Capacity development: Coming into the spotlight in a new climate era?

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, Senior Program Officer at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, explains the benefits of the international climate change negotiating community now recognizing the importance of capacity development as REDD+ implementation gets underway. Successful implementation, she argues, rests on capacity development efforts. 

Capacity development has long been the less glamorous sibling in the suite of climate change topics typically discussed at the meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Once sidelined in favor of more dramatic negotiations on REDD+ safeguards, climate finance and agreement on global emission reduction targets, the tables may be turning for capacity development. Corridor talk at the Bonn Climate Change Conference revealed a shift in perspective beyond REDD+ design to what will come next. After 10 years of development, a landmark achievement has been reached with the finalization of the REDD+ framework during the 42nd session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 42). RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests applauds the breakthrough consensus and welcomes the positive implications for local communities of further safeguards guidance, non-carbon benefits and joint mitigation and adaption – though stronger safeguard provisions including reference to participatory processes are still required. The anticipated climate agreement in Paris will set the foundation for the next few decades of climate action: moving the global community beyond the design and negotiation of frameworks and firmly on the path of implementation. Yet, for those involved in piloting and other readiness activities to date, it is clear that a major gulf exists between capacities required for implementation and current capacities on the ground. RECOFTC understands this first hand, regularly receiving requests from national REDD+ task forces and working groups for training on the basics of REDD+.

In a side event held jointly with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) during SBSTA 42 in Bonn, Germany last week, RECOFTC emphasized the evolving role of capacity development in the international climate change arena. The RECOFTC presentation emphasized the need for capacity development in order for the UNFCCC Convention principle of equity (Article 3, and reiterated in the draft negotiating text) to be met. While legitimate questions were raised by panelist Michael Bucki, EU REDD+ negotiator, on compelling reasons for donors to concern themselves with equity in results-based REDD+, RECOFTC takes the position that equity, particularly in forest-based mitigation solutions, is a prerequisite for the sustainability and effectiveness of interventions. As CIFOR’s Grace Wong argued, donors should incorporate equity if for no reason other than ethical imperatives.

Capacity development status and frameworks

The Non-Annex 1, or developing, countries are more than aware of their own capacity limitations. A 2014 Subsidiary Body for Implementation synthesis report on capacity-development implementation included self-identified capacity gaps such as lack of adequate policy frameworks, greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory strategies, national adaptation plans and technology action plans (TAPs), NAMAs and development of meteorological systems and models.

In 2001, the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties adopted two capacity development frameworks that address the needs, conditions and priorities of developing countries and of countries with economies in transition. These frameworks lay out a set of guiding principles and approaches to capacity development that has been widely advocated by Non-Annex 1 Parties and which RECOFTC also supports and expects to be included within the Paris climate agreement – namely, capacity development ought to be country-driven, involve learning through action and build on existing activities.

Capacity development in the new climate agreement

The Geneva negotiating text contains capacity development as one of its key substantive sections.  While options proposed for the text remain bracketed, all of the referenced options under capacity development institutional arrangements refer to the establishment of an international capacity development mechanism. RECOFTC lauds the attention and ambition that capacity development is generating in the draft climate agreement. However, words of caution are warranted. As mentioned above, existing national capacities may be considerably thinner than imagined as a starting point for some of the ambitious capacity development programs being envisioned. Balanced attention to national stakeholders is required; and not only attention to senior officials or grassroots communities alone, but towards entire stakeholder chains, including sub-national officials, other line agencies and the next generation of policymakers. Finally, for climate solutions to be sustainable, capacity development must be undertaken equitably. And, as CIFOR’s Maria Brockhaus noted in her presentation, there are significant differences in how equity is reflected in national and local-level discourses. More work needs to be done on developing context-based understanding of what equity and equitable capacity development will mean for countries involved in REDD+. Lofty principles of equity as laid out in the Convention ultimately need to be operationalized and made relevant on the ground.


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