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Understanding climate resilience: Interview with Ecosynergy’s Barbara Oliveira


In this interview, Barbara Oliveira, Executive Director of Ecosynergy, talks to the LEDS GP communications team about climate resilience, and its particular significance in low emission development strategies.

What is your background in low emission development and how did you get involved with low emission development strategies (LEDS)?

I came from the UN system, where our concern was mostly about having a view of ‘development first’ strategies in a way that also considered climate change challenges and adaptation needs, not as a side concern, but in the core of all the development policies. At that time we didn’t talk about LEDS, it was just ‘development first’ versus ‘climate first’. From there, I left the UN system and founded Ecosynergy, which is now eight years old; to develop carbon projects in Brazil. In 2012, I was invited to join the LEDS GP, and incidentally in the same meeting the Climate Resilience Integration to LEDS Working Group was born, and I became the chair of that group for about two years. We worked on the importance of having a climate resilient mindset while developing LEDS; going beyond mitigation and thinking long-term about a country’s ability to cope with climate change in a proactive way.

What is climate resilience and how does it differ from climate adaptation?

Climate resilience could be seen as a broader concept than climate adaptation, actually. While adaptation is about adjusting natural and social systems to actual or expected climate and its effects, resilience is a concept that comes from biology; it’s being able to bounce back from stresses. The society or system needs to reorganize in such a way to keep functioning – if possibly even better; it’s dealing with the stress and taking its ability to thrive, to essentially maintain or enhance its original function, structure, and identity. Strict incremental adaptation focuses on the absorption aspect of systems; on system adjustments. Climate resilience is applying the resilience concept to climate change: making us think in terms of system wide changes, and in fact, looking at what it means to make socioeconomic systems able to cope with the effects of climate change and learn, innovate, and become even better than before. This can also be referred to as ‘transformational adaptation‘.

How does climate resilience link to LEDS and why have you recently written a paper on why LEDS practitioners should think about resilience?

When we think of policies in an integrated way – like most countries nowadays – the truth is we have different ministries planning different bits of a policy. For example an environment minister will look at emissions and their relationships to ecosystems, a trade minister will look at how that policy will affect international trade in terms of import and export of goods from their country, an economy minister will think of how the policy includes poorer people, and then a health minister is thinking about the impact the policy will have on respiratory diseases etc.

These policies usually start from a mitigation action looking at how to cut down greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is not as common to have policies that not only look at how to curb emissions, but that also deal with potential adaptation needs. An example of this is investing in reforestation projects in an area where there is a clear trend of drought; unless specific fire-prevention measures are taken, this could lead to forest fires and reduce the ability of local communities to stay safe and survive from the products of the forest. These factors have to be considered from the start, and not just later, when the project or policy is already being implemented. So integrating climate resilience into LEDS is all about having a much more crosscutting, synergetic approach to development. That’s why Ecosynergy has recently published a paper ‘Integrating Climate Resilience in policy and planning of low emission development strategies’ about why policy-makers and practitioners who have climate mitigation and low emissions development as their starting point must consider the resilience of their interventions in a broader way. If they don’t, then there is a risk of ‘maladaptation’; that is either increasing vulnerability to climate change or overlooking opportunities for adaptation – our paper explains this in greater length.

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What are the challenges in climate resilience at the moment?

Looking specifically at resilience in our societies, the biggest challenge is the way we look at the world, which means we need to enhance education. Our whole education system is built on a compartmentalised model of thinking, separating Maths from Biology from Chemistry etc. The concept of multidisciplinary learning still needs to be properly developed as the hard questions come from multiple perspectives. For this reason climate resilience needs to improve in five particular areas that I go into in the paper: information exchange, capacity building, policy design, financing, and institution strengthening and partnerships.

Climate resilience toolkits are becoming more and more widely used; there is the United States Climate Resilience Toolkit, the Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT), and Low Emission Climate Resilient Development Strategies (LECRDS). What, in your opinion, are these toolkits doing well, and where, if at all, could they be improving?

I think the toolkits have the greatest advantage of having been tested in many countries, both at national and at program/project level, and they are based on very solid knowledge, so we’re starting from a good point! The way they can grow is to have a more systemic view; to ask the difficult questions about how can we not develop as others have developed before in terms of being a bit cleaner or with a lower emissions footprint, but actually develop in a better, new and improved way. For this, looking at how countries adopt a systemic approach will be helpful, and this means looking at interdependency, not only in the short term but also the long term view, and also keeping redundancies. This last point is an important one; when we think of climate resilience, we’re not always looking at efficiency; we’re often looking at redundancies, asking where we should have redundancies in the system so if one thing fails, where is the next one to take its place? For example, the Netherlands has two energy systems and they never have power cuts, because as soon as one fails, the other one starts working. These frameworks can grow by incorporating local knowledge and fostering these aspects of interdependence, redundancies, and becoming more adaptive through learning.

Going forward for climate resilience, if you could give practitioners and policy advisors one piece of advice for integrating climate resilience into LEDS, what would it be?

Above all my advice is to not seek certainty; seek the best available information that allows you to make the smallest decision with the highest positive impact for the greatest amount of stakeholders. This means, above all, collaborating with other ministers and societal stakeholders that think differently to you; they are your assets and not your challenges. Pilot policies, learn and adapt; make them flexible enough that you can adjust a policy at the point at where the next decision is made, based on lessons learned, in a dynamic, iterative way. The paper presents many ideas and examples of how a number of countries have successfully adopted this approach.

Read the Ecosynergy paper on integrating climate resilience into LEDS here.

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