level of national “mass politics”, it is often very unpopular; and at the level of national “elite politics”, it must overcome powerful vested interests.

As governments and donors gather this winter at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, at least one area that needs increased attention will focus on the question: how can we better understand and navigate domestic politics and how it interacts. with international processes?

Lessons Learned from Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform

In the energy realm, consider fossil fuel subsidies, which G20 governments pledged to reform in 2009. More than a decade later, governments still spend more than $ 500 billion on production and consumption of fossil fuels at home and abroad. Progress has been made, but for every story of positive change, there is at least one of failed reform – from the French yellow vests movement, sparked by an attempt to remove diesel subsidies, to mass protests in Ecuador when fuel prices were increased.

These experiences show how inherently difficult it is to introduce policies that impact the entire economy, creating winners and losers, and raising tough questions about what is fair and who should bear it. the costs.

One strategy to overcome this challenge has been to collect reliable data on political economy factors, in order to help design subsidy reforms. In political science, a common structure is to collect data on ideas, interests and institutions. For mass politics, this includes the subsets of society that will win and lose before and after reform, the perceptions of stakeholders and voters – including existing knowledge of issues, values ​​and preferences – and the role of social movements. For elite politics, this includes mapping interest groups and political parties that have a stake in the outcome and influence decision-making.

Another strategy is to take an inclusive approach. It means co-creating data and analysis with relevant stakeholders, and giving them a voice in policy design – by making it part of the process, not just reducing it to a data point that can be measured and anticipated. Typically, this is more important for communities and interest groups that lack power, but have a very strong interest in achieving equitable results, especially poor households and working people.

In the case of energy subsidies, it has become common practice for governments and international development agencies to collect detailed data on the political economy of reform. But much less emphasis has been placed on inclusiveness in the way data is produced and the way policy is designed, due to the sensitivity of the issue itself.

As a result, very little data is made public and few decision-making explicitly involves the groups concerned. With the exception of some NGO and university work, such as attitudes towards grants in India and Nigeria, strong data on political factors tends to be created for governments and kept nearby. by governments. Genuine and meaningful engagement is rare.

In the short term, this avoids controversy. But in the medium term, this creates information asymmetries, impoverishing the quality of independent political analysis and public debate. It can also undermine trust in political processes and prevent cross-learning between countries.

What can we do?

In 2020 and 2021, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, an international think tank, organized a series of roundtables to bring together political scientists and policy practitioners from advanced and emerging economies. We have found a consensus that asymmetry of information on politics is a major problem, especially outside of North America and Europe, where much less independent efforts have been put in place. to track and share data.

Vested interests in fossil fuels are relatively clustered and have sufficient resources to inform lobbying and marketing. Other actors, however, are diffuse. They tailor their work to political constraints, but often based solely on expert judgment, as significant resources are required to generate more in-depth data and analysis.

As pressure mounts to quickly implement an ambitious climate policy, we believe that a major joint effort is needed to produce publicly accessible policy data in an inclusive manner – not only on issues such as energy subsidies, but also on major emerging themes such as the just transition and beyond coal, oil and gas.

This should be built on a service-based approach, identifying the biggest data demands from sustainability stakeholders in countries with the biggest data gaps. At the level of mass politics, this would lead to quantitative and qualitative data on the perceptions, values ​​and preferences of people in large economies and over time. It would also involve creating distribution data on who wins and who loses from the energy transition, and to what extent this correlates with perceptions and concerns about justice and inequality..

At the elite policy level, this would include better data on the role of lobbying fossil fuel interests when investments go wrong – building on the existing excellent monitoring of lobbying in stimulus packages, but in recent years. ‘extending to emerging economies, which are among the greatest risks of asset stranding. It would also include data on decision-making among state-owned enterprises, a key player in the energy sector in many emerging economies, which typically have strong social responsibility mandates.

Finally, the links between national and international forces that ultimately influence decision-making – the “who, what, when, where, why” of international commitments taken seriously by national policy should be identified.

Of course, efforts are already limited to address some of these challenges. But the scale seems insufficient given the scale of the problem, both in terms of the data that should ideally be collected and the efforts required for inclusive consultation and dissemination.

There is no magic formula for tackling climate policy. But taking political factors more seriously, addressing them more systematically, and creating data and tools that empower sustainability advocates, will certainly be a big step forward.

This editorial is indebted to a series of joint discussions on energy policy and transition that took place in the second half of 2020 between practitioners and political scientists working in India, Indonesia, South Africa, Switzerland, UK and in the United States, and supported by the Interface Sciences-Politiques de Genève (GSPI).

It is endorsed by all participating experts, including: Tobias Schmidt and Nicolas Schmid, the Energy Policy and Technologies group at ETH Zurich; many colleagues from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD); Anish Sugathan, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA); Elrika Hamdi, Indonesian program at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA); Johannes Urpelainen, Initiative for a Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP); Nthabi Mohlakoana, the Stellenbosch Center for Complex Systems in Transition (CST); and Neil McCulloch, The Policy Practice (TPP).

Christopher Beaton is Manager, Sustainable Energy Use, of the Energy program at IISD.


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