Mainstreaming NDCs in SDGs: the role of national innovation systems

By Dr. Joanes Atela

Acknowledgement: This blog was written with the aid of a grant from the International Development Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada

The 22nd Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which took place on 7th-22nd November 2016 came on the back of a series of climate negotiations over the last two decades. COP 22 was a landmark event because it represented the first session of the Conference of the Parties serving to negotiate on the implementation of the Paris Agreement – the second climate change agreement after the Kyoto protocol. The Paris Agreement in itself presents a paradigm shift in global climate action especially because it includes developing countries in the efforts to reduce emission and achieve sustainable growth through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). As highlighted in the Marrakech Action Proclamation for Our Climate and Sustainable Development, this collective contribution towards - implementing commitments under the NDCs is central to the implementation agenda.   

As part of informing the envisaged climate action, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and African Group of Negotiators Expert Support (AGNES) organised a side event titled ‘’Accelerating Implementation of the Paris Agreement through Transition to evidence-based low carbon development and climate resilient development pathways’’. The event aimed to gather experiences on how African countries could marshal accurate and reliable evidence to inform the NDCs and formulate effective climate resilient development strategies. Panelists and other participants at the event shared experiences on African countries’ efforts to transition to low carbon and climate resilient development pathways and more importantly on what exactly African countries could do to effectively implement/mainstream their NDCs with SDGs. 

One of the most strategic deliberations during the event was on ways countries could identify and utilize particular linkages between NDCs and SDGs.  From a theoretical perspective, the NDC-SDG linkage remains rather clear albeit arbitrary.  For example, SDG No. 8 specifically focuses on climate action as an integral part of sustainable goals with potentially numerous knock on effects on other SDGs such as poverty eradication and economic growth.  Deliberations and examples from ongoing research and development work i.e. by the World Resource Institute (WRI), the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) and Governments indicated that mainstreaming NDC actions with SDGs could yield enormous opportunities and mutual benefits for African countries. Examples from Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya revealed that indeed there exists a strong mutual connection between NDCs and SDGs. However, for these countries, this connection remains a subject of continuous learning in light of new climate change responsibilities and as various green growth ideas become domesticated into country systems. For instance, the Government of Ethiopia targets to use its climate resilient and green economy initiatives to reduce poverty and become a middle-income country by 2025. Similarly, Kenya has enacted the Climate Change Act with ambitions to ensure inclusive and sustainable growth. In Ghana, climate change and associated climate information systems are expected to create more awareness and enhance science, technology and innovations. 

While the NDC-SDG linkage is much clearer in countries’ policy documents and strategies, the practical side of the story is more complex. More specifically, most African countries remain unclear on how to attribute climate actions and outcomes to SDGs and how to track these and synthesize to inform robust domestic and international strategies.  Part of the problem remains in the fact that most NDCs and SDGs are still institutionalized at national programmatic areas of African countries including within national climate change secretariats or nationally designated authorities. In this, there is still little evidence on how climate actions can relate to SDGs- a problem that is possibly complicated by lack of credible and systematic documentation of past climate actions and associated implications for sustainable goals set under the Millennium Development Goals.     

While evidence and data is of concern, deliberations also alluded to the possibility of a systemic challenge such as lack of proper ‘knowledge connectors’’. Knowledge connectors are systems that support information exchange between various actors and specifically researchers and policy makers.  The lack of systematic and need-based information sharing platforms was reiterated by IDRC experience in Africa. This means that even though scientific information on how various climate actions can achieve SDGs may be available, this information remains poorly shared, disseminated or poorly packaged for use. Most research activities rarely go beyond simply presenting evidence through journal articles, discussion or working papers to pursue appropriate platforms and processes that pull policy makers in, and enable them to use the evidence. Consequently, most African countries have been plagued by lack of policy implementation whether climate change or green strategies.

The NDC-SDGs synergies if exploited could provide exponential opportunities and benefits for African countries’ global commitments and national economic growth. However, the question remains; how can this be made possible? What transformative and realistic options can African states pursue to exploit the linkages?  One option that was emphasized during the side event is the need to invest in building national innovation systems which could support effective mainstreaming of NDCs with SDGs both in policy and practice.

National Innovation Systems for NDC – SDGs linkages

An Innovation system comprise of a set of institutions, policies and actors that are linked through their strategic skills, capabilities, resources scope to support emergence and incubations of innovative solutions.  The Paris Agreement’ acknowledges that innovation systems are key to addressing climate change and SDGs especially for Africa.  For the first time, the Technology Executive Committee (TEC) to the UNFCCC launched a work stream on “strengthening innovation systems (IS) for climate technology transfer (TT) and development”. Insights shared by policy makers drawn from the East Africa region  during a recent innovation and climate change  workshop organised by the Africa Sustainability Hub shows that by connecting actors, ideas and enabling capabilities, a national innovation system can help mainstream NDCs across institutions and sectors for sustainable growth. One proven way to support national innovation system is to enhance investments in science and technology.  Experience shows that regions like Asia and Latin America which performed better in the Kyoto climate actions and MDGs had greater investments in research and development.

For instance, Asia’s and Europe’s share of world gross expenditure on research and development stands at 30.5% and 27.2% respectively compared to Africa’s a 0.6%. The low investment has often been associated with high poverty levels as priority to resource allocation is given to development and pressing livelihood matters. Nonetheless, African countries can now tap into opportunities presented by the Paris Agreement to leverage support via the UNFCCC and other development agencies to strengthen their capabilities around identifying and exploding synergies between NDCs and SDGs. Research and Development agencies such as IDRC and DFID are also making valuable contribution to the innovation building agenda in Africa by supporting African countries to develop their national innovation systems and find options for enhancing investments in the same. Initiative such as the Science Granting Councils Initiative jointly supported by IDRC and DFID are likely to provide timely and the much needed support towards building innovation systems for effective implementation and synergies between NDCs and SDGs. Such initiatives are likely to generate more diverse and inclusive evidence on structural transformations needed to integrate NDCs and SDGs much more closely. Efforts on building national innovation systems will enhance knowledge connectors that support close linkages between research and development and In doing so, investments in R&D stands a greater chance of not just remaining a scholarly pursuit but a development pursuit that informs NDC-SDG linkages.