Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Co-coordinator, Advisory Group on International Environmental Governance
Keywords: governance, design criteria, institutional evolution
Paper presented at the
Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference
London, UK, 26-29 March 2012
in the session
Exploring Effective Architecture for Emerging Agencies in International Environmental Governance
Good architectural practice includes “form follows function” and
anticipates future growth and changing needs. To bridge the gap between
environmental urgency and political realism in designing international
environmental governance, the pragmatic approach is to take small steps
with a clear vision of where we ultimately need to be in a fully
globalized world. This paper draws on a science-based systems perspective
to define design criteria for environmental governance for sustainability
looking far beyond present intergovernmental debates such as the
- scientific assessment of planetary limits, identification of economic and social driving forces threatening those limits, and implementation of management actions to stay within those limits;
- global management and equitable distribution of the planet's natural resources;
- a global framework of environmental standards and targets with subsidiarity in their implementation;
- multi-level governance with stakeholder participation in setting principles and priorities and reviewing progress;
- an institutional architecture with rights and responsibilities for governments, business, scientific and ethical advisors, and civil society organizations.
Given the need for innovation, and in the absence of consensus on specific institutional arrangements, the best approach to build governance mechanisms that respond to these criteria will be to take small steps in an evolutionary strategy of learning through action, reflection and consultation at regular intervals, to build confidence in the institutions and the roles of stakeholders. As the institutions acquire experience and confidence grows, their mandate and responsibilities can be extended accordingly, and this should be explicitly provided for. A possible starting point would be to fill the gaps in areas beyond national sovereignty.
Forty years of efforts to build international environmental governance since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 have not succeeded in reversing the accelerating decline of the global environment. The apex of optimism and potential advances achieved at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 has been followed at the intergovernmental level by what has largely been a holding action to prevent an erosion of the gains made in Rio. Given the paralysis of will among governments, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 looked to “type 2” partnerships with business and civil society as an alternative way forward to government action, with little success. The conventions adopted in Rio have not achieved their principle aims to prevent damaging climate change and to reverse biodiversity loss. This paper looks far beyond present intergovernmental debates on environmental governance such as the Nairobi-Helsinki process (UNEP 2010) by asking what we really need to govern human impacts on the global environment and how we might ultimately get there.
It is also forty years since the publication of the Club of Rome's report “Limits to Growth” (Meadows et al. 1972) which modeled the systems dynamics of human society and warned of the danger of overshoot and collapse if we continued with business as usual. Today, as planetary environmental boundaries have become clearer (Rockstrom et al. 2009) and crises have shaken economic certainties, the dynamics of overshoot and collapse seem ever more probable as no realistic modeling assumptions now avoid it (MacKenzie, 2012). Climate scientists warn we are close to “tipping points” where catastrophic climate change becomes unavoidable; the economic system is trapped with global imbalances, inadequate growth to repay overwhelming debt, and rampant speculation and corruption; social stability is threatened by increasing extremes of wealth and poverty and a generation without hope. The gap between the scientific and human urgency for action and the glacial pace based on political realism has never been wider.
There is widespread recognition that we need fundamental systems change to make a successful transition to a more sustainable society (Raskin et al. 2002). However institutions of society, and particularly of government, are particularly resistant to change. In the past, the only really effective solutions to excessive bureaucracy have been war and revolution (Dahl 1996). We can only hope that a more mature society can find a civilized way to make such a transition, and this paper explores some of the options. A pragmatic approach is to plan for major change in small steps with a clear vision of where we ultimately need to be in a fully globalized world.
This paper draws on a science-based systems perspective to define design criteria for environmental governance for sustainability. One dimensions is that of geographic scale. Starting with our understanding of the Earth system we inhabit as a biosphere created and regulated by homeostatic processes (Lovelock 1979), the ideal system of international environmental governance should respond to the management needs of the system at each relevant scale as defined by science. What are the global dimensions of the system that must be governed at the planetary level, and what can more effectively be regulated at finer geographic scales? For efficiency and effectiveness, governance should respect the principle of subsidiarity and place decision-making at the lowest level possible, reserving for international governance only those issues that must be managed globally.
