Changing the way we govern biodiversity: What do we need to learn?

In Autumn 2020, the conservation community was faced with the realization that the world has failed to meet any of the international policy targets set for biodiversity conservation. In 2010, in Nagoya, Japan, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity set 20 goals for protecting biodiversity. Signatory countries (164 of them) committed to adopting and meeting these targets. However, the UN’s 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook report (September 2020) confirmed that all of these targets had been missed; only six had been partially met.

In light of such failure, we need to try again and do better. But how?

Researchers are increasingly suggesting that working with values is key to protecting biodiversity. They recognize plural values of nature and biodiversity. Plural values are not just monetary expressions of how we ‘use’ nature (e.g. as a food source, or a carbon sink), but also those deeper values that we hold around the right of nature to exist, and for how we exist as a part of nature (see here for an explainer). Researchers from the IPBES community are making the case for policies that recognize, and act on, these plural values.

In our recent paper, we argue that creating such policy, and ensuring it is actually met, will require deeper shifts in our governance systems than ‘just’ the policy itself.

A governance system can be understood as the network of actors that govern a resource or topic, and the structures and rules that they put in place to do so. They may be government actors, but they also include civil society, the private sector, individuals. These actors are engaged in policy making at international and national levels. But they are also engaged in creating, implementing and enforcing policy below national levels, e.g. through regional programmes and/or local projects. We can explore actors’ roles, what they do (polity), what their interests and powers are (politics) and what the outcomes are (policy and action).

If we look at the governance system for biodiversity conservation, we can see that reflecting plural values requires deeper changes in the system in order to create and implement relevant policy. A governance system has system properties, such as the intent or goals of the system, the system design, the processes and the materials (see also here). We outline that moving from current policy approaches to acting on plural values, will require a shift to the goals of the system (see also here). That is, the internal logic that the governance system is designed around needs to change. It is currently set up around more instrumental framings of nature, and the extension of market logic. Acting on plural values needs us to embrace a paradigm where economic growth is not the endpoint, and where we allow for diversity of knowledge and social ecological dynamics. The goals and the structures of the system need to change.

We therefore extend the framing of acting on plural values as being policy problem towards it being a governance system problem.

By framing this as a governance system problem, we can begin to see a broader range of challenges that we need to tackle to ensure policy leads us to our goals. We can look into the political and policy sciences to see what they can tell us, also from other problem areas, about how governance systems change. Political and policy sciences is the discipline where researchers are directly concerned with these questions of policy, politics and polity. We briefly highlight three important topics in this vein.

  1. How governance systems adopt (or resist) fundamental change to system goals and structures, such as those changes required to reflect plural values. We point towards research on newer member states adopting EU governance systems to learn about the barriers and opportunities (and consequences) of such wholesale change.
  2. How governance structures and capacities influence implementation of policy. We outline that after adopting a policy, how it is enacted on the ground is shaped by sub-national structures that are resistant to change.
  3. How actors within the governance system work with their own beliefs to influence policy setting and implementation.

We end with a call for the biodiversity conservation community to engage with researchers from the policy and political sciences to better understand these challenges, and to find the solutions we need to achieve biodiversity conservation. These researchers might not label themselves as biodiversity researchers. But they know how governance systems work, and how that shapes policy content and implementation. If plural values of nature are to lead us to action on biodiversity, we need to work with this knowledge to shape how we create and implement biodiversity policies.

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