This perspective piece is adapted from a presentation by the authors, who were among the those invited to discuss  “what it means to plan for synergies in a time of intersecting crises”, the first in a webinar series hosted by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

As we enter this COVID-19 recovery period, we will likely hear that climate action is a luxury we cannot afford, given the urgent need to get people back to work.  The truth, though, is that the scale and urgency of the challenge, combined with the rarity of these periods of economic rethinking, make it essential that we act now.

The question is, how?

It is important to remember that the world is facing twin crises: not just a climate crisis, but also a development crisis. Poorer nations, already facing extreme levels of poverty, will see these challenges exacerbated by the pandemic and its accompanying economic depression.

Identifying synergies between climate action and other important issues has never been more urgent. Air pollution abatement offers a prime example – since action on one issue (climate) has the potential to promote greater ambition in other areas (improving public health).

But some caution is needed. A truly synergistic approach must go further than identifying quick, win-win co-benefits.  A longer-term perspective is required: one that asks: does our proposed strategy get us on the critical path needed to achieve our climate and development goals?

“Three pieces of the picture – finance, technology transfer and capacity building – must be addressed to move forward.”

Take, for example, measures to reduce methane emissions. Methane is the second-most important greenhouse gas. It also contributes to the formation of tropospheric ozone, causing severe impacts on human health and crop yields. One key methane mitigation option involves reducing leaks from oil and gas facilities. This will require strong buy-in from the industry, and must surely come at the cost of providing reassurance to the industry about its long-term future. So, while there may be significant short-term benefits in implementing such measures, they will likely create lock-in to a system that is fundamentally at odds with our long-term climate goals.

More holistic planning and deeper synergistic thinking can help countries identify pathways that are better able to increase ambition.  Many of the elements of the required pathways may even be economically beneficial since they will help to avoid the severe economic disbenefits of environmental degradation. However, most such actions will be highly capital intensive. They will require ready access to advanced technologies, and intensive capacity building to help countries develop plans that are both ambitious and credible.

These three pieces of the picture – finance, technology transfer and capacity building – are all necessary. All must be addressed to move forward.

On finance, without fundamental shifts in patterns of economic development, poorer countries cannot afford to take the required actions. A reshaping of global economic agreements is required in ways that help bridge the gap between what needs to be done and what developing countries can afford to do.

As for the other key elements – technology transfer and capacity building – these are more immediately tractable topics and are key issues for our work at the Stockholm Environment Institute.  At SEI, we have spent the last 30 years helping to build capacity for energy and climate planning in low- and middle-income countries.  The COVID-19 crisis brings new urgency to our work. Our experience shows that the type of planning that best supports more ambitious climate goals is synergistic – and it needs to take place within countries themselves.

“There is a narrow window to develop and implement the integrated plans essential to confronting the climate and development crises. We must use the COVID recovery period wisely.”

We are working to enable synergistic planning in developing countries in three key ways:

Enhancing LEAP, SEI’s signature energy policy planning tool

We have developed a suite of tools that can be used for integrated assessment of energy policy, climate change mitigation, and air pollution abatement. Just this month, we released a new version of our signature Low Emissions Analysis Platform (LEAP), which has major new features including the ability to examine health impacts of both indoor and outdoor air pollution. LEAP also can evaluate the role of energy storage and renewables in enabling deep decarbonization of electricity systems. These detailed planning capabilities are bundled together within a tool that has been designed to be usable in contexts where data are limited.  We make LEAP available at no cost to governments, academics, and NGOs in low- and lower-middle income countries.

The LEAP user community includes over 45,000 practitioners worldwide. For example, in Mexico the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources is using LEAP to help inform its next submission for its nationally determined contribution (NDC) to meet the Paris Agreement.  Cognizant of public health and environmental synergies, the government is taking an integrated approach to planning for mitigation of conventional greenhouse gas emissions and emissions of short-lived climate pollutants. In Morocco, meanwhile, LEAP modeling has shown economic and environmental benefits of the country’s aggressive renewable energy targets. This is strengthening the case for near and mid-term action. Morocco has emerged as a global leader on renewables precisely because the country understands the links between decarbonization and sustainable economic growth.

Helping build in-country capacity to leverage synergies and technologies

We have also recently launched a multi-year action program that specifically targets synergistic planning to better support the climate and SDG agendas. Through this new Integrated Climate and Development Planning Initiative, we are working with national planners and decision-makers in multiple lower-income countries to help them devise more strategic approaches, leverage technological and methodological advances, and build and reinforce capacity to achieve their goals – and enhance their ambitions – themselves.

Finding ways to simultaneously address development, climate action and air pollution in Africa

SEI is also embarking on a new integrated assessment of climate, air pollution and SDGs in Africa. Conducted in partnership with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), this work – the Africa Assessment – aims to identify policies that simultaneously enable development, climate action and air pollution abatement. We are building a continent-wide model that represents each African nation individually and that countries can use as a starting point for their own planning. Critically, the assessment is quantifying linkages between climate change mitigation, air pollution, health, and other sustainable development goals. A lack of quantitative evidence on such synergies is a major obstacle to realizing the promise of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda.

The introduction of new mechanisms – such as biennial update reports and the NDC process itself – has helped countries build their institutional capacity for climate planning. Nevertheless, we have really just scratched the surface of what needs to be done. Very few countries have developed their planning capacity to a point where they can readily create and communicate the ambitious plans that are needed. For example, few countries have conducted detailed cost-benefit analyses of mitigation strategies, let alone considered the implications for equity, jobs and environmental justice.

Building countries’ capacity for integrated planning is immensely important, but it is also complex. It will require a major effort. Consistent, concerted support from the international community is needed. There is a narrow window to develop and implement the integrated plans essential to confronting the climate and development crises. We must use the COVID-19 recovery period wisely – to fill the gap between current policies and the planning needed to achieve global climate and development imperatives.