Information and (random) thoughts on environmental governance

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Reinventing Residual Reserves in the Sea

By Rodolphe Devillers, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Satelite image of the Great Barrier Reef

Satelite image of the Great Barrier Reef (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new article titled “Reinventing residual reserves in the sea: are we favouring ease of establishment over need for protection?” have been published in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. The article analyses the relationship between the location of marine protected areas (MPAs) around the world (with a focus on Australia and the Great Barrier Reef) and extractive activities (fishing and oil and gas). It shows that MPA locations tend to be biased towards areas that present low economic interest, often being selected for their ease of establishment (low political cost, low conflict with stakeholders) at the cost of biodiversity conservation. The paper criticises the current international area-based targets for marine conservation as well as the recent trend for large remote MPAs which should only be, in our view, a modest part of the solution. The paper authored by Associate Prof Rodolphe Devillers and colleagues is publicly available at

March 3, 2014   No Comments

Australia’s new marine protected areas: why they won’t work

By Bob Pressey, James Cook University

Australia’s Network of Marine Reserves (c) Commonwealth

On land and in the sea, we’re losing sight of what nature conservation is about. We’ve become dangerously focused on protected areas, but rarely consider what they’re supposed to achieve. One result is that biodiversity is declining almost everywhere while protected areas expand.

Why the apparent paradox? An important reason is that protected areas tend to be in the wrong places. On land, it’s a safe generalisation that protected areas are biased to “residual” places – those with least promise for commercial uses. In some regions, this is because only residual landscapes survive in anything like their natural state.

But another important factor is political pragmatism. Electorates in many countries like the idea of nature conservation but are undiscerning about exactly what this means. Governments can therefore present residual protected areas – and the more extensive the better – as real progress for conservation. The incentive for residual conservation is to minimise financial and political cost.

As systems of marine protected areas expand, their residual nature is becoming obvious too. One of the world’s best examples of a residual system of marine protected areas was announced in November 2012 by the Australian Government.

Why would residual protected areas be a problem? Most importantly, they contribute little to the real goals of nature conservation: to avert threats and avoid loss of biodiversity. They tend toward parts of jurisdictions that were de facto protected by remoteness and unsuitability for commercial uses. Meanwhile, the processes that threaten biodiversity continue largely unabated and declines in biodiversity continue.

Second, by giving a false impression of conservation progress, residual protected areas use up societies’ tolerances of protection, progressively making future protected areas, especially those that might be effective in averting threats, more difficult to establish.

Third, residual protected areas place the onus of real conservation on off-reserve measures. These vary greatly in effectiveness and many can be diluted, ignored, or removed at political or administrative whim.

These problems mean that measuring conservation progress in terms of the extent of protected areas is usually meaningless. Another implication is that residual protected areas can produce outcomes that are worse than neutral. By failing to avert present or impending threats while pre-empting later protected areas that could be more effective, their contribution can be irretrievably negative.

With those points in mind, here is a brief review of the recently established marine protected areas in Australian Commonwealth waters, covering more than 2.3 million square kilometres. The government considers these areas have confirmed Australia as a world leader in environmental protection. But how much difference did the new marine reserves make to the future of Australia’s marine biodiversity?

  • The green (no-take) zones are concentrated in the deeper waters near the edge of Australia’s marine jurisdiction, barely touching the continental shelf where threats to biodiversity are concentrated. Their placement has been adjusted to make little difference to fishing and no difference to oil and gas development. This repeats the pattern of the 2007 marine protected areas in the south-east region where marine protected areas, and especially green zones, were largely absent from the “zone of importance” where high biodiversity conservation values overlapped with greatest threats.
  • The extensive new protected areas in IUCN category IV and, especially, VI zones allow various forms of fishing and many allow extraction of oil and gas. Australia’s 2011 State of Environment report found that fishing has caused declines in target and non-target species in several of our marine planning regions and that the cumulative impacts of oil and gas extraction are not being managed.
  • The “jewel in the crown” of the new network is the enormous mosaic of protection zones in the Coral Sea – nationally marginal for commercial fishing . The no-take zone is furthest from land, typical of the other marine planning regions. The zones that prohibit pelagic long-lining have been configured to avoid all but the most marginal areas for this fishing method. Oil and gas exploration and extraction are prohibited throughout the region, although hydrocarbon reserves appear to be absent (they are concentrated in the north-west and south-east planning regions where oil and gas developments are avoided by or permitted in protected areas established in 2007 and 2012).

The Australian Government, in minimising the impact of marine protected areas on commercial and industrial interests, has also minimised the contributions of these areas to protecting marine biodiversity. The conservation benefits are vanishingly small in proportion to size of the new areas.

This approach works politically as long as conservation groups and the general public believe that size matters. Apparently they do. The Government’s media release stated: “Of the 80,000 submissions received, the vast majority of submissions were supportive of the Government’s plan to create the world’s largest network of marine parks.” The Australian Conservation Foundation, Australian Marine Conservation Society and Greenpeace, among many others, applauded the announcement.

