It’s time to mainstream environmental and climate action in peacebuilding programming

Promoting environmental and climate action in peacebuilding is an evolving, yet under-explored practice in our sector. Yet most, if not all, peacebuilding projects – regardless of their focus – can provide entry points to promote environmental sustainability and climate action.

This blog, co-authored by Svenja Wolter from International Alert and Thomas Reeve from Oxfam, reflects on the practical steps to including environmental and climate action in programming. Svenja starts by looking at the why, where and how of doing so, and asks whether it can be mainstreamed in all peacebuilding programmes. Thomas then shares lessons from how working to do so at Oxfam has advanced their work addressing the links between climate security and conflict.

Why is environmental and climate action so important to peacebuilding?

By Svenja Wolter

You could argue that building peace in conflict-affected societies by addressing structural, physical and cultural violence is already enough of a challenge. But integrating environment and climate action in peacebuilding is vitally important, as violence often interacts with climate change and environmental degradation. States and communities affected by armed violence and structural inequalities, weak governance and failing rule of law are also less able to effectively respond to extreme weather events or incremental climatic changes.

Just to give one example, the impact of the 2023 flooding in Derna in Libya, which would not have happened to such an extent without climate change, was exacerbated by years of civil war, political instability and mismanagement of public funds. A peacebuilding project could consider the exposure and vulnerability of such communities toward climate conflict risks.

Given the urgency and scope of the security and conflict risks related to the environment and climate, we in the peacebuilding sector must find ways to make our projects more responsive to these risks and challenges. To do so, we need to mainstream the environment and climate action throughout the programme cycle. The idea of mainstreaming is not new, yet every sector and theme comes with its own set of entry points, opportunities and challenges.

Following the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, we witnessed how gender, peace and security became a central exercise for all peace and development initiatives. In 2011, the UN published a guide on how to mainstream climate change adaptation into development, focussing on entry points to address the links between climate change, livelihoods, health and poverty. A decade on, peacebuilders should follow the trend to mainstream environmental and climate action into peace programmes.

We in the peacebuilding sector must find ways to make our projects more responsive to climate challenges.

Peacebuilding projects are, of course, diverse, ranging from transitional justice, political participation of marginalised groups, dialogue and mediation to support for democratic structures and human rights. Project objectives are usually defined narrowly within logframe parameters, yet gender mainstreaming became an integral part of it. Why not climate and environmental action?

There are obvious limitations such as budget constraints, lack of time or staff capacity to do it. Yet we could say the same occurred more than 20 years ago when the position of gender advisers was still rare and many practitioners did not know how to integrate gender into their programmes – nor did donors ask for them to do so. And some peace and development organisations are actually already mainstreaming environmental and climate action in their work. Doing so can take many forms and might not always be feasible. But there are some simple steps any practitioner can follow.

Our guide gives insights on how to start mainstreaming environmental and climate action into peacebuilding

Alert’s guidance note on mainstreaming environmental action in peacebuilding programming provides practitioners with a tool for responding to environmental and climate concerns in their programme cycle and operations.

If you already have a project or are just in the planning phase, analysing the climate-environment-conflict dynamics is a crucial step. You can mainstream climate and environment into your logframe and theory of change – for example, by thinking about how dialogue work can support environmental protection or how a specific peace process could contribute to improved natural resource management. And even if you have already kicked off your project, there are orientation questions for your monitoring processes. Another issue to think about is how to reduce the environmental footprint of programmes. The above referenced guidance note covers this angle.

Every peacebuilding programme offers entry points to mainstream climate and environmental perspectives

Funders need to accept and promote mainstreaming environmental and climate action in project proposals and budgets, and practitioners need to bring the initiative and skills on how to do it. It may be easy to include the environmental and climate perspective in an analysis phase but challenging to incorporate it in the actual implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

Since Alert’s mainstreaming approach can be light-touch or deeper in scope, it is up to the user to decide based on the time and resources available what is achievable. Even on a slim budget there is always room to ask, for example, to what extent a target group is affected by climate change or environmental degradation and if that is linked to the causes and drivers of conflict. Mainstreaming the issue provides the opportunity to improve the comprehensiveness and sustainability of programmes.

For some projects, especially those on socio-economic development and livelihoods that depend on natural resources under climatic stress and/or mismanagement, it is easier to find an entry point for mainstreaming. But even in other peacebuilding projects, you can enquire about and address the exposure and vulnerability of a particular context and group to climate-related conflict and security risks.

