King Climate Action Initiative announces new research to test and scale climate solutions

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI), a research and policy initiative of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), announced the results of its first competition aimed at identifying and scaling innovative solutions at the intersection of poverty and climate change. K-CAI will fund 10 research studies to generate evidence and four projects that will take evidence-informed approaches to scale.

Launched in July 2020 in partnership with King Philanthropies, the $25 million initiative is among the first major climate change initiatives focused on generating evidence in real-world settings, and translating that evidence into effective solutions at the nexus of climate change and poverty alleviation worldwide.

K-CAI’s inaugural competition comes at a pivotal movement in the fight against climate change. The Biden administration recently took executive action to address climate change, including issuing a memorandum to promote evidence-informed decision-making. This action signals a renewed vigor to fight the climate crisis from the United States, and there is hope for greater global cooperation and focus on scientific evidence.

Without urgent and collective efforts, the effects of climate change will be felt more deeply, particularly by people experiencing extreme poverty. Climate solutions need to not only reduce emissions and pollution, but also address adaption and energy access challenges to protect the most vulnerable populations.

“At King Philanthropies, we aim to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people by supporting high-performing leaders and organizations that are pursuing evidence-based strategies,” says Kim Starkey, president and CEO of King Philanthropies. “Today, climate change is worsening the problem of extreme poverty. We welcome this opportunity to work with the King Climate Action Initiative at J-PAL in identifying and scaling effective solutions that address these two crises simultaneously.”

There is still a critical lack of research on the real-world impacts of climate solutions. Lab-generated evidence can fail to account for human behavior, such as imperfect implementation or low take-up. To ensure the most effective solutions are scaled, investments in real-world evaluations are crucial.

K-CAI addresses this research need by funding randomized evaluations that will generate rigorous evidence and catalyze the scale-up of effective climate policy and technology solutions. To that end, winners of the first competition are addressing urgent policy priorities across K-CAI’s four main focus areas: climate change mitigation, pollution reduction, adaption, and energy access.

Climate change mitigation

In order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we must significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The adoption of innovative technologies or increased efficiencies can reduce industrial emission intensity and its harmful effects. One K-CAI-funded study led by Robert Metcalfe, J-PAL affiliate and visiting associate professor in economics at the University of Southern California, is dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the shipping industry will evaluate whether changing management practices can increase fuel efficiency in the shipping industry.

There is also a significant opportunity to reduce emissions through conservation and reduced deforestation. Adapting lessons from a previous randomized evaluation that examined the impacts of paying farmers to reduce deforestation in Uganda, K-CAI is funding a scale-up project led by Seema Jayachandran ’93, J-PAL Gender sector co-chair and professor of economics at Northwestern University; Santiago Izquierdo-Tort, ecological economist at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México; and Santiago Saavedra, assistant professor of economics at Universidad del Rosario that aims to improve the cost-effectiveness of a similar program in Mexico by encouraging participants to enroll more of their eligible land.

Pollution reduction

Local pollutants, such as particulate matter, have harmful effects on health and productivity. Building on evidence from a 2019 randomized evaluation in Gujarat, India, a new project led by Michael Greenstone, J-PAL Energy, Environment, and Climate Change sector co-chair and Milton Friedman Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Rohini Pande, J-PAL Political Economy and Governance sector co-chair, professor of economics, and director of the Economic Growth Center at Yale University; Nick Ryan PhD ’12, J-PAL affiliate and assistant professor of economics at Yale University; and Anant Sudarshan, South Asia director at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago will support regulators in piloting and scaling an emissions trading program to incentivize reducing air pollutants in Punjab and Gujarat. The goal of this effort is to reduce pollution and make it more affordable for businesses to comply with environmental regulations.

Similarly, K-CAI is funding a study with Douglas Almond, professor of economics and international and public affairs at Columbia University and Shuang Zhang, associate professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Boulder to leverage monitoring systems that provide objective and real-time emissions data to improve environmental inspections in China. The aim of this study is to understand if, when provided with better emissions data, environmental inspectors can improve enforcement and reduce industrial air pollution.

Climate change adaptation

Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, from wildfires to hurricanes to droughts and floods. Increasing resilience to these extreme weather events is critical, especially for low-income communities and countries.

A new K-CAI-funded study led by Rohini Pande and Maulik Jagnani, assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Denver addresses this challenge through the first randomized evaluation of a flood early warning system in India, which will leverage forecasting and alerting systems, as well as grassroots volunteers trained in community outreach. This will generate insights on how to disseminate time-sensitive forecasts that encourage behavior that protects individuals from flood risks, despite the high initial costs of those behaviors.

Energy access

As economies in low- and middle-income countries grow, so will energy demand. The city of Cape Town, South Africa, is currently facing this challenge and exploring evidence-informed policy solutions.

Cape Town provides free basic electricity to low-income households and has committed to net carbon neutrality by 2050. The city government must balance equitable growth goals with demand for utilities, but has limited tools at its disposal. A new scale-up project, led by B. Kelsey Jack, J-PAL Energy, Environment, and Climate Change sector co-chair and associate professor of environmental and development economics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, will adapt evidence on targeting to improve the delivery of electricity subsidies to low-income households in Cape Town, building on long-term partnerships between J-PAL Africa, Jack, and the local government.

Next steps for climate solutions

Funding these projects is a critical first step in developing long-term, evidence-based, and effective climate change solutions focused on both mitigation and adaptation.

“Evidence-informed solutions are critical in the global fight against climate change, and K-CAI’s first round of competition winners demonstrate that it is possible to rigorously evaluate climate policies in real-world settings,” said Iqbal Dhaliwal, global executive director of J-PAL.

These studies and scaling projects utilize an innovative combination of high- and low-tech solutions in order to adapt climate solutions to low- and middle-income country contexts. Not only is this technological innovation key, but their focus on enabling policies is equally important to ensuring solutions are both effective and equitable. K-CAI-funded researchers will work with regulators, companies, and utilities to learn about program effectiveness as they take policy action.

Claire Walsh, project director of K-CAI, notes, “Policy innovation and evaluation, just like technological innovation, is vital for confronting climate change. It can help build the case for policy action and ensure that good technologies achieve their ultimate goals.”

K-CAI will run two competitions each year for the next four years to further its mission to identify, generate, and scale cost-effective solutions across its four focus areas.

To stay up to date with environment, energy, and climate change research and policy, subscribe to J-PAL newsletters and select “Environment & Energy” as an interest area.

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