This praise indicates one of two things: the green groups have confused means (protected areas) and ends (making a difference) or, for reasons of their own, have decided to follow the Government’s lead. Either way, Australia’s marine biodiversity faces a problem – a mutually reinforcing combination of political expediency and commendation from influential NGOs and the public.

One of Hans Christian Andersen’s cautionary tales comes readily to mind. As in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Australia’s new marine protected areas don’t involve much substance but have attracted a good deal of public praise. An important difference, though, is that Andersen’s story ends with public outcry at being duped. There are plenty of people in Australia who understand marine conservation and think the new marine reserves are a conservation failure, but few can say so publicly. That’s another story.

Australia’s world leadership in marine conservation was rightly recognised in 1975 and 2004 with the establishment and extensive rezoning, respectively, of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The 2007 and now the 2012 Commonwealth marine protected areas are a big step backward from the 2004 milestone.

Regaining world leadership in marine conservation needs two things. We must judge progress by moving from meaningless counts of square kilometres to measuring what actually counts – avoided loss or averted threats (the methods are there and ready to use). And we must have the courage to accept and apply the apparently radical idea that marine conservation is about making a difference, not about placing protected areas where they will be least inconvenient to business as usual.

Bob Pressey does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

January 27, 2013   No Comments

Carbon Feedback to Climate System Found to be Faster

Reproduced from Australian Antarctic Division

Ice Core Research in Antarctica

Ice Core Research in Antarctica (Photo credit: climateXchange)

Scientists have shed new light on one of the most important questions in climate science: the time lag between changes in temperature and changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the past.

Their findings suggest that feedbacks in the climate system – in which warming is linked to natural carbon dioxide increase, driving further warming – may operate faster than previously thought.

In a paper just published in the journal Climate of the Past, the researchers use Antarctic and Greenland ice cores to examine temperature and carbon dioxide changes during the largest natural climate change in Earth’s recent climate history: the warming out of the last ice age.

As Antarctic temperatures increased ocean circulation was altered and carbon dioxide, most likely from the deep Southern Ocean, was releasedto the atmosphere. Previous studies had suggested that it took up to 1000 years for this to happen. But the new study, drawing on data from five separate ice cores, whittles that figure down.

“The ice cores reveal a near-synchronous temperature and carbon dioxide increase. If there was a lag at all then it was likely no more than 400 years,” says Joel Pedro from the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, in Hobart, who led the study.

Eric Steig, an American ice core expert based at the University of Washington who examined Pedro’s PhD thesis, said almost all previous work had provided uncertainties on the time lag between temperature and carbon dioxide in the order of many hundreds to even thousands of years. “I cannot emphasize enough how important this result is,” he said. “The authors collapse these values to something so short that it has major implications for our understanding of the carbon cycle and climate change.”

Beginning about 19,000 years ago, the extensive ice sheets covering Canada and Northern Europe began to melt back. The initial warming was likely triggered by cyclic variations in the geometry of the Earth’s orbit. Over the next 8000 years atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increased by close to 50%, helping to drive an eventual global average temperature increase of 5°C and a sea-level rise of over 100 m.

Resolving the sources and processes responsible for the carbon dioxide increase has been a longstanding puzzle. The new results support hypotheses linking the increase to rapid hemispheric-scale reorganisations of ocean and atmospheric circulation moving carbon dioxide from the deep Southern Ocean to the atmosphere around Antarctica.

Pedro says that there are similarities but also important differences between current climate change and the natural processes described in their research.

“The coupled rise in temperature and natural increase in carbon dioxide that helped end the ice age took place gradually, over about 8000 years. What we have seen since the start of the industrial revolution is a similar carbon dioxide increase occurring over only a few hundred years. This is way faster than anything in the ice core record and it’s clearly human-caused. Just as the steady increase in carbon dioxide helped to melt the ice caps and warm the Earth out of the ice age, the rapid increase now in carbon dioxide is also driving up temperatures, only at a much faster rate,” he said.

An important question arising from the study is whether current anthropogenic warming may drive additional natural carbon dioxide increases sooner than we thought, compounding the climate change problem. Dr Pedro acknowledges that the research raises this possibility, but cautions that a firm answer on whether we need to revise thinking on the timescales of carbon cycle response to anthropogenic warming requires further research.

The research is part of an ongoing collaboration between Joel Pedro (ACE CRC), Tas van Ommen (Australian Antarctic Division, ACE CRC) and Sune Rasmussen (Niels Bohr Centre for Ice and Climate, Copenhagen, Denmark).

The paper by J Pedro and colleagues can be accessed here

July 25, 2012   No Comments

Inclusive Wealth Report 2012 launched at Rio+20

World map showing countries by nominal GDP per...

The International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) announces the launch of the Inclusive Wealth Report 2012 (IWR 2012) at the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil.

The report presents a framework that offers a long-term perspective on human well-being and sustainability, based on a comprehensive analysis of nations´ productive base and their link to economic development.

The IWR 2012 was developed on the notion that current economic production indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) and the Human Development Index (HDI) are insufficient, as they fail to reflect the state of natural resources or ecological conditions, and focus exclusively on the short term, without indicating whether national policies are sustainable.