A second governance challenge is the mismatch between the integrated requirements of a human system that must be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, and the compartmentalized nature of government, business and academia. The fragmented sectoral approaches in which economists are responsible for economics, while environmentalists should take care of the environment as something unrelated if not irrelevant, need to be complemented by a more integrated systems view (Dahl 1996). Building this into governance is a major challenge when people are not even trained for this and disciplinary boundaries are well defended.
Most fundamentally, the institutions of governance need to be founded on a shared understanding of human purpose and social goals. A system designed to maintain the power and enrich the families of a dominant elite will be very different from one based on principles of justice and equity. The proposals here assume that global and equitable sustainability is the goal, requiring a rethink of our values and priorities. As the Bahá'í International Community has put it: “How... can we resolve the paralyzing contradiction that, on the one hand, we desire a world of peace and prosperity, while, on the other, much of economic and psychological theory depicts human beings as slaves to self-interest? The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order―moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good―have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.” (BIC 2010) Our social order characterized by competition, violence, conflict and insecurity needs to give way to one founded on unity in diversity (Karlberg 2004). Recent research on human systems is now demonstrating that cooperation rather that competition is the best foundation for social and economic progress (Nowak 2011). Therefore, a systemic transformation in the values underlying the economy will have to be one part of the transition, furthering a dynamic, just and thriving social order. The new economic system will need to be strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature, provide meaningful employment and help to eradicate poverty in the world (BIC 1998).
Based on this understanding of human purpose, it should be possible to build a sense of global responsibility and a vision of future society worth working for. Since humanity is one, each person is born into the world as a trust of the whole, and each bears a responsibility for the welfare of all humanity. This collective trusteeship constitutes the moral foundation of human rights and environmental governance. It then follows that the welfare of each country and community can only be derived from the well-being of the whole planet.
Effective systems do not suddenly appear in their final form, they evolve over time, both to achieve higher levels of integration and efficiency, and often to adapt to changing conditions. A systems approach to the design of governance mechanisms should therefore identify the purpose of the system as discussed above, and the design specifications or criteria that the system should respect. Also, as in good architectural practice, “form follows function” and anticipates future growth and changing needs.
The environmental dimension of institutional arrangements for sustainability needs to set the framework of environmental potentials and limits within which human society must remain to avoid overshoot and collapse. A strong scientific foundation is necessary to compensate for the political tendency to react only where there is no other option, which is always too late given the inertial in environmental systems. This is the reverse of the economists penchant to see the economy as the centre of the system and the environment only as a troublesome externality.
Criterion 1: Scientific assessment of planetary limits
This is now becoming possible, as Rockstrom (2009) has demonstrated. Since planetary limits are dynamic and inter-related, the assessment needs to include systems modeling to define the limits, identification of economic and social driving forces threatening those limits, and the management actions needed to stay within those limits. It should generate regular reporting on the state of the environment and sustainability, with appropriate indicators (Hak et al. 2007; Dahl 2012).
Criterion 2: Natural resources management
Contrary to the present doctrine of national sovereignty over natural resources, a scientific systems perspective demonstrates that major planetary resources subject to the uniform pressures of international trade are basically a single resource that will need to be managed at a global scale. For example, some forests will have as their highest use preservation for biodiversity conservation and the provision of ecosystem services, while other forests can well be sustainably managed to provide wood, paper pulp or biomass for energy. Such choices can best be made on scientific criteria at the global level, but need to be accompanied by measures to compensate countries and communities who give up their development rights in the global interest, perhaps funded by a tax on international trade in forest products. One function of international environmental governance will need to be the global management and equitable distribution of the planet's natural resources.
Criterion 3: Environmental standards and targets
The health effects of environmental pollutants are the same for human beings everywhere, as are environmental impacts of eutrophication, toxic chemicals, endocrine disruptors, etc. Science should provide a uniform basis for setting global environmental standards and targets. This will also be beneficial to business, as a level global playing field is necessary to prevent disadvantaging businesses in countries with higher standards, and international competition towards the bottom. However, in the context of the present extreme differences in poverty and wealth between countries, there will need to be subsidiarity in their implementation. When resources are limited, some flexibility is needed to weigh environmental standards and other pressing priorities, while protecting the poor against exploitation.
