International development aid is widely considered essential to support climate adaptation efforts in low-income countries. There has been a rapid increase in the number and geographic range of case studies reporting outcomes of low-carbon development projects, while a limited number of complementary analytical frameworks have also been produced to enable insights to be translated into tangible guidelines and recommendations for policy makers.

A particularly important outcome from this body of research has been to demonstrate how poor design and implementation of these projects can create significant negative socio-economic and ecological outcomes at a local level. However, unpicking the causal mechanisms through which these unintended outcomes are created within complex systems remains a challenge.

Making use of Sovacool et al.’s (2015) influential 4Es framework and combining it with the “mechanisms of social change” (MOSC) language for analysing systems, the authors provide an approach for setting out causal pathways that explain how the implementation of adaptation projects creates negative as well as positive impacts.