Climate action wider impacts analysis

22 November 2021

Wider impacts analysis can help health, economy, transport, energy, nature, social and other policy makers understand the synergies and conflicts of climate actions with their priority actions.

  • What benefits do climate actions bring beyond emission reductions?
  • What are the conflicts or negative impacts of climate action that need addressing?

Policy context

Actions to mitigate climate change often have wider social, economic and environmental impacts. These impacts can be both positive and negative. For example, tackling energy efficiency by improving building insulation can have local co-benefits through developing job opportunities and supply chains, economic impacts from reduced fuel bills and health benefits through warmer/cooler living and improved air quality in the home. While supporting this kind of analysis, Aether has compiled a database of academic studies and technical reports that assess the synergies and conflicts associated with climate action. The database is used as evidence to link together climate actions and targeted wider impacts in a qualitative manner, to support policy makers. Analysis of the results brings useful insights to support decision making:

  1. There is no one size fits all climate action plan. Decision makers need to carefully consider social, environmental, and economic contexts.
  2. Climate action plans receive much more buy-in and interest when they spell out the positive wider impacts and acknowledge the conflicts that need navigating.
  3. Stakeholder engagement around climate action and wider impacts rationalises the climate action and accelerates action.

Wider impacts analysis is increasingly important in policy development. It brings new information to support policy decisions within public and private organisations. In a more holistic approach to policy making, it allows the consideration of other possible impacts of policies beyond the initial intended effect. It also helps stakeholders to avoid seeing climate action as separate from other development priorities; the challenges of climate change are inextricably linked to other global and local economic, social and environmental challenges. The apparent dichotomy between climate action and prosperity is a false one.

In their joint statement at COP26, the US and China included “maximising the societal benefits of the clean energy transition” as an explicit point of cooperation, showing significant recognition of the importance of this discourse. The transition to net zero is essential, but it must be a just transition.  Ultimately, our decision makers must operate considering a complex array of needs that include the environment, the economy, society and climate change. We cannot afford to make bad or polarised decisions focused on one dimension that have negative impacts in other areas.

About Aether’s wider impacts database

Aether’s wider impacts database was initiated through a project with DECC (now BEIS) in 2016, and we have since developed it further through several national and local projects. Currently, the database contains information from approximately 1,500 papers, reports and articles, covering 39 impact categories and 60 climate action categories. It spans 8 economic sectors and 80 countries/regions.

Complemented with specific research to the local context, Aether’s database can be used to produce a customised matrix (see example below) of the wider impacts of climate actions on other local or national strategies (e.g. economic, social and environmental) and Sustainable Development Goals, for a region or nation. The wider impact categories can be set to the SDGs or customised to a local or national sustainable development strategy.

Stakeholder engagement is a key part of any wider impacts analysis. Telling the full story of action with its relevant associated wider impacts is increasingly important. The database facilitates bringing a wide range of stakeholders together to understand the relationships between specific climate mitigation actions and wider sustainable development aspirations in the local context. For example, the majority of Luxembourg’s electricity consumption is imported by interconnectors with neighbouring countries, so the wider impacts of climate actions around energy supply are likely to differ from a nation that looks to reduce coal-based power generation.

Matrices for decision making

The summary matrix below gives an overview of research findings in terms of the direction and magnitude of possible wider impacts associated with specific climate actions. The matrix highlights where “big-wins” could be made; policies that have multiple benefits for other sustainable development strategies, and where policies could potentially conflict with other national strategies. The links between climate actions (columns) and the wider sustainable development strategies (wider impacts), (rows) are typically  shown on a scale from strongly positive (++), through neutral or no additional impact (0) to negative wider impacts (-). The scoring is underpinned by the evidence in the wider impacts research evidence database. Full detailed matrices that include all relevant climate action and sustainable development categories are used in specific wider impact engagements.

WImatrixexample.PNG

As an example, a sub column of the “Alternative fuel vehicles” climate action column above is electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are a common action to reduce emissions from transport. Provided that the electricity supplied to the vehicles is renewable, the day to day use of the car can be considered zero emissions and deliver significant carbon savings. Even if the electricity generation is not totally carbon free, electric vehicles can still reduce local air pollution and save on fuel costs longer term. However, electric vehicles do not address many other social and environmental issues. Switching petrol and diesel cars to electric doesn’t reduce traffic congestion, road traffic collisions, air pollution from brake and tyre wear, and it increases demand (and emissions) from the mining and transport of rare metals needed for battery production. Other transport climate policies, such as actions to encourage modal shift from private transport to active travel, can deliver emissions savings but with greater positive wider impacts. The health benefits of walking and cycling are hard to overstate, neither worsen local air quality, and both save money over the outlay and maintenance of a vehicle. This is not to say that everyone must sell their car and get a bike, just to highlight the benefits of reducing the number of car journeys made every day.    

The relationship scores in the matrix do not present the guaranteed wider impacts of a policy. Instead, they are intended to provide an entry point to inform policy makers about benefits, conflicts and barriers. It enables engagement and the design of policies to maximise potential synergies and deal, head on, potential harms. For example, local renewable energy deployment (using biofuels or requiring land for solar PV or wind) can sometimes negatively affect local biodiversity, through the destruction and disruption of habitats and ecosystems. But with thoughtful planning, this doesn’t need to be the case.

The future of wider impacts

Despite clear potential wider benefits, some climate actions do not get implemented or are hindered by limited adoption uptake. Recognising and understanding the potential barriers to effective implementation of climate action, through wider impacts analysis engagement with wider stakeholder groups, allows steps to be taken to minimise and overcome these barriers. Many of the barriers can be mitigated through enhanced communication, awareness and consultation with the public, stakeholders and government departments.

There is no silver bullet to reaching net zero; every action to reduce emissions needs to be considered. But by understanding the wider impacts of these actions, the mix of policies can be balanced to address other societal priorities and maximise the benefits. Conversely, mitigation ambition is not always the primary reason for policy decisions which impact GHG emissions. The linkages identified in our work can help to bring climate impacts into the discussion with other policy priorities. Limited resources can go further when the design and implementation of a policy tackles climate change as well as other priorities such as health and poverty reduction.

We will soon be launching a beta version of our database for public viewing and use, and we look forward to getting feedback on how it can be developed further as a key resource. Interactive summary visualisation outputs of the database can be seen here.

Examples of our previous work can be seen here.

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