Restorative Development: Cautious Optimism

by Laura Kuhl


In his article, “From Failure to Success: Reframing the Climate Treaty,” Professor William Moomaw presents the concept of “restorative development” as a framework to move forward from the historical emissions-based focus of the climate negotiations. One of the key challenges in the climate negotiations has been the tension between interests in mitigation and adaptation. Only through a balanced agreement that recognizes both the importance of mitigation and adaptation will we be able to address the full spectrum of climate risks, and I believe restorative development has the potential to bring these agendas together. Moomaw’s discussion of restorative development focuses on nature’s ability to absorb carbon (“unclog the drain” in his bathtub analogy), but restorative development encompasses a much broader agenda.

Conceptually, restorative development takes sustainable development a step further: instead of trying to maintain the status quo or “sustain” the system, restorative development seeks to restore degraded systems. Restorative development has the potential to address some of the gravest of climate risks and adaptation priorities: increased droughts, floods, and extreme events, as well as their associated impacts on different sectors. By increasing the resilience of natural systems, these socio-ecological systems may be able to better manage extreme events associated with climate change. If natural systems can absorb these shocks more successfully, the risks to human development from climate change will be reduced. Restorative development alone is not enough, however, and complementary adaptation strategies to deal with the remaining risks will still be needed and should remain an integral part of any global agreement.

While a restorative development framework may be a helpful approach to integrate mitigation, adaptation, and development goals, we should remain cautiously optimistic. Much depends on how such an approach is implemented on the ground. In our enthusiasm for the ability of nature to absorb carbon, we cannot lose sight of the fact that nature provides many services in addition to storing carbon. If a program prioritizes carbon storage at the expense of these other services, it could unintentionally increase the vulnerability of resource-dependent populations. We have seen this happen with some REDD+ programs, with indigenous groups pushed off their land or excluded from traditional forest use, and similar risks exist for climate-smart agriculture programs or other approaches to restorative development. A further challenge in restorative development is whether restoration, which has an inherent focus on returning things to the way they used to be, can be compatible with development objectives, in which the past and goals for the future are often drastically different.

About the Author

Laura Kuhl is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Her areas of study are international environmental policy and development economics, and her dissertation research focuses on innovation and technology transfer for climate change adaptation in agriculture. She has conducted research on adaptation in the United States, Honduras, Ethiopia, Colombia, Peru, and Switzerland. She is the recipient of a NSF IGERT Water Diplomacy fellowship, as well as a pre-doctoral fellowship from the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy.

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