Cobenefits: North & South

Synergies and co-benefits are the “buy one... get one free!” of the climate policy world. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you reduce your energy consumption you reduce your energy bill and your energy related emissions.

While efficiency related co-benefits are familiar, the deeper you look the more opportunities there are to combine environmental goals with other things we all already value. Green Jobs are another great, and by now well known, example. So are energy and food security, affordable transportation, increased air quality, improved health, reliable infrastructure... The list goes on.

Emphasizing these win-win situations has been a key tool for selling climate change action to local policy makers. But depending on where you are, the sales pitch can be very different. Compare what counts as an attractive sweetener for climate policy in countries at different levels of development and you get a snapshot of the context that policy has to make sense in, both locally and globally.

Two recent media events give an interesting glimpse of the North American and the African take on synergies and cobenefits. Living Cities, an American community economic development organization, released its Green Cities report last week. It highlights the fact that 4 out of 5 of America's largest cities are calling sustainability a 'top priority.' They tie this to the fact that going green can open up new sectors of meaningful employment, attract green collar jobs and investment, boost public transit to help residents deal with volatile gas prices, and can help the municipality save on its energy bills.

The Climate Change and Adaptation in Africa program was also launched -- here in Dakar -- last week. The joint Canadian and UK program aims to look at ways that the urban poor can help increase the resilience of some of Africa's largest cities. As part of the launch, project manager François Gesengayire explained that “The goal is to harness the capacity of the poor to reduce environmental degradation as it relates to natural disasters, and enhance the use of natural resources for food, water, and income generation.” Take a closer look at where the project hopes to go and you see innovations that link climate change responses and disaster reduction to economic development & micro-financing, infrastructure creation, increasing the drought resistance of agricultural crops, guarding against the increased spread of malaria and other diseases and empowering women (among other things).

The seductive and inspiring part of the cobenefits argument is that it gets us away from the debilitating language of sacrifice that has been a thorn in the side of the “hair-shirt” environmental movement for ages now. Everything of course requires some kind of sacrifice, but the point is to focus on the dreams and hopes that those sacrifices can bring us. Climate Change policy has been accused of being about limiting and reducing our quality of life – in fact, smart climate policy can do just the opposite.

Looking at the different types of dreams, the different hopes that climate change policy is linked to in different regions shows how unequal our world remains. Reducing those inequalities needs to be one of the main cobenefits of climate policy. Easy to say, harder to do. Especially if we already think that we are doing enough. Especially in wealthier countries, we need to read the fine print to make sure that supposed "synergies" aren't just a way adding a green verse to a song whose chorus hasn't really changed.

Are we actually meeting our environmental, social and economic goals in synergy – or are we just using a new jingle to sell the same old thing?


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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