Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Scientific Guidance on the Environment Has Utterly Transformed—Can Policy Keep Up?

Kai M. A. Chan, republished from The Canadian Science Policy Magazine

The bar for science policy just got a whole lot higher—all across the world. It’s not clear that Canadian policymaking is up to the task.

The relevance of science for policy used to be quite contained. Science helped set the limits for arsenic in drinking water, for particulate matter of various sizes in indoor and outdoor air, and for population sizes and trends in determining whether species were vulnerable, threatened, or endangered.

Over the past few years—and particularly this year—the domain of science policy has exploded to include systemic governance issues that were previously the sole domain of economics and politics. How should governments encourage industrial production? How should we make management decisions about resources (not just which decisions, but how precautionary, adaptive, inclusive, and integrative across sectors and jurisdictions)? Also, how should we regulate which chemicals can be used in consumer goods, and even how we should limit the material and energy we collectively consume?

How did this happen? It happened thanks to two major but under-appreciated advances, in science-policy processes and in science.

The science-policy landscape always included studies offering implicit guidance on such topics, but until now that guidance was never both explicit and officially sanctioned by 132 of the world’s nations. The innovation here comes in the form of UN bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the newer Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Whereas in the past, individual articles had implications for large-scale systemic decisions, they never had force for several reasons. Many were too limited in scope, in at least one dimension. Either they were local scale or they were global but without distinction between national contexts. Many addressed just one challenge—e.g., climate change—without consideration of side-effects of actions on others. Many were not explicit enough about what might need to change, while others were too explicit, reaching beyond the evidence. And for every study with one conclusion, other studies—equally reputable for most policymakers—seemed to contradict it.

No longer: now assessments of IPCC and IPBES cover a global scope with regional differentiation; they review all the relevant evidence while distinguishing the robustness of different studies; and they are explicit about policy options towards already accepted global and national goals. Most important, these assessments are not merely science—their central findings are thoroughly reviewed, edited and approved in several steps by member nations. Thus, not only are the studies relevant, pointed, and authoritative, they get officially endorsed by the nations themselves.

The second key advance is in the integrative nature of some of the science. A central reality of policymaking is tradeoffs, such that a solution to one challenge is no solution at all if it exacerbates another challenge. Not only have individual studies become more integrative across multiple considerations—e.g., climate, energy, and land-based food production—but assessment processes have become more integrative yet.

As one example that I know well, thanks to the pleasure of leading this effort with more than thirty world-leading scientists, is Chapter 5 of the IPBES Global Assessment, “Pathways towards a Sustainable Future” (Chan et al. 2019). This integration included a comprehensive and systematic evaluation of future scenarios and pathway analyses that addressed the challenge of mitigating climate change while providing sufficient energy for humanity and maintaining space for agriculture and life on land. Beyond that, it meant the same assessments of scenarios and pathways for five other foci of difficult tradeoffs: feeding humanity without undermining biodiversity; protecting and restoring nature in an inclusive way that respects human rights and contributes to human well-being; securing seafood for the future while protecting nature in oceans and coasts; maintaining freshwater for human uses and aquatic biodiversity; and resourcing our growing cities while maintaining the nature that underpins them. These six focal points correspond to several UN Sustainable Development Goals and Aichi Targets for Biodiversity, which nations have agreed and committed to through the General Assembly and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The biggest challenge is that tradeoffs also reach across these six foci, just as intensive agriculture might produce masses of food and leave space for forests and wetlands, but it risks unacceptably tainting freshwater supplies for both people and aquatic life. Accordingly, our international team had to evaluate whether solutions exist to simultaneously achieve global goals across all six foci, and what the broader literature has to say about those solutions. Never before has a single analysis straddled such an expansive problem at the scales relevant to national commitments.

The answers pinpointed changes that were more systemic than ever, getting to the heart of what it means to govern a nation, state, or municipality. Solutions that addressed all six foci tended to employ five different ‘levers’ of governance interventions, and they tended to do so at eight different ‘leverage points’ in social systems. For instance, virtually all pathways involved a substantial reform of subsidies and incentives away from boosting production at the expense of the environment, toward improving environmental stewardship (a lever). And they applied these levers at ‘leverage points’ like prevailing notions and narratives of a good life, recognizing that the inadvertent adoption and promotion of largely western notions of success that entail high levels of material consumption are neither conducive to human well-being nor to achieving collective goals for nature.

Is Canadian science-policy up to the task of contributing to sustainable pathways for the planet? It remains to be seen, but what is becoming clear is that the science is there to assist in that task—and to evaluate progress toward it.