Strengthening development in the face of the climate crisis and environmental degradation

By Jorge Moreira da Silva, Director, OECD Development Co-operation Directorate and Andrew Norton, Director, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Aftermath of a Brazilian Amazon fire

The climate emergency and broader environmental destruction — from forest devastation to loss of biodiversity to depleted water supplies — are challenging international aid agencies’ collective ability to support sustainable development.

Despite awareness of these growing pressures, these issues are often peripheral to how development agencies work. True, most members of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) have adopted environmental safeguards and are refocusing some of their actions on tackling the climate crisis. Too often, however, development agencies overlook other pressing environmental problems, such as sustainable management of forests, land and water, and related health issues such as sanitation, indoor air pollution and urban slum improvements.  In short, agencies have yet to fully integrate environmental concerns ― including climate change ― in their policies, plans, budgets and actions.

But how? The DAC examined the practices of its members — focusing on the European Union, Sweden and Canada — with support from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and identified five steps that agencies should adopt if they want to effectively tackle critical environmental challenges and threats:

Make a strong commitment to the environment. This includes adopting legal requirements for environmental integration, such as Canada’s legislation on environmental appraisal. Development agency leadership at a political and senior management level must commit to environmental mainstreaming as a high priority.  Financial targets or expenditure commitments can create incentives, as seen from the European Commission’s target to spend 20% of its budget on climate action, with a proposal to increase it to 25% by 2021, along with doubling biodiversity-related finance to EUR 332 million a year.

Establish robust mainstreaming systems, processes and tools. Mainstreaming begins with rigorous environmental appraisal of a project’s impact on climate and the environment. However, it must not stop there. While most mainstreaming efforts concentrate on the planning stages of a project, implementation and monitoring require more attention.  As Global Affairs Canada has found, including environmental indicators in performance management frameworks allows for better monitoring.

Develop capacity and skills. A network of staff, or a community of experts, as the one set up in the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), can raise the awareness of the need to mainstream environmental and climate issues.  An environment/climate helpdesk or facility, like in the European Commission, can provide technical support.

Improve organisational learning on the environment.  DAC members need to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness and outcomes of their environment mainstreaming, such as Sida’s 2006 evaluation of efforts to integrate environmental considerations and the European Commission’s 2014 evaluation of its environment and climate support. Engaging civil society in countries and at headquarters can stimulate demand for environmental integration — while opening up to local perspectives.

Support environment mainstreaming in developing countries.  Partner countries also need to strengthen commitments, priorities, systems and capacities. Development agencies’ programmes need to be context-specific and respond to partner organisations’ environmental priorities, rather than attempt to address all environmental issues in a one-size-fits-all approach.

By implementing these five steps, development agencies will be better equipped to deal with the environmental changes affecting the lives of millions of women, children and men, many living in the most vulnerable countries.

Read more about the five steps to integrating environmental protection into development agencies’ programming in the OECD’s newly published
report: Greening Development Co-operation: Lessons from the OECD Development Assistance Committee.