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Unintended consequences typically occur when people intervene in complex systems, like our environment or climate. There are generally unforeseen side effects on both large and small scales as these interventions lead to changes in physical systems as well as in the incentives faced by households, businesses, civil society, and governments. Policy actions can easily impact people, sectors, regions, and ecosystems that were not directly targeted by those actions. Those indirect and often unintended impacts can be positive as well as negative.

Assessing the Positive and Negative Impacts of Policy Development 

Ideally, interventions would be designed to reduce negative unintended consequences while encouraging positive interactions. However, by definition many of these consequences are not anticipated. Adding to the complexity of trying to identify the key potential impacts of an intervention is the dynamics of complex systems. Some of these unintended consequences may rapidly become apparent while others are not recognized for many years. Addressing these issues for policy design requires systems thinking and comprehensive assessment of potential impacts prior to implementation, as well as ongoing monitoring combined with policy flexibility that enables adjustment as new information on the full consequences becomes available.

For instance, COVID-19 caused massive global disruption both through direct impacts on health as well as through the effects of public policy designed to contain the spread of the virus. One of the key strategies adopted voluntarily by individuals, as well as mandated by governments, was social distancing, which encompasses multiple strategies generally focused on maintaining a certain physical distance between people, avoiding gathering in large groups, and reducing the number of times people come in close contact with one another. One positive unintended consequence of the increased focus on social distancing was the reduction in the spread of other transmissible diseases, especially among children in schools. However, the associated shift to remote schooling has had negative effects on learning for both K-12 and college students while increased social isolation has increased self-reported rates of depression and other mental health concerns.  

Complexity in Developing Climate Policy 

Climate change is one of the most complex problems our world faces, with impacts of climate change itself as well as strategies for adaptation and mitigation reaching throughout society. The factors that need to be considered are as varied as the solutions each country chooses to deploy. For some countries, the goal is to replace the burning of fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources. For others, the targets are around more sustainable buildings or agricultural production. As pathways change, well-intentioned mitigation and adaptation outcomes may have unintended consequences on local circumstances.

Climate action can be made more efficient and effective by utilizing systems thinking to better characterize and anticipate the resulting impacts. In addition, it is vital to engage at local and national or global levels to better understand and reflect considerations affecting outcomes at each of these levels.  The more you can predict these effects, the better you can plan for them in the development of climate change policies.

Are you attending COP 27? If so, we invite you to attend our Official United Nations Side Event, Minimizing Unintended Consequences (UIC) of mitigation and adaptation policies. We will be discussing:

  • How best can we apply global policies to local conditions?
  • What frameworks are available for us to use?
  • What evidence is needed to prioritize sustainable solutions? 

For those  who are not able to join us in person, a recording of the discussion will be publicly available after the event.


Disclaimer: This piece was written by Robert H. Beach (RTI Fellow, Agricultural, Resource & Energy Economics and Policy Program) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.