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MEA Bulletin

Guest Article

Monday, 18 June 2007


By Balakrishna Pisupati*

Full Article

Today, negotiators of environmental conventions are faced with multiple challenges associated with the so-called BioRevolution. On one side of the debate are those who believe that science should be free to expand the boundaries of knowledge, and commerce should be free to exploit innovations. On the other are those who anticipate negative impacts from unfettered commercial and scientific activity in the area of the biosciences. Biodiplomacy is that area of international negotiations which seeks to find the balance between divergent ethical, cultural, environmental and economic values, and provide inputs into the debates based on data and information that can support better policy making and subsequent implementation. Biodiplomacy is at the heart of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) and their implementation, as it deals with the principles of sustainability, equity and development.

The environmental community’s narrow definition of its interests leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its powers. In an article published in 2004 titled The death of environmentalism, authors Shellenberger and Nordhous argue that environmentalism today is politically adrift and out of touch. The mantra of the environmental movement may have been “Mandate, Regulate, Litigate” in order to address some of the issues we find important. But by using these terms, we seem to have painted an Armageddon. Possibly, if our movement would have used better skills to deal with market forces and political leaders more strategically, we would have painted Nirvana by this time.

We can point to some positive contributions environmentalism contributed to human well-being, however. It was the environmentalists who coined the concept of sustainable development. It is we who have noted that the real challenge of a sustainable development policy is to ensure that economic growth, social cohesion and environmental protection go hand in hand. In short, development, and in particular sustainable development, is about choices, or as we often call it, about coherence.

Multilateral environmental agreements are focusing now on how to ensure better compliance with and enforcement of the objectives and decisions taken by their Conferences of Parties (COPs). As they take on the challenges of compliance and implementation, which range from lack of capacity to lack of finance, several constraints are being repeatedly discussed and debated at all levels. One key conclusion is the need to secure better political will, both at the international level as well as the national level, where responsibility for implementation lies. These framework agreements often emerge from stressful negotiations that settle for a set of compromises on technical, financial and implementation principles. This is understandable as the needs and interests of many countries were taken into consideration when designing these MEAs. But the compromises necessary to get the initial agreement are causing problems during the implementation phase. A key way forward is to enhance negotiators’ skills as well as their countries’ ability to identify options, so that they can diplomatically and effectively secure win-win solutions for MEA implementation. Another option could be to deal with related MEAs together (such as implementation, compliance and monitoring of biodiversity related MEAs)

Training and informed participation and decision making during MEA negotiations is an important area that needs more attention. While the MEAs use their scientific and technical bodies to provide recommendations to make better decisions, many times the scientific and technical bodies are weakened by political debates, and they lack useful information and data. These shortcomings can cause bottlenecks, because the resulting decisions may not offer practical guidance for those involved with implementation.  

Further development of the biodiplomacy components of MEAs are very much the need of the hour. Biodiplomacy also can contribute to finding better inter-linkages between MEAs. In the absence of synergistic action at national level implementation, MEAs are bound to fail to achieve their targets, as are the national development objectives. Diplomatic skills alone are not enough for negotiations. A review of decision making processes in MEAs clearly demonstrates that those who are successful in shaping meaningful decisions combine negotiation and diplomacy skills with science and data-based arguments. This is where MEA initiatives, such as the Joint Liaison Group, the Biodiversity Liaison Group, the Environment Management Group, and joint work programmes between MEAs (e.g. the CBD/CCD joint work programme on the biological diversity of dry and sub-humid lands) are crucial for catalyzing synergies among MEAs. Activities by such groups foster better links for environmental management through reports and suggestions such as the UNFCCC and CBD Joint Working Group on biodiversity and climate change that identified sets of actions to deal with conservation action, mitigation and adaptation to climate change and the environment management group working on synergistic implementation of MEAs.

Biodiplomacy is one tool to enhance such coherence. For example, one area that currently would benefit from more attention to biodiplomacy is to find actions and decisions that combine conservation of ecosystems and their services and dealing with climate variability and change. Now is the best time to influence public opinion along with the highest political classes on the need to link conservation and climate change actions. Finding investment opportunities for conservation, adaptation and mitigation strategies at the local level, and enhanced stakeholder participation in national implementation are all better achieved by using skills of biodiplomacy.

The way we deal with MEA implementation (using various approaches including the ‘carrot and the stick’ approach) needs a complete review. Our ways of dealing with legislative proposals and regulations are outmoded. MEAs should not be seen as another ‘special interest’ of a select few. Environmentalism should be a way of life. One article that addressed how to make climate change and global warming a well-understood and accepted phenomenon to effect grass-root change (individual, institutional and systemic) suggests that the very words ‘change’ and ‘warming’ are problematic. We should frame a problem ‘environmental,’ while our implementation strategies should be ‘technical.’ This can only be achieved if we move out of the box of defining narrow sectoral boundaries of focus.

If we want to improve our use of biodiplomacy, we should understand that politics plays an important role in MEA implementation. But doing so, we might have to wage losing battles. If by doing so we gain more power, energy and long term gains we should not shy way from losing some battles. However, the history of environmentalism has shown us that some of our loses (or slow progress!) on Rio, Johannesburg, Kyoto and the like are not making MEAs any more powerful, as the agreements were negotiated absolutely not to fail. But current political, financial and societal situations warrant us to deal with MEA implementation having both a winning as well as a losing strategy. In the absence of this, MEAs are bound to be burdened by slow movement forward, and they may crash under their own weight.

Economically and based on resource friendly options, joint MEA implementation seems to be the best option before us. But to effectively manage this we need to change our governance systems, and break the strong shields of sectoral outlooks and planning processes. Changes in this can only be possible if we increase the individual, institutional and systemic capacities of our decision makers and public at large. Therefore, the focus should be more on designing common solutions and increasing ownership and responsibility of MEA implementation and compliance. In the absence of this, we will continue to roll out decisions year-after-year that mean little to both politics and society at large.

* Balakrishna Pisupati is the team leader of Biodiplomacy Programme of United Nations University-Institute of Advanced Studies based in Japan. The opinions expressed are his personal ones.

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