Building effective institutions to implement climate governance: introduction

North (1991: 97) describes institutions as ‘humanly devised… informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions, and codes of conduct) and formal constraints (constitutions, laws, property rights)… that structure political, economic, and social interaction’. While institutional capacity is often used to refer to the means and ability for government bodies to carry out key functions, more recent studies emphasise the role of informal institutions (norms and unwritten rules) in determining whether and how policies are implemented. In relation to climate change, this can refer to effective planning, coordination, prioritisation, responsiveness, information collection and management and implementation of rules, regulations, programmes and policies, primarily through the lens of institutional development rather than political economy. The ability to carry out these functions depends on a range of factors, including financial and human resources, clear mandates, incentives that match expectations, leadership and oversight to prevent corruption.

The UNFCCC has described institutional arrangements with regard to adaptation as the ‘structures, approaches, practices, or rules, set in place by stakeholders at all levels to steer adaptation action including for: assessing impacts, vulnerability and risks, planning for adaptation, implementation of adaptation measures, and monitoring and evaluation’ (UNFCCC Adaptation Committee, 2014).

In an analysis of what makes a capable ministry of finance, Krause et al. (2016) caution against conflating capacity with capability. They suggest four key capabilities for ministries of finance to perform their functions:

  • Analytical (the ability to analyse information to inform decisions);
  • Delivery (the ability to produce goods and services);
  • Coordinative (the ability to orchestrate activities of different actors around a common objective); and
  • Regulatory (the ability to control production of services provided by others).

The World Resources Institute’s National Adaptive Capacity Framework (Dixit et al., 2012) identifies five key functions for government institutions for implementing adaptation plans and policies:

  • The ability and willingness to assess available, relevant information iteratively to guide decision-making;
  • A transparent and stakeholder-driven prioritisation process to identify issues, areas, sectors and populations that deserve special attention (e.g. food security, social protection, coastal livelihoods, etc.);
  • Coordination across governance scales and bodies and in collaboration with non-governmental actors in a way that leads to better working relationships and information-sharing and addresses power imbalances in decision-making where possible;
  • Information management to ensure not only that information relevant to decision-making is collected and analysed but also that it is shared and used to inform decision-making; and
  • Sector-specific assessments to ensure effective climate risk management.

Box 4: Joint Principles on Adaptation (Southern Voices on Adaptation)

Civil society networks from Africa, Latin America and Asia have joined under the umbrella Southern Voices on Adaptation to develop the Joint Principles on Adaptation with the intent of 1) influencing policy, 2) strengthening capacity (of government and civil society) and 3) promoting dialogue between government and civil society (Southern Voices on Adaptation, 2014). The Principles (each with accompanying criteria) include:

  • The formulation, implementation and monitoring of adaptation policies and plans is participatory and inclusive;
  • Funds for adaptation are used efficiently, and managed transparently and with integrity;
  • All government sectors and levels of administration have defined responsibilities and resources to fulfil them;
  • Local adaptation plans are developed through approaches that build resilience of communities and ecosystems;
  • The resilience of groups who are most vulnerable to climate change is promoted;
  • There is appropriate investment in building the skills and capacities for adaptation, as well as in physical infrastructure;
  • Plans and policies respond to the evidence of current and future manifestations and impacts of climate change (ibid.).

While drivers of vulnerability may be as granular as at the individual level, the direction, magnitude and rate of climate impacts are still characterised by significant uncertainty at the national and local levels (USAID, 2014). For instance, while there is a high level of certainty of long-term trends of increasing frequency of extreme weather events at certain scales, when and to what degree a locality will experience severe flooding, drought or heat is uncertain. In turn, these how climate impacts will trigger changes in social, economic, physical or biological systems is also uncertain. For example, the diminishing productivity of a particular crop may have cascading effects on commodity markets, local diets and trade. These changes will cut across sectors and governance scales. Climate change is also non-linear, with system tipping points and feedback effects that may make certain change irreversible (e.g. polar ice melting and the albedo effect or the permanent loss of an ecosystem).

For government institutions, this means developing the capacity and capability to be flexible, as new information becomes available that may cause strategic or tactical shifts in policy and planning. Given that adaptation is occurring now, but that uncertainty exists regarding future impacts, adaptation experts have called for a paradigm shift towards robustness in decision-making as opposed to optimisation, meaning that present decisions should promote ‘low-regret’ options that minimise the risk of maladaptations that would be costly or impossible to undo (Wilby & Dessai, 2010).