Friday, 5 March 2010

International Law: False hope or necessary framework of ideals?

As the target deadlines approach for big international agreements like the CBD and the Millennium development goals, it is time to assess not only how much closer we are to reaching the goals and ideals laid out by these documents, but also what these documents mean to us as a society. Clearly, if the goals set out by these agreements were met in a timely manner, or met at all, then their merit could be measured in their ability to effect real, tangible change. However, the deadlines for completion of many of these goals are fast approaching, present or past. It is important then to look at not only where and why we have lagged or failed in achieving our goals, but also what, if any, other importance these treaties might have in the absence of efficient change.

Figures 1 and 2: The oft advertised target years of large international agreements can promote hope at there conception, but do they simply instigate frustration as the deadlines pass by with promises still unfulfilled?

If none of the targets are met for a treaty on time, then can we really look to international agreements as a source of potential solutions? Are the issues we face simply too complex and nuanced to be fixed from a global top-down perspective? I would argue that, yes, at times they are. Preventing biodiversity loss cannot be accomplished with the signing of a document alone. Livelihoods are at stake in some places. In others, research and enforcement capacity simply do not exist at the necessary levels. Signing a piece of paper saying they should, does not, in and of itself, manifest change.

Figure 3: A brief look at the ideals set out by the Millenium Development Goals. All appear to be highly noble and worthwhile endeavors, and tend to highlight what we would like to, but have yet to, achieve as a society. Source:

Ultimately, I would argue, these agreements are really best for establishing ideals we collectively value as a species. World summits can carry a lot of hype and bring much attention to an issue, but they also bring with them high expectations for change and action, to which they rarely live up. In reality however, a summit which manages to find and codify common ground and values may in many regards be considered a success. The degree of challenge involved in achieving even this much is testament to that fact. Take, for example, the repeatedly failed attempts to create a legally binding global convention on forests. Despite the overwhelming importance and urgency of finding solutions to rapid deforestation, collective goals and compromise have remained just out of reach. In contrast, the CBD has managed to increase recognition of the importance of conserving biodiversity and has precipitated the formation of national biodiversity action plans across the globe. Possibly of greatest importance and fundamental difficulty, it created a consensus amongst 192 nations regarding the need to increase scientific understanding of biodiversity, to protect indigenous rights, and to conserve genetic and biological resources.

Figure 4: This simple bar graph points to the many conventions that have high numbers of signatories, highlighting the ability of international law to codify common goals and values of humanity. Source:

Figure 5: Activists from Greenpeace implore parties to the CBD at the Rio Summit to consider the