The IWR 2012 features an index that measures the wealth of nations by looking into a country’s capital assets, including manufactured, human and natural capital, and its corresponding values: the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). Results show changes in inclusive wealth from 1990 to 2008, and include a long-term comparison to GDP for an initial group of 20 countries worldwide, which represent 72% of the world GDP and 56% of the global population.

The IWR will be published every two years and will offer policy-makers a practical framework for assessing the state of a country’s productive base. It can also provide guidance on which forms of capital investment should be made to ensure sustainable development. More broadly, the report will be of use to scholars and practitioners working in economics, development studies, environmental and other fields.

The Inclusive Wealth Report 2012 is a joint initiative of UNU-IHDP and UNEP in collaboration with the UN-Water Decade Programme on Capacity Development (UNW-DPC) and the Natural Capital Project.

The Inclusive Wealth Report 2012 can be downloaded from

June 18, 2012   No Comments

Elinor Ostrom’s research can inspire Rio+20






“The late Nobel laureate’s work on handling common resources offers valuable sustainable development lessons”, writes Ruth Meinzen-Dick for the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog. Meinzen-Dick continues:

Elinor Ostrom’s death on 12 June, just days before the Rio+20 conference, is an enormous loss. But her life’s work offers many lessons for the deliberations, decisions and path to progress at and after Rio.

Many of the most crucial resources for a sustainable future are related, in one way or another, to the commons – the subject of much of Ostrom’s work, which earned her the 2009 Nobel prize in economic sciences and led one academic to describe her as “the mother of field work in development economics”. Water, forests, fisheries, biodiversity, oceans and the atmosphere are all, in important ways, common pool resources; it is difficult to exclude people from using them, but some of that usage depletes their availability to others. To be sustainable, usage must be co-ordinated and regulated – but that does not mean government management or privatisation are the only options. Ostrom’s work demonstrated in meticulous detail that people can and do work together to manage shared resources sustainably, and have been doing so for hundreds of years.

Rather than depending on a single, monolithic governance structure, Ostrom’s work shows the importance of drawing on the strengths of many different institutions working together – government agencies, user groups and private actors – and co-operating at multiple scales. When asked about lack of progress on climate change agreements, she replied that, rather than waiting for a grand global agreement, we need to look for action at all levels, from our own homes to our schools, cities and nations. As she emphasised throughout her career, and in the last piece she published, a solution to the problem of climate change will not arrive in a single-stroke panacea, but will require experimentation at multiple levels and diverse approaches.

Read the full post by clicking this link

June 16, 2012   No Comments

Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom 1933–2012

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences, died Tuesday, 12 June, 2012, at the age of 78 after a battle with cancer. Ostrom received the 2009 Nobel Prize for her research demonstrating that ordinary people are capable of creating rules and institutions that allow for the sustainable and equitable management of shared resources.

More information at

June 13, 2012   No Comments

Local Action and Climate Change: Interview with Elinor Ostrom

In a recent interview, Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom talks about the need for efforts at multiple levels and the importance of local action in tackling climate change. Here is a sample of the interview:

Q: You have suggested a polycentric approach as opposed to single policies at a global level to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Could you explain how that would work? Do you think a similar approach would work to get all countries and their people to believe in, and adopt, sustainable development?

A: We have modelled the impact of individual actions on climate change incorrectly and need to change the way we think about this problem. When individuals walk a distance rather than driving it, they produce better health [...] Continue Reading…

May 19, 2012   No Comments

101 Climate Change Science Questions

Australia’s Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has released the document “Accurate Answers to Professor Plimer’s 101 Climate Change Science Questions”, which provides answers to the 101 questions on climate change posed by Professor Ian Plimer, a geology professor and expert mineralogist with no background in climate science, in his latest book, How to get expelled from school: a guide to climate change for pupils, parents and punters (2011).

The document reads:
Many of the questions and answers in Professor Plimer’s book are misleading and are based on inaccurate or selective interpretation of the science. The answers and comments provided in this document are intended to provide clear and accurate answers to Professor Plimer’s questions. The answers are based on [...] Continue Reading…

May 7, 2012   No Comments

Untangling international agreements in the Coral Triangle

Image via Wikipedia

A new article on international governance arrangements relating to the Coral Triangle has just been published in Marine Policy. Using a network approach, P Fidelman, from the University of the Sunshine Coast, and J Ekstrom, University of California Berkeley, examine whether and how institutional complexity can be conducive to large-scale marine management.  They show that regional marine governance is marked by jurisdiction and functional overlaps, and suggest inter-institutional learning and institutional synergy as processes to cope with complexity and fragmentation. The abstract reads:
The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI), adopted recently in response to the degradation of coastal and marine environments in the Southeast Asia-Pacific’s Coral Triangle, emphasises the need [...] Continue Reading…

March 15, 2012   No Comments

Four decades of theorising about environmental governance

In this talk, Prof Oran Young extracts enduring insights from his research on environmental governance.

January 24, 2012   No Comments