Monday, June 25, 2012

On Climate and Forests, Don't Forget the Institutions

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at the International Symposium on Society and Natural Resources in Edmonton, Canada. First of all, it was a nice way to get a long-overdue forest fix by taking my first mountain forest hike with my son (it seems I have spent more time writing about forests of late than walking through them; but see image below). Second, however, it reminded me once again of the importance of governance institutions in facilitating political ideas and policy choices.

I prepared for the conference by expanding on research I had already performed on the Canada hike allocation of governance authority over forest policy between national and subnational governments in certain federal systems. In some systems, particularly in the developed world, the institution that allocates regulatory authority (the Constitution) presents major obstacles for national-level forest policy, which may facilitate varied, disparate, and inconsistent subnational forest policies - a situation that can have major implications for climate policy, since nearly 20 percent of global carbon emissions result from forest destruction and degradation. So even if political will exists to craft national-level forest policy (which in turn impacts global forest and climate policy), the legal institution itself can be a roadblock. In other federal systems, particularly in the developing world, the constitutional institution is quite strong, providing for very dynamic forms of federalism that allow direct regulatory inputs into forest policy at national and subnational levels. Rather, the problem in much of the developing world is that nations' enforcement and rule of law institutions are inadequate to ensure implementation of forest policies at all levels.

Indeed, institutional weaknesses have impacted what was once the great hope for global forests, and which may still remain so with the right institutional and policy tweaks - Reduction in Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (or REDD) programs. A few days ago, at Rio+20, a summary report on REDD announced that the challenges REDD programs face "are not easily overcome." REDD programs have been described as "floundering," due to uncertainties regarding the allocation of project funds, hijacking of the funding process by those holding forests "hostage" (so to speak) unless they are paid not to cut their forests, and the inability politically at the international level to reach consensus on reducing industrial carbon emissions (emissions limits which would be a driver for forest-based carbon offsets). Ultimately, while these political questions complicate the REDD solution, institutions facilitating the programs are in desperate need of attention. In the words of Professor Stephen Howes, director of the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy, "[y]ou need to have an approach that's more focused on national government policy. You need to change national government policies and strengthen national institutions if you're going to hope to tackle these drivers of deforestation."

Relevant for my talk at ISSRM, and a future article on which I am working (suggestions welcomed!), is how the forest governance strengths in the developed world (enforcement and implementation) can be linked with the governance strengths in the developing world (dynamic constitutional federalism allowing direct regulatory inputs into forest policy at all levels of government) to allow more robust and successful forest policy in all federal systems. For one, more dialogue needs to take place between federal systems on institutional structure, rather than focusing primarily on political goals and aspirations. Countries need to establish more direct discussions about how, notwithstanding sovereignty concerns, they can learn from each other from an institutional perspective - not unlike the debates our Framers had over the form of our Constitution early on. In a time when so much is becoming globalized, countries should not maintain isolationism regarding individual national institutions. Let's not only remember the importance of institutions on the domestic level, but let's share and receive institutional knowledge as freely as we do international goods and services - in a new "global institutions market."

- Blake Hudson

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