The politics of rescaling environmental governance and development practice

By Joern Fischer

Still in Stockholm, at the Development Research Conference 2016, today I’ll summarise yet another interesting keynote talk – by Professor Andrea Nightingale. Her talk was entitled “Global Challenges and Visions for Change: the politics of rescaling environmental governance and development practice”, and her Abstract is available (halfway down the page) here.

Focusing primarily on climate change policy in Nepal, Andrea asked four key questions. Who decides the scale of a problem? Which mechanisms are in place to govern a problem? What are the consequences of scaling problems as “global” versus “national” versus “local”? And how do new governance mechanisms play out on the ground?

To start with, Andrea reminded us that scale reflects relationships in the world, but is primarily defined socially. Moreover, scale in a context of policy action can reveal the politics of problem formulation. And finally, just like “time doesn’t exist, but clocks do”, “scale doesn’t exist, but levels [along a scale] do”. That is, how the continuum of scale is broken up into levels is a subjective process that different people will do in different ways for different purposes.

Andrea then introduced two key themes that would run through her talk. First, she introduced the REDD+ programme, which seeks to encourage the sequestration of carbon in forests, “plus” providing benefits to people on the ground. Hence, in Nepal, for example, people might get paid to protect or manage forests, through carbon offsets being purchased in other places (i.e. primarily in wealthy countries). Second, Andrea introduced the notion of climate change adaptation planning, or national adaptation plans of action (NAPAs).

Moving on to scale, Andrea pointed out that a lot of climate change modeling has been, quite inherently, global in scale. Down-scaling climate models is turning out to be extremely complicated in a technical sense. But perhaps more profoundly, Andrea argued, the inherent focus on global models in climate change – defining climate change as inherently “global” – may inadvertently prevent us from finding suitable solutions at sub-global scales.

Existing governance programmes such as REDD+ and NAPA require project coordination across scales – they are conceived at the global level, but play out in particular places. At the same time, Andrea observed there had been a distinct shift from participation (which was encouraged with Agenda 21 in the 1990s) to carbon markets (implying stronger engagement of the private sector).

Scaling decisions thus have consequences. Depending on the scale at which problems are framed, very different governance mechanisms might come to mind. Discussions around climate change have primarily focused on the global level, and as such, democratic representation is inherently weaker, and finding successful mechanisms to govern carbon may be particularly difficult.

Nepal’s process of designing a national adaptation plan is often seen as a role model in linking the global with the local. Through extensive participatory efforts, a wide range of adaptation challenges were identified throughout the country, including a variety of associated resource user groups. Moreover, a lot of implementation efforts in Nepal have actually focused on the local, rather than national, level (so-called LAPAs). On paper, at least, cross-scale integration of global challenges and their local solutions thus has been quite successful.

However, Andrea pointed out, on the ground things are a little bit more complicated. Nepal is a State of Change. Amongst a lot of political change (including various elements of violence), again and again, resources are at the centre of political struggles. Programmes such as REDD+ and NAPA thus are inherently political – playing out in a context of global geopolitics, national bureaucracies in transition, and implemented in districts without elected representatives.

A closer look thus shows, for example, that REDD+ has come with interesting on-ground challenges. Thousands of small community forestry user groups are involved in carbon management. Interestingly, what used to be a local concern only (forest management), has now become a global concern – for the first time, the global community cares what goes on in some patch of remote forest in Nepal, sending “experts”, and training some local people to “know” about carbon while others remain untrained. These changes, Andrea highlighted, are not inherently bad – but they are inherently political. Similar complexities as for REDD+ also exist for NAPA. Questions of who is involved, who benefits, and who is left out (or behind) thus seem to inevitably emerge when global framings are taken to local places.

The changes described can also open new spaces for transformation. New actors are starting to be involved in global processes, including NGOs, new district authorities and local people; and new money is flowing to the Global South. At the same time, some of the more controversial changes have brought about new social movements, for example in opposition to carbon markets changing access to local forests.

In conclusion, Andrea emphasized that global climate change was driving a profound shift in how resources were conceptualized. Viable solutions, in turn, need to do a better job of taking into account social, political and environmental implications in the actual locations where they play out in practice.

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