Criterion 4: Multi-level governance with stakeholder participation
As mentioned above, the most efficient systems have a nested structure with as much responsibility as possible devolved to lower levels of organization (Dahl 1996). The stakeholders are closest to the local environment, and with proper education can monitor and understand how their environment is evolving better than anyone. At the heart of each level of governance should be the transparent access to information and consultative processes involving all the stakeholders in setting principles and priorities and reviewing progress. This will create a sense of ownership and environmental responsibility that will greatly facilitate implementation.
Criterion 5: Institutional architecture
The present system of intergovernmental institutions has been slowly opening up to contributions from civil society. This evolution should continue, recognizing that nation states have less and less power in a globalizing world. Some form of democratic global government will be necessary for the planetary dimension of international environmental governance, with legislative, executive and judicial functions, as part of a world federal system reaching far beyond the environmental dimension. This would eventually replace the present accumulation of multilateral environmental agreements. The institutional architecture also needs to specify rights and responsibilities for governments, business, scientific and ethical advisors, and civil society organizations, so that each component of society can contribute to and participate in decisions about environmental management.
One specific need is to incorporate the ethical dimension of sustainability more systematically into international policy-making. The International Environment Forum has proposed establishing a UN Permanent Forum on Ethics and Religion, patterned after the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where faith-based organizations and those addressing ethical issues, that accept the principles of the UN Charter, declarations and covenants, can consider the ethical and spiritual implications of UN policies, activities and proposals and make submissions to ECOSOC and other relevant UN bodies. It has also suggested creating within the UN Secretariat an Office of Ethical Assessment to prepare reports, at its own initiative or on request for the General Assembly, the Security Council, ECOSOC and other UN bodies, programmes and agencies, on the ethical implications of issues, policies and programmes, with reference to the ethical principles in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rio Declaration and other instruments and covenants, and to the world's spiritual, philosophical and cultural traditions (IEF 2011).
Short of a collapse in the present systems of national and international governance and their rebuilding on new foundations, it will be necessary to start making progress where there is less resistance from governments. Given the need for innovation, and in the absence of consensus on specific institutional arrangements, the best approach to build governance mechanisms that respond to these criteria will be to take small steps in an evolutionary strategy of learning through action, reflection and consultation at regular intervals, to build confidence in the institutions and the roles of stakeholders. Many initiatives can be started by civil society organizations, in the expectation that governments will come to see their advantages and come on board, as they did with the convention on anti-personnel mines.
Some of these criteria can be applied to initiatives within the present system, building for example on present scientific advisory processes to move towards an integrated assessment of planetary sustainability. Present proposals for sustainable development goals and indicators will also go in this direction. Stakeholder participation and civil society involvement in UN processes can also continue to advance incrementally.
A bigger challenge is in global regulations and resource management, since there is a strong resistance to anything that might look like world government and threaten the paradigm of national sovereignty. A possible starting point would be to fill the gaps in areas beyond national sovereignty, such as in management of the high seas and the atmosphere. There is already a strong movement to strengthen ocean fisheries management, to fill gaps in the regulation of deep sea mineral extraction, and to develop a global approach to technology assessment for geoengineering proposals (AGIEG 2011). If strong institutional arrangements can be built for some of these issues without trespassing on anyone's national sovereignty, then precedents can be established for the shared management of resources in the global commons. As the institutions acquire experience and confidence grows, their mandate and responsibilities can be extended accordingly, and this should be explicitly provided for. As governments see the advantages of these arrangements, they may be willing to entrust them with resources previously seen as subject to their sovereign control.
The present international system founded on national sovereignty has proven incapable of leading a great transition towards a more sustainable system with strong international environmental governance. Small incremental steps in scientific assessment, management of resources in the global commons, agreeing to international environmental standards and targets as part of sustainable development goals, strengthening participation by stakeholders and civil society, and bringing ethical principles more clearly into international policy making, could help us to move in the right direction. Where governments are holding back, civil society organizations can take the lead and demonstrate workable proposals through a strategy of learning through action, reflection and consultation at regular intervals. This may be the best chance to build momentum towards effective international environmental governance before it is too late.
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