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UN Global Environment Outlook: a sustainable future is still possible

Pedro Fidelman, The University of Queensland

The Sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6), the most comprehensive environmental assessment produced by the UN in five years, brought us both good and bad news.

The environment has continued to deteriorate since the first GEO-6 report in 1997, with potentially irreversible impacts if not effectively addressed. But pathways to significant change do exist, and a sustainable future is still possible.

Launched in March at the fourth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, the 700-page report involved nearly 200 global experts who collaborated over 18 months.

It covers, in detail, a range of topics, including air, biodiversity, oceans and coasts, land and freshwater, climate change, human health and energy.

And it assessed the state of the global environment, the effectiveness of policy responses, and possible pathways to achieve the environmental goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The good news

There is a fair bit of negative information in the GEO-6, which unfortunately reflects the overall state of environmental affairs globally. But it is not all doom and gloom, the GEO-6 has many positive, solution-oriented messages too.

The GEO-6 advises that pathways and approaches to systemic change exist, which must be scaled up quickly to steer the planet towards more sustainable futures.

The considerable connections between environmental, social and economic policies can inform multiple goals. So policies addressing entire systems – such as food, energy and waste – are more likely to have beneficial impact.

For instance, reducing our use of fossil fuels leads to health benefits by decreasing outdoor air pollution responsible for premature deaths. And efforts to eliminate hunger (such as changes in agriculture production) can help address climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation and chemical pollution.

With the window for action closing quickly, given the unprecedented rate of global environmental change, the GEO-6 is calling for more ambitious and innovative policy.

We need significant change leading us to decarbonisation, a circular economy, sustainable agriculture and food systems, and better adapting socio-economic systems to climate change.

The bad news

The GEO-6 warns the overall condition of the global environment continues to deteriorate, driven mainly by population growth, urbanisation, economic development, technological change and climate change.

Here’s what we’re dealing with:

  • air pollution currently causes an estimated 6 to 7 million premature deaths annually
  • we might be witnessing the sixth mass species extinction in the planet’s history
  • 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year as a result of mismanagement of domestic waste in coastal areas
  • warming ocean waters are leading to mass mortality of coral reefs across the world’s tropics
  • 29% of all lands are degradation hotspots
  • pathogen-polluted drinking water and inadequate sanitation cause approximately 1.4 million human deaths annually, with many millions more becoming ill.

These and other issues reported in the GEO-6 will lead to ongoing and potentially irreversible impacts if they are not addressed effectively, and immediately.

Typically, environmental policy efforts are based on individual issues, like air pollution, or industry sectors. But this approach doesn’t address the complexity of contemporary environmental problems that require system-oriented efforts at large scales.

Under current policy scenarios, the environmental dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as other goals like the Paris Agreement, are unlikely to be achieved.

The GEO-6 calls for urgent, inclusive and sustained action by governments, business and society proportionate to the scale and pace of global environmental change.

What it means for Australia

In Australia, positive action is taking place at state and local levels of government, where support for more ambitious emissions targets is generally stronger than at the Australian government level.

And many sectors of society and business are shifting towards more sustainable practices. The booming uptake of rooftop solar and the development of large-scale renewable projects illustrate such a shift.

But when it comes to sustainable development policies at the national level, Australia lags behind most of the developed world, particularly in relation to energy and climate change policy.

We don’t yet have long-term certainty for support of the uptake of electric cars, the transition to renewables, the adoption of fuel efficiency standards, and limiting emissions from the manufacturing and resources industry.

Effective strategies to curb land clearing remains to be seen, and only recently Australia has incorporated principles of circular economy into the National Waste Policy.

These do not help Australia meet its agreed commitments under the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and associated Sustainable Development Goals.

With long-term environmental, socio-economic and political stability at stake, it is time for commitment, leadership and robust policies that can last beyond the three-year electoral cycle.The Conversation

Pedro Fidelman, Senior research fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Global experts join forces to save our marine ecosystems

The Great Barrier Reef

Experts from around the world have banded together to assess the health of the planet.

University of Queensland researcher Dr Pedro Fidelman was a lead author on oceans and coastal policy for the sixth edition of the Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6), launched at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi on 13 March.

The GEO-6 provides an independent assessment of the global state of the environment, effectiveness of policy responses to environmental problems and the possible pathways to achieve environmental goals.

Dr Fidelman, a Senior Research Fellow at UQ’s Centre for Policy Futures, said the findings will inform decision-making and action in response to the impacts of climate change on coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.

“Major environmental concerns about the impacts of human activities on the oceans include climate change, pollution and overfishing.

“Our mission was to synthesise data, information and knowledge to inform future decisions and actions on the environment, leading ultimately to positive change,” he said.

Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres said the GEO-6 is an essential check-up for our planet.

“It details both with the perils of delaying action and the opportunities that exist to make sustainable development a reality.”

GEO-6 was completed over 18 months and involved a collaboration of over 140 independent, global experts.

“We found that coral bleaching is one of the most dramatic and immediate impacts of climate change on oceans in recent years,” Dr Fidelman said.

Another finding was that resilience-based management can offset to some extent the impacts of climate change on coral reefs by tackling local and regional threats (e.g. pollution, sedimentation and overfishing).

“Resilience-based management requires a mix of policy instruments and management actions (e.g. regulation, incentives and education) relating to, for example, land use controls to improve water quality entering the reef system and spatial planning of marine protected areas.”

“But without international policies to curb carbon emissions, resilience-based management alone is unlikely to be effective, given the limits to the capacity of marine species to cope with fast warming ocean waters,” he said.

Funding was provided by the European Union and the governments of Italy, Thailand, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, China, Mexico, Denmark and Egypt.

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) is the flagship assessment report of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)

Media: Dr Pedro Fidelman, UQ Centre for Policy Futures, 07 3443 3139,  p.fidelman@uq.edu.au or Kristen Johnston (HASS Communications), 07 3346 1633, k.johnston@uq.edu.au

Institutional Perspective on Governing Social-Ecological Systems

Video of the seminar I gave on “Institutional Perspective on Governing Social-Ecological Systems” at the he University of Queensland Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science on 29 May 2018.

About the presentation: Institutions refer to formal and informal regulatory mechanisms and processes that influence how humans use and manage the environment. Examples of institutions include international agreements, national legislation, state and local policies and social norms. Institutions, therefore, may greatly affect the conditions of social-ecological systems (e.g., the Great Barrier Reef, Coral Triangle and NRM regions). In this presentation, I focus on the role of institutions in governing these systems. Drawing on my research on marine governance, natural resource management and climate change adaptation, I reflect on how institutions are employed in response to pressing environmental issues in Australia and overseas. I also discuss challenges and opportunities associated with the dynamic and complex nature of institutions for improved governance of social-ecological systems.

6th Global Environment Outlook

I am pleased to have been appointed as a Lead Authors for the United Nations Environment’s 6th Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6). The GEO is the UN Environment flagship integrated assessment on the state of the global environment. Drawing on all the major global assessments from international science panels and UN bodies, it presents the environmental trends for air, climate, water, land and biodiversity. The assessment looks at the interactions and feedback loops between social, economic and environmental drivers to assess the effectiveness of different policy responses in moving the world onto a more sustainable pathway. The forthcoming GEO-6 report will be presented to the United Nations Environment Ministers’ Assembly (UNEA 4) in 2019.

Structural factors influencing conservation decision-making: new journal article

Our paper, on structural factors influencing conservation decision-making, led by Dr Milena Kim, has just been published online. It It uses the prioritisation method “Back on Track” – adopted by the Queensland State Government, Australia – as a case study to investigate the policy instruments employed to promote its uptake, and the structural factors affecting such uptake.  We underscore several structural factors limiting the use of this method. These include fragmentation of policies, the relative strength of alternative priorities and centralisation of power in decision-making. We discuss the results in relation to other conservation planning initiatives and suggest how structural barriers can be addressed.

KIM, M.K.; EVANS, L.; FIDELMAN, P.; SCHERL, L.M.; VALENTINE, P.; MARSH, H. 2017. Structural Factors Influencing Conservation Decision-making: A Case of Species Prioritisation in Australia. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management; doi: 10.1080/09640568.2016.1268107
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Pete Hay Environmental Politics Prize

My colleagues and I were honoured to win the Pete Hay Environmental Politics Prize at the 2016 Australian Political Study Association (APSA) Conference, held at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

Since 2011 the Pete Hay Prize has been awarded annually to the best APSA conference paper on the topic of Environmental Politics or Policy.

Winner: Pedro Fidelman (University of the Sunshine Coast), Truong Van Tuyen (Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry, Vietnam), Kim Nong (Ministry of Environment, Cambodia), Melissa Nursey-Bray (University of Adelaide)

Paper: ‘Institutional Adaptive Capacity of Coastal Resources Co-Management in Cambodia and Vietnam’

Selection Panel:  Michael Howes (chair), Kate Crowley, Brian Coffey

Climate Impacts on Coral Reefs and People a “Two-Way Street”

Coral Garden
Photo: Great Barrier Reef by Richard Ling

I was part of an international research team that have developed a novel framework to help elucidate the different ways climate change can impact coral reefs and reef-depended societies.

