Who gets to claim the credit?

In the evaluation of climate change mitigation interventions a lot of questions revolve around the greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation impact. Did the intervention actually reduce GHG emissions? And if yes: Who can claim that his actions were the cause for that? What a difficult question. For one, it is always hard to measure something that did not take place like the GHG emissions that were supposedly avoided. But beyond this conundrum, additional attribution issues are introduced through the indirect nature of many climate mitigation interventions.

The direct sources that emit most GHGs in the energy sector are fossil fuel combustion processes. The effort to  avoiding these emissions is typically closely linked to the GHG-emitting energy conversion technology or energy-using technology that emits and – after a GHG reducing intervention – is substituted by a technology that does not emit CO2 (like a renewable energy technology), or by one that uses less energy. For example, in the simple case of replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs, there is a technical switch from one technology to another. Sometimes a physical fix can also consist in using existing equipment more efficiently. In any case it is easy to assign the resulting GHG emissions to the actual physical process of exchanging that light bulb or switching from a diesel generator to a micro-hydro power plant. This is the logic of paying for Certified Emission Reductions in the context of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) or in a voluntary carbon market.

However, very few development-oriented activities outside of the carbon market are involved in or even close to the physical switch. In most cases, donor-funded climate mitigation interventions supply only part of the preconditions for the physical switch, for example the availability of financing for the switch. Even more often, non-CDM mitigation interventions help build parts of the supply chain, of the policy framework, of the demand, or other types of local capacity. In these cases, can the intervention actually claim any part of the credit for the GHG reduction? And if yes, how? If it could not claim to be causal for at least some part of the reduction or the logical chain that led to it, the rationale for some of these funds becomes rather weak and might get called into question.

And in fact, there is no doubt that a number of preconditions need to be in place for the physical switch to be possible and that climate-mitigation-and-development interventions help greatly in providing them: The technology needs to be available, local users need to be aware of it, and create demand, they need to be aided by local technicians in getting used to the new technology or getting maintenance services. If we talk about larger investments – and in some development contexts an energy-efficient cook stove for a few dollars might already constitute a pretty large investment  -  financing sources might be necessary that allow the users to swing this investment even if it might be cost-effective in the long run. In these cases, the users will be able to pay back the loans. It might also not be cost-effective in terms of pure financial costs, but still have significant development and climate benefits. In these cases grant financing might help to improve the cost effectiveness of the single investments. In some other cases, policy frameworks might be necessary to level the playing field between new and traditional technologies.

This also means that a number of stakeholders need to be included in many development interventions that strive to systematically deploy a sustainable energy technology. I propose that sustainable market development most of the time requires to consider four main groups of stakeholders: users of the technology, the supply chain (i.e. shops and maintenance people), and often also financiers and policy makers. These groups of stakeholders typically encounter a number of barriers that keep them from using or supporting the sustainable energy technology. I counted seven types of barriers:

  • Ignorance – people might not know that the sustainable technological alternative exists.
  • Lack of motivation – people might not be interested in using, supplying, financing, or supporting it.
  • Lack of expertise – people might not know how to use it, maintain it, valuate its economic promise, or its benefit for energy supply and climate mitigation.
  • Lack of access to technology – it might not be available in the respective country due to a lack of licensed production or a presence of prohibitive import tariffs.
  • Lack of business model – it might not be affordable at the currently used cash flow and liquidity models, but a different type of loans or a rental scheme might make it affordable.
  • Lack of affordability – it might not be affordable. Period.

Not all of them affect all groups of stakeholders. For example, the “lack of interest” barrier will not affect financiers or the supply chain, if all other barriers are removed, i.e. if they are “aware” of a “cost-effective” “business model”, i.e. see a way how to make money of financing or selling that new technology. On the other hand, households might not act all that rational and still might not use a technology even if it might be cheaper and better than the old technology, just because they abhor change.

Obviously, without these types of “indirect” interventions, the physical switch from the non-sustainable to the more sustainable way of using or procuring energy is not happening on a significant scale. These interventions thus constitute important aspects of the program logic of (large scale) energy mitigation efforts. Or, to put it the other way around, it is necessary to remove the barriers mentioned above to get some kind of self-sustaining momentum to integrate climate mitigation and development. And now figure your project removes the “awareness” barrier for solar panels with “financiers” by doing a promotional roadshow with rural cooperative banks and microfinance institutions. Can you claim the credit for the avoided greenhouse gas emissions? If yes, how and to what part?

Dr. Christine Woerlen is the principal consultant at Arepo Consult based in Berlin, Germany. She is conducting a meta-evaluation study of mitigation evaluations for the Global Environment Facility Evaluatiobn Office. You can reach her at woerlen@arepo-consult.com.

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