Governance for sustainable development: moving from theory to practice

Some recommendations for rules for governance for sustainable development

Authors: Rene Kempp & Saeed Parto, MERIT, Mastricht University and Robert B. Gibson, Univ. of
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Int. Journal of Sustainable Development, Vol. 8, nos 1/2, 2005

All 3 authors have specialised in sustainable policy, institutions of governance and environmental policy issues.

Sustainability and Sustainable Development is about protection and creation

In their opening chapter the authors present their view that sustainability is about both protection and creation. They point out that sustainability is often seen as being about protection of amenities (including cultural diversities) only, but in their view it is equally about continually advancing the creation of a just and better world. Both the protection of amenities and the creation of new and better services for more people require innovative institutions of governance and socio-economic systems.

The pursuit of sustainability hinges on effective integration of social, economic and ecological considerations. In their view sustainability is about locally suited options that are globally sustainable. There are many different ways of designing and strengthening the various foundations and practises of governance to respect the (above) principles of sustainability.

Some recommendations for rules for governance for sustainable development

Diversity is a necessary ingredient and the authors warn that surprise will be inevitable because “sustainable development is pursued in a world of multi-dimensional, interseting and dynamic complex systems” and we “cannot expect to describe them fully.” The authors also stress that transparency and public engagement are key characteristics of decision making for sustainability and explicit rules and processes are needed for decisions about trade-offs and compromises. They suggest that “for example we might agree to avoid sacrificing a long-term objective to win a fleeting benefit or to ensure that the end result of any set of compromises still leaves us with net overall positive contributions to the core sustainability requirements.”

While we can “work to create systems offering a suite of benefits”, waiting for win-win solutions to emerge is not seen as a useful strategy. A couple of other recommendations on ways to achieve sustainable development would be for example that polluter should pay instead of being paid to not pollute. Similarly compensation for losers should only be paid in exceptional circumstances.

The final recommendation is to be aware that sustainable development is an open-ended process.

Governance for sustainable development

The authors state that like sustainable development the concept of governance emerged in the late 1980’s. They define governance as “how one gets to act through what type of interactions ( deliberation, negotiation, self-regulation or authoritative choice) and the extent to which actors adhere to collective decisions”. In their view governance structures are needed “to organise negotiation processes, determine objectives, influence motivations, set standards, perform allocation functions, monitor compliance, impose penalties, initiate and/or reduce conflicts and resolve disputes amongst actors”.

The shift from government to governance means a change in decision making and “spells numerous opportunities for the pursuit of sustainability”. Citizen and stakeholder involvement are important for at least four reasons: to enhance legitimacy of policy, to reduce the risk of conflict, as an additional source of ideas and information and to enable them to learn about environmental issues and problems. Governance for sustainability ultimately will mean radical changes in the systems of production and consumption and thus societal change. The challenge therefore will be to find ways of establishing governance regimes that have reasonable coherence of vision and commitment and are seen as trustworthy and accountable. They will also need sufficient capacity for coordination, direction and re-direction.

The authors refer to examples from Canada and Norway where they have observed such policy integration efforts in large organisations including National Governments and point out that policy integration for sustainable development is a long and difficult process in which political will is important. And they warn that full policy integration may not be achievable but that significant gains can be made.

However, on the positive side they quote examples of cities and urban areas which have “developed new or revised land-use plans through processes including collective development as well as reviews of future scenarios and public debates on planning goals and alternatives”.

The authors continue with descriptions of sustainability-based criteria for planning and approvals of significant undertakings or projects and specific rules for making trade-offs and compromises. For example on compensations and substitutions or on net gain and loss calculations, etc. They also report on widely accepted indicators of needs for actions and progress towards sustainability. Furthermore they demand that “since technological innovations promise only some of the needed improvements governance improvement initiatives must ensure that they are accompanied by co-evolving societal processes”.

Transition management toward sustainable development

In their last chapter the authors sketch their vision of transition management for sustainable development. They stipulate four basic rules which require special attention:

– Be careful not to get locked into sub-optimal solutions
– Embed transition policy into existing decision-making frameworks and legitimise transition management
– Take the long view of a dynamic mechanism of change
– Engage in multi-level coordination

The last transitional consideration is fairness. Key elements of transition management are:

– development of a sustainability vision and setting transition goals
– use of transition agendas – use of transition experiments and programmes for system innovation
– creating and maintaining public support

Governance for sustainability presents an enormous but unavoidable challenge. Continued unsustainability is not an option. In their conclusion the authors recommend that to make such a transition to sustainable development successful “it must be pursued with as much humility as commitment, as much diversity as direction and as much creative experimentation as resolute protection”. Necessarily much will depend on the credibility of the decision makers and the decision making process. In governance for sustainability quite a number of different players must be involved and they are unlikely to work together easily. Finally the authors point out that “there is no single best form of governance for sustainability”.

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