In terms of reducing the environmental footprint of your project, for decades many development interventions have already required environmental impact assessments. This should also be considered by peacebuilders throughout their projects. It is challenging but should not remain an afterthought in today’s world.

We, as peacebuilding practitioners as well as those working on development and security, should seek more spaces to learn from each other and other sectors about what works and what doesn’t when we are trying to mainstream environmental and climate action into peacebuilding. Our funding partners should feel encouraged to support projects that actively seek to consider climate and environmental perspectives and translate them into concrete actions, by allowing adequate time and resources to do so.

What has Oxfam learned from mainstreaming environmental and climate action into their projects?

By Thomas Reeve

Oxfam has climate justice as one of its core strategic pillars and we have been working on improving conflict sensitivity in our programming over the last decade, more recently also exploring our contribution to peace. We have identified several pathways through which, together with our partners, we can contribute to peace. For example, through facilitating collaboration over access to scarce natural resources or addressing gendered norms that drive conflict and exclusion from peace processes.

Another identified pathway is building peace through reducing environmental stress. The ability of communities that are vulnerable to climatic shocks to plan for and mitigate the impact of disasters and build climate-resilient livelihoods is key for this. Building mechanisms to manage resource-based conflicts and reduce negative coping mechanisms are equally important. If both dynamics are in place, then climatic shocks will be less likely to exacerbate existing conflict dynamics or would even be able to contribute to peace.

In addition, over the past year Oxfam has been developing a global programme around the intersections between climate change, conflict and fragility. To inform the design of this programme, a scoping study was undertaken summarising the current debate and findings on the links between climate and conflict, providing programmatic recommendations, and also mapping available tools that could be used in the development of the programme.

One of those tools was Alert’s guidance note on mainstreaming environmental action in peacebuilding programming. We used the tool in the preparation for two workshops, one in Niamey, Niger, and the other in Hargeisa, Somaliland, which were held with colleagues and civil society partners, including from other countries in the region. During those workshops, the context in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa was discussed, and the pathways on how climate change and conflict interact were mapped.

The ability of communities to mitigate the impact of disasters and build climate-resilient livelihoods is key.

In advance of the sessions, the facilitator converted the key steps of Alert’s guidance note into an Excel sheet for easy use. The guiding questions for each step helped us to prepare the different sessions. For example, for the question ‘What are the most prominent climate vulnerabilities and environmental risks in your context? Why do they happen?’, we reflected on what this could mean in our contexts but also listed other resources to provide evidence – for example the Ecological Threat Report, Environmental Justice Atlas and the global footprint data on the Open Data Platform, which are referenced in the guidance note. By bringing the questions and the resources together, we were in a better position to use it as a tool.

The response in the room was good. Because of the guiding questions, we had high-quality conversations and were able to better identify pathways on climate change, conflict and fragility interactions. We learned that especially the first step, ‘Understanding how environmental fragilities interact with conflict risk’, was good for an initial design discussion, and the second and third steps, ‘Reviewing the impact of intended activities on the environment’ and ‘Identifying ways to mitigate negative impacts and boost positive impact’, were useful once the activities had been identified, which was at a later stage. The final two steps, ‘Assessing team capacity, mapping potential partnerships and addressing gaps’ and ‘Assessing operations’, are areas we expect to work on in the near future, as the global programme design goes into its next phase.

Overall, using the tool has benefitted the design of the programme tremendously, as it made us ask questions that we might not have asked ourselves otherwise. As we are building a new programme that seeks to contribute to more peaceful societies through climate and environmental action, it allowed us to explore areas of environmental risks from a peacebuilding angle – something that we are currently gaining experience in as an organisation. It has also helped us understand the multiple struggles that communities endure simultaneously and how we can best not only set up our response activities, but also improve organisational operations.

Mainstreaming environment and climate action into peacebuilding and vice versa, as well as developing new approaches to respond to climate, conflict and security risks, have proven key for us in our initial programme design. We will continue to develop our thinking and practice around the intersections of climate change, conflict and fragility and continue to reach out to organisations that can help us in our journey. We have learned that with such broad, inter-related dynamics, it is crucial to collaborate with organisations that have built up specific experience in one or multiple areas within the climate and conflict nexus. Making use of existing tools external to our organisation is a good first step in doing so.