Vc course complexity policy problems in environment sustainability
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VC Course Complexity Policy problems in environment & sustainability. Steve Dovers Fenner School of Environment & Society 21 May 2013. Context & coverage. Many definitions of complexity, wicked problems … not repeating those -- you decide what’s complex or not.

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VC Course Complexity Policy problems in environment & sustainability

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Vc course complexity policy problems in environment sustainability

VC Course ComplexityPolicy problems in environment & sustainability

Steve Dovers

Fenner School of Environment & Society

21 May 2013

Context coverage

Context & coverage

  • Many definitions of complexity, wicked problems … not repeating those -- you decide what’s complex or not.

  • Policy problems and institutional challenges as manifest in a particular policy domain:-- history and broad nature of the domain.-- problem attributes.-- the hard edge of policy and complex problem – choosing a policy instrument.

  • If time – an example and exercise.

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  • Supplied (or will be…):- Dovers et al 2008 in Bammer & Smithson.- Dovers 2009 in Glob.Env Change.

  • Other:- Connor, R. and Dovers, S. 2004. Institutional change for sustainable development. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.- Dovers, S. 2005. Environment and sustainability policy. Sydney: Federation Press.- Handmer, J. and Dovers, S. 2013. Handbook of disaster policy and institutions. 2nd edition. London: Earthscan.

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Environment resource management sustainability sustainable development

Environment & resource management  sustainability & sustainable development

A summary

-- familiar to some, others not --

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Beyond end of pipe increasing complexity in problem framing and policy responses

Beyond end-of-pipe: Increasing complexity in problem-framing and policy responses

From: single environmental problems, point-source pollution control, nature conservation, single stock resource management.

Through: multiple, bigger, more complex environmental and resource management problems.

Toward: sustainability – environment and development, linked ecological, social & economic agenda.

Still struggling with enlarging environmental agenda, while grappling with emerging sust problems.


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Examples …

From soil conservation integrated catchment management - regional governance

From point-source pollution regulation load-based licensing Env Management Systems, triple-bottom-line accounting managing multiple diffuse sources.

From tree preservation land clearance controls regional vegn plans stewardship payments.

From an EPA and a parks services  environment depts strategic assessment and sustainability policy units.

From scattered nature reserves patches and strips managing biodiversity across tenures and landscapes (connectivity conservation).

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Defining sustainability rio 20

Defining sustainability (Rio +20)

Sustainability: a system property, or a long term goal.

Sustainable development: an evolving policy agenda.

Brundtland (WCED 1987): Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: -- the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and-- the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

Long time scales, local-global links, interconnected phenomena, significant uncertainty, high stakes= complex, wicked problems?

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Constituent issue of sustainable development

Constituent issue of sustainable development:

  • Issues of resource depletion and degradation, over many centuries, esp C19-20th: -- loss of biological diversity; land and water resources; forests; energy; minerals; amenity.

  • Issues of pollution and wastes, from 17th century, but big from the 1960s:-- atmospheric, marine and water pollution;

  • Issues of ecological life support services, from 1980s:-- ecosystem integrity; nutrient cycles; climate change; integrity of evolutionary processes.

  • Issues of society and human condition, esp 1960-70s:-- population; development/poverty; food security; shelter; health; urbanization; human rights; education; trade; security.

  • Sustainability = 1 & 2, plus3 & 4 – 1987/92 – 2012 @ Rio.

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The global discourse

The global discourse…

  • 1966: Boulding’s “Spaceship Earth” essay – modern idea of sustainability.

  • 1972: Stockholm conference on human environment, and Limits to Growth.

  • 1970-80s: Brandt and Palme UN commissions on development/poverty and human security/peace.

  • 1980: World Conservation Strategy.

  • 1983-87: Our Common Future – WCED/Brundtland – environment and development, security.

  • 1992 in Rio: UNCED – 2002 Rio+10 – 2012 Rio+20…

  • Sust development – the biggest agenda ever…

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Rise and fall of sustainable development resisting complexity

Rise and fall of sustainable development: resisting complexity?

  • Too vague, messy, inherent tensions, not suited to specialised approaches, too far off (are we there yet…?)

  • Higher-order social goal – akin to democracy, justice, rule of law – a generational task for research, policy and institutional change.

  • Fragmented knowledge, institutional settings and policy responses caused the problems, and no other candidate for an integrative framework.

  • EG: Australia 1992 ESD Strategy (for Rio), versus Australia 2002 (at J’burg) focus on selected issues.

  • Huge agenda re-affirmed at Rio +20.

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Resisting complexity other examples

Resisting complexity: other examples

  • Land degradation1980s (aka desertification) = multiple forms of soil erosion, irrigation and dryland salinity, rangeland vegetation decline, soil structural decline, soil acidification…-- almost total focus on dryland salinity in 1990s.

  • Instream water use(1980s) = ecological, geomorphic integrity, aesthetic, cultural, recreational..-- to strictly environmental (ecological) flows in 1990s.

  • Carbon pricing(2009-13) = a “great big new tax”. More focused, or resisting complexity? Can we only twiddle one knob at a time?

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Vc course complexity policy problems in environment sustainability

If these problems are complex… … ie need to understand and manage many, interconnecting factors and processes)…

… then the research and policy challenge is by definition different in kind, if not in degree, than many other domains?

… but, why?

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Attributes of policy problems in sustainability

Attributes of policy problems in sustainability

1: extended spatial and temporal scales.

2: possible ecological limits to human activities.

3: irreversible and/or cumulative impacts.

4: cross-problem connectivity.

5: pervasive risk and uncertainty.

7: poor information base.

6: important assets not traded and thus not valued.

8: new ethical dimensions (other species, future).

9: systemic problem causes.

10: poorly developed theory, methods, techniques.

11: poorly defined policy and property rights.

12: non-existent or ill-fitting institutional settings.

13: demands for integration of knowledge silos.

14: novelty as a policy and institutional domain.Attributes = complexity?

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Sustainability problems different in kind and degree

Sustainability problems: different in kind and degree?

Such attributes confronted more often, and more often in combination, with major sustainability problems, than in most other policy sectors.

… problems different in kind, and some would argue different in degree as well.

Traditional policy-oriented disciplines, and policy processes, unlikely to have purchase.

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Vc course complexity policy problems in environment sustainability


  • Human behaviours and use of environments and resources are unsustainable.

  • How to change this?

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  • Someone oughta do something about…-- over allocated water resources-- climate change-- degraded environments = degraded livelihoods-- decline of oceanic fisheries-- biodiversity conservation-- energy dependency and car reliance-- etc, etc…

  • That’s policy instrument choice – “don’t tell me the problem, tell me how to fix it with a policy response”. an exercise on this later.

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The politics of instrument choice

The politics of instrument choice

A policy initiative involves specific tools to achieve its goals.

Policy interventions use policy instrumentsto drive behaviour change, of individuals, households, firms, communities, sectors, govts. social engineering?

Policy instrument choice = convenience, disciplinary bias, ease, swiftness, or familiarity

‘Policy fashions’ evident -- past experience, political preferences, dominant ideologies.

Often from a limited menu – sometimes inevitably, sometimes regrettably.

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Beyond simplistic debates

Beyond simplistic debates:

Three commonly advocated approaches:- sticks – regulate with law- sermons – educate the public- carrots – create a market or price.

Often, policy debates focus on arguing which is ‘best’, in a general sense.

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And limited choices

… and limited choices

3 problems with such arguments…

Almost always use a combination of instruments, hopefully coordinated.

There are more than just regulatory, educative and market mechanisms

Within such general classes, there are options. how to create a menu, and how to choose?

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Instrument classes from 3 15

Instrument classes(from 3  15)

R&D, monitoring

Communication & information flow

Education & training

Consultation, mediation

Agreements, conventions

Statute law

Common law

Covenants on property

Assessment (eg. EIA)


Community involvement

Market mechanisms

Institutional change

Change other policies

Inaction (with cause)

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But wait there s more

But wait, there’s more…

This menu is richer and more realistic, but still too simple - each classcontains a variety of specific instruments.

Not always possible to consider all, but important to recognise the range.

Some examples of more detail …

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Instrument menu level 2

Instrument menu, level 2

Education and training:

Public education (“moral suasion”)

Targeted education (subset of popn)

Formal education (schools, tertiary)

Training (skills development)

Education about ‘the environment’, education about other instruments.

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Level 2 continued

… level 2, continued

Statute law (legislation) - new law or regulations under existing statute, to:

Create institutions and organisations

Set out statutory objects and agency roles

Define decision making processes

Allow public participation

Set aside land; plan and control the use of land

Enforce standards, prohibit practices

Require product labeling

Enable other instruments.

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Level 2 continued1

... level 2, continued

Market mechanisms (price instruments):

Input or output taxes or charges

Use charges

Subsidies, rebates

Tradable pollution permits, resource rights

Performance assurance bonds

Deposit-refund systems.

… general classes = different options

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Selection criteria how to choose

Effectiveness criteria:

Information requirements



Corrective effect


Cost, efficiency

Cross-sectoral impacts.

Implementation criteria:

Equity impacts

Political feasibility

Legal feasibility

Institutional feasibility

Monitoring requirements



Selection criteria: how to choose?

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Example exercise paddock trees


  • Scattered or paddock trees – icons of Australian art, landscape and identity, covering vast areas.

  • Much more significant than thought – stock shelter, water infiltration, pest control (predators), wildlife.

  • Previous focus on patches and strips for vegetation protection and restoration – another increase in scale/complexity of the biodiversity policy problem.

  • Demographic collapse – relicts of pre-clearing and grazing, low or nil recruitment – treeless in 50 years?

  • Across whole grazing landscape…

  • Complex as (i) a research problem, and (ii) a target for policy interventions? Variables– site variation, grazing regime, different species, financial viability of farm, owner demographic, information availability…

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Complexity Dovers 2013

As a policy problem

As a policy problem…

  • A big problem (biodiversity loss over millions of hectares, long term), requiring a policy response to increase appropriate management practices over 1000s of different, individual properties and owners: policy choice for a complex problem.

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As a research problem fenner cerf project

As a research problem: Fenner CERF project

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Go to

Go to…

  • Sustainable Farms research project website, with details, publications, and cool 100 year landscape visualisation scenario download…


  • (Finalist, 2011 Eureka Science Prizes).

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Further sources

Further sources

  • Fischer, J. et al. 2009. Reversing a tree regeneration crisis in an endangered ecoregion, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106 (25): 10386-10391.

  • Schirmer, J., Dovers, S. and Clayton, H. 2012. Informing conservation policy through an examination of landholder preferences: a case study of scattered tree conservation in Australia. Biological Conservation. 153: 51-63.

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  • Re-affirmed value of scattered trees (prodn, birds, bats..).

  • Recruitment under low fertiliser, fast-rotation grazing regimes, if seed stock available, but other strategies also needed.

  • Majority of landholders value scattered trees, but do not currently manage for recruitment or retention.

  • Demographics – superannuation farming, low succession.

  • Land use change – increased cropping (=removal of obstacles to tillage and irrigation).

  • Need to deal with varied biophysical situations, different financial situations, range of management regimes, attitudes to management, etc – farmer aren’t farmers.

  • Variable receptivity to policy instruments.

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As a target for policy intervention

As a target for policy intervention

  • What are the policy options to change behaviours (management) of landholders? with scarce resources, fragmented responsibilities, information overload, diverse audiences, existing programs and focus – what priority ‘investments’, in what combination?

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  • Four groups – policy instrument choice:1. Landholders/farmers (who value trees but need to survive financially).2. Cwlth govt (design and fund policy).3. State/CMA (advise and implement).4. Conservation NGO (priority = biodiversity).

  • 5-10min, then a proposal from each group.

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