Two and a half years ago, when Pippa Heylings and her colleagues at the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), tried to talk to hotel chains operating in Colombia's coastal city of Cartagena about the importance of planning for climate change risks, they didn't want to know.
Even though they face the threat of sea-level rise, more intense storms and flooding, getting them to address this has been a challenge, according to Claudia Martinez, who is a green growth advisor to the Colombian government and also works with CDKN. "They want revenues right now, and they are not looking 10 to 20 years ahead," she told a debate on development and climate change in London this week.
Heylings, CDKN's Latin America director, said the message is now starting to get through to the hotel industry, not least thanks to CDKN's efforts to present "good evidence" on vulnerability in coastal areas and a fresh focus on protecting profits. "If businesses are more resilient, they can be more competitive in the future," she said, explaining how she presents the issue.
Colombian farmers have also begun to realise they must plan for more extreme weather, after heavy rains in 2010 and 2011 caused damage worth 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), Martinez said via video. That disaster spurred the government to think more about climate risks, though it is not yet doing so in a systematic way, she added.
"If we want to be efficient, we need to integrate climate change into the economic perspective of every sector," she said.
The event, hosted by CDKN and the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), explored how to convince governments to adopt low-carbon and climate-resilient approaches into their development planning - and what is stopping them from doing so.
'REGRETS' FOR THE POOR
Emma Tompkins, a lecturer at Britain's University of Leeds, questioned whether enough is known about the costs and benefits of "climate-compatible development" (CCD) for advisors and researchers to be recommending it as the best way forward. "Until we understand it better, we can't articulate its merits, and I am not sure we should be pushing it as a policy when we are not sure what the merits are," she said.
In a paper published in January, Tompkins and a group of other researchers looked at coastal management policies in Kenya, Vietnam, Ghana and Belize to see whether they generated "triple wins" in terms of producing positive results for climate change mitigation, adaptation and development in general.
They found that triple wins didn't happen unless climate change was the policy focus from the start. They also discovered that development projects to tackle climate change could have short-term costs (or "regrets") for poor people - small farmers whose land was reforested with mangroves or planted with different crops, for example.
Climate-compatible development “often entails a loss of land or earnings that affect the poorest," Tompkins said. "Climate-compatible development can come at a high cost for developing-country communities, and we need to investigate this."
Karen Ellis, head of the private sector and markets group at ODI, argued that low-carbon development can also offer "enormous" opportunities in low-income nations where access to energy remains limited. Some flower farms in Kenya are using small-scale hydro and geothermal plants to power their businesses, and putting solar panels on the roofs of their greenhouses. They are collecting water and even supplying it to local villages, she said.
By capitalising on clean-energy innovations, less-developed countries could boost their future competitiveness in ways that aren't possible in richer societies where patterns of production and consumption are more established, she said.
EASY FOR POLITICIANS TO IGNORE
Yet while it's clear that climate-compatible development will reduce losses from climate change, there remains a need to quantify the potential benefits more precisely, Ellis admitted.
That can be achieved partly by estimating the costs of inaction, she said. For example, research suggests that if Ethiopia had chosen not to adopt its existing "climate-resilient, green economy strategy", its growth would be halved by 2025. And in Kenya, extreme weather is projected to reduce GDP by 3 percent per year by 2030, she noted.
But a wider lack of data like this "is making it very easy for politicians to ignore these issues at the moment", Ellis said.
Tom Mitchell, ODI's head of climate change, agreed there is a need to understand the costs and benefits of climate-smart development measures over time. But he urged governments not to wait for the results before acting. "We have to take a punt and experiment," he said.
There was much discussion about how to persuade governments - which tend to be focused on winning the next election - to take on the relatively high short-term costs of protecting their countries from climate change when the gains may not materialise until much further down the line.
Ideas to get them onside included improving the evidence base on economic and social benefits, embedding climate-compatible development in legislation, building support among civil society and the private sector, and bringing different interest groups together in a transparent dialogue.
"It is really important for us not to be starry-eyed about climate-compatible development," emphasised Simon Maxwell, CDKN's executive chair. "I don't think we should dismiss short-term political cycles, because we live in a world in which the political cycles shape policy, and if we can't make the case politically, then we can't make the case, full stop."
For further information, read the newly launched CDKN working paper, "Drivers and Challenges for Climate Compatible Development".