The major pitfall of climate action planning - and how to solve it

Manon Morel Wed, 16 June 2021
pitfall of climate action planning

For decades, our understanding of climate change has followed a path of increasing confidence about its drivers and severity of its impacts. The global response though has been characterised by fits and bursts of ambition as it drifted in and out of political consciousness, but largely, it's been a triumph of hope and hyperbole over substance. Targets and goals have on too many occasions slipped through our fingers with little more than regrets and promises to do better next time.  

For a long time climate change was something coming down the track. Now it is here, and threatening to accelerate away from us. As we approach crucial tipping points, witness the flurry of meteorological records affecting the globe, it all becomes very real. 

The last couple of years has seen the world begin to wake up to our climate emergency: climate action is taking the center stage and bold commitments are increasing in their frequency, and their ambition. This rhythm is not going to slow down anytime soon. In fact, the more we realise how far we are from hitting our goals, and the more previously unknown information gets in the way, we will need to act faster, and more efficiently. 

What this means is that we need to have the capacity to react, think on our feet and adapt fast to whatever is thrown at us. But at present, the reality is that our climate action plans are not ready to face these bumps in the road. The way climate mitigation strategies are built leave little room for the fast realignment of targets and action plans. 

So what are the potential disruptors of climate action plans and how can we be better equipped to face them?

 

Risks and potential disruptors of Climate Action Plans

 

There are many events which could disrupt and throw a climate action plan off track over the course of its implementation. Here is a non-exhaustive list of disruptive and likely events which would demand the rethinking of the plan:

  • Scientific evidence and previously unknown data proves that we need to do more, faster. Everyday, we hear that the ice sheet is melting at an even more alarming rate than previously thought or that we are failing to grasp the extent of biodiversity loss. As modelling and data improve, and better align, as we saw with the IPCC’s 1.5C special report, the level of warming we will regard as safe, and the amount of cumulative emissions we have until that level will change. Often that change will increase the pressure on the targets and trajectories we have. We must be ready to change and embolden our targets and actions to tackle the challenge rapidly.

  • A changing climate and extreme weather events force us to realize that we have not succeeded in alleviating the problem. We therefore need to take bolder actions to minimize the likelihood and severity of such future events. Germany is currently facing such a challenge: as North Sea islanders fear inundation from climate change, Germany’s 2019 climate law has been deemed unfit for purpose, leading the German government to make the decision to aim for nearly net-zero emissions in 2045, instead of 2050. This has repercussions on climate plans nationally and more locally, which need fast-turn around and evidence-based targets for the newly set date.
  • Political pressure from above, whether the international or national community, and carbon disclosure and reporting systems toughen their accepted targets. At the international level, this could occur if developed countries were pressed to reduce not only their current emissions, but if they were asked to compensate for historical emissions for example. At the national level, political pressure could translate into new mandates and legal responsibilities being devolved to the municipal level. 

  • Political pressure from below, civil society, citizens and youth groups increasingly take their countries to court over climate inaction, organize protests and demand more from their governments. 

  • The realisation that progress on a certain target has been too slow and that the plan will not reach its ultimate goal. This means that we need to adjust other targets to make it through successfully to the finish line. 

 

What mitigation plans can borrow from adaptation and resilience plans

 

Climate action plans are not ready to face and adapt quickly and swiftly to such events. The fact is, a comprehensive and consistent climate action plan is the result of many hours of intensive analysis and expert input. Climate action plans are not only difficult to edit due to all the interdependent, complex information they contain but also due to their format, most often shaped as static pdfs and sets of spreadsheets. 

Even the process of collaborating to edit is hampered by the medium they are created in. They are also the sum of numerous conversations and the result of consensus between multiple stakeholders, which may have taken months to build. Furthermore, the history of such plans is one of plans being adopted and then followed until their conclusion (even when hopelessly out of date in a fast changing world). There is no precedent for municipal climate strategies and accompanying plans incorporating this reflexive dynamism, and having governance and communications to support this.

As such, realigning a plan is far from automatic. Climate mitigation plans are lacking a major element: the flexibility to deal with the disruption of unexpected events, unknown outcomes -  and incorporate this iteratively. Unlike adaptation plans, which are contingent on what is expected to happen and have in-built accommodation of uncertainty, climate mitigation plans trace a line in the future to follow that supposes a high level of confidence! But one thing is for sure, just like for adaptation, planning for climate change is not linear or straightforward, and room should be left to deal with the unexpected and correct our course before it is too late. 

At the moment, this maladaptation to uncertainty and change makes climate action plans sensitive to being derailed. And this sort of disruption is not something we can afford, when targets are set and need to be attained within the next 20 years. 

 

The case for Living Climate Action Plans for continuous optimisation 

 

We need action plans that enable us to get back on our feet quickly, and that factor in, and optimize our processes for uncertainty and iteration. Plans that can be adjusted on the fly, and reduce friction, as much as possible, to keep the plan on track. 

Below is an assessment of what most climate action plans are like today, and what is needed for them to become truly Living Plans, proofed against, or rather, embracing uncertainty: 

  1. The format and nature of action plans needs to evolve, from scattered spreadsheets, towards cloud-based solutions and integrated models, to enable rapid and automatic recalculations. In other words, we need to move from plan to platform. Usually, when one part of the plan is altered, so is the rest of the plan, and we need solutions which enable these modifications to be made automatically, and effortlessly, across the whole landscape, so that we can get to the important part - out of planning, and back into implementation.  

    As Founder of ClimateView, Tomer Shalit rightly says: ‘In this time and age, data and calculations should be easy to do. We need to make decisions faster than ever, so let computers do what they’re good at: analyses, simulations, calculations, so that people can do what they need to do: make fact-based decisions that will carry us to our goal’. 

  2. We need a change of mindset: we need to infuse our work processes with flexibility, adaptive management and agile processes. Targets are not set in stone, and we need to be ready to reframe our assumptions and learn from the knowledge we acquire as we go. Increasingly, climate action planning needs to be iterative, open to experimentation and reframing. Once we adopt this new way of working, we will be able to face challenges and increasingly tight deadlines by resetting our targets, strategies and activate creative ways at the local level to meet these targets. 

  3. This adaptive management also requires that we continue to communicate effectively and fruitfully with all stakeholders, even as we go back, and iterate on our plans. The flow of information needs to be optimized to ensure that everyone is informed instantly and transparently, has a voice and can also adapt to carry the plan forward. Cloud-software and automated dashboards have an important role to play in this. 

  4. For a plan to be truly ‘alive’ and continuously optimized, we need the plan to be capable of learning and benefiting from all relevant knowledge, and to adapt it to its context. Once more, machine learning and cloud-based solutions have a key role to play in this. We will all be better off and better prepared to face uncertainty if we share information we acquire as we plan and learn. As such, we can and should share: 
    • Our data and knowledge about the mechanisms and actual physical systems that move, heat, build and feed our cities. How they interconnect and inter-operate is understood by simulations and models that we all use. These physical facts  are identical and applicable across the globe. 
    • The costs and impacts of infrastructure and energy investments. These will differ from place to place. But ultimately, they are pretty similar. But they do change over time, and everyday we gain new experience of their effects from all corners of the globe. 
    • Our policy choices and rationale. Now… consequences of a specific policy will differ a fair bit between different nations and cities... But cities everywhere are telling us they want to hear what worked, and didn't... What happened with EV adoption policies in Norway? Well some worked, some didn’t, some had surprising effects. We can seldom copy each other's policies, but most certainly can be inspired, and create insightful local adaptations of them. 
    • Our reasoning, and the logical and scientific paths-of-thought that underpin our decision making. Not because they are correct, but because they are most probably wrong to start off with! But, if we understand each other’s reasoning to our decisions, we have a much better chance to improve our collective reasoning. And with every new bit of data, everything we share, we can grow the collaborative intelligence we need to act on Climate Change.

 

It is easier to iterate when we already know what works and what doesn’t, and why. We have the chance to adapt and get back on our feet much faster if we do share all these variables. But it isn’t enough to share and have access to all this information. We also need to have a way to sort through it all and make it work. For that, we believe that an operating system is the only way. ClimateOS provides this framework: The data, the simulations, the structure, the common language. It’s a way to interconnect our thinking and continuously improve and optimize our actions. 

For decades, we have had a tendency to design everything from our actual physical cities to more abstract climate action plans following ‘permanent configurations, which is the opposite of what is required in a world going through radical changes across multiple frontiers’. Good climate adaptation and resilience plans have embedded flexibility and potential for adjustment at their heart. It is now time for climate mitigation plans to do the same.