In a paper published in the journal Regional Environmental Change, we propose that climate impacts on coral reefs and people are like a two-way street. That is, climate impacts operate in both directions, not only from environment to people – the focus of much of the research on climate change and coral reefs to date – but also from people to environment.

The “two-way street” framework emphasises how some climate impacts, such as severe tropical storms directly affect human societies with repercussions for how they interact with the environment. The framework underscores the diverse impacts that need to be considered to develop a more complete understanding of climate impacts.

Climate change is a major long-term threat to coral reefs, and is predicted to affect millions of people, particularly in developing countries, who depend on goods and services (for example, fisheries, coastal protection and tourism) provided by coral reefs.

Understanding the different ways in which climate change affects the environment and people, as well as how societal response to these impacts affect natural resources and the environment is fundamental in developing appropriate management actions in coral reef social–ecological systems.

Cinner et al. 2015. Framework for Understanding Climate Change Impacts on Coral Reef Social-Ecological SystemsRegional Environmental Change, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10113-015-0832-z

Institutional-Ecological Fit: New Journal Paper

Our new paper “Analysing the (mis)fit between Institutional and Ecological Networks of the Indo-West Pacific” has just been published in the journal Global Environmental Change. In this paper, we develop an innovative approach to analyse the ‘‘problem of fit’’ – one of the core constraints to effective governance in Social–Ecological Systems (SES). Such problem is based on the idea that effective SES governance depends to some extent on how the characteristics of the governance system (e.g., institutional arrangements) align with the characteristics of the ecosystem it is trying to govern. Despite the importance of the problem of fit, very few studies have quantitatively evaluated such a problem. Our paper quantifies the fit between key ecological processes and the governance structures (i.e., institutional arrangements) relating to the management of these processes. This was undertaken in the context of the geopolitically and ecologically complex region of the Indo-West Pacific where we focused on coral reefs and the transboundary corridors (i.e. ecological links), and associated institutional arrangements (e.g., treaties, conventions, agreements, and memoranda of understanding) addressing marine conservation and management. We believe that our method has the potential to assist management efforts in prioritising and strengthening governance to effectively safeguard ecological processes across multiple jurisdictions.

 

TREML, E.A.; FIDELMAN, P.; KININMONTH, S.; EKSTROM, J.; BODIN, O.  2015. Analyzing the (Mis)fit between Institutional and Ecological Networks of the Indo-West Pacific. Global Environmental Change, 31: 263-271; doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.01.012
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Mediating science and action across multiple boundaries in the Coral Triangle

We have just published a paper titled “Mediating Science and Action Across Multiple Boundaries in the Coral Triangle” in the journal Global Environmental Change. In this paper, we use boundary work to examine how stakeholders in the Coral Triangle Initiative, an international agreement between six countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, are forging relations across various domains and governance levels, and the outcomes of this process. We do this in an effort to increase its relevance to multi-level environmental governance, and understand the challenges that face such governance. We are also interested in the pathways leading to policy outcomes that are perceived as salient, credible, and legitimate to all stakeholders involved in governance. The study shows that boundary work is challenged by resource inequalities resulting in limited knowledge diversity, blurred boundaries between science and politics, and misaligned scales. We conclude that boundary work has an important temporal dimension that has often been neglected, and that literature on boundary work must provide a conceptual guide to understand tradeoffs arising as a result of stakeholders’ various strategies to engage in boundary work.

VON HELAND, F.; CRONA, B.; FIDELMAN, P. Mediating Science and Action across Multiple Boundaries in the Coral Triangle. Global Environmental Change, 29: 53-64; doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.08.003

You may download this paper free of charge until 7 November 2014 by clicking here.

A stakeholder analysis of the Coral Triangle Initiative

In this paper, we examine stakeholders’ efforts to design and implement a marine management policies in the context of the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI). We explore CTI stakeholders’ policy beliefs and preferences, their patterns of collaboration and trust, their access to resources and level of influence, and their views on the overall performance of the CTI. The findings suggest that the CTI is best viewed as a nascent, collaborative policy subsystem wherein there is strong support for the CTI objectives among stakeholders, convergence in policy beliefs and preferences, and instances of collaboration. However, some tensions are highlighted, which risk undermining the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of the Initiative. We argue that, as the CTI matures, it is important to maintain broad convergence in policy beliefs to prevent the formation of adversarial coalitions, and/or to avoid unilateral prioritisation of powerful global interests to the detriment of national and local priorities.

FIDELMAN, P.; EVANS, L.; FOALE, S.; WEIBLE, C.; VON HELAND, F.; ELGIN, D. 2014. Coalition Cohesion for Regional Marine Governance: A Stakeholder Analysis of the Coral Triangle Initiative. Ocean and Coastal Management, 95: 117-128; doi: 10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2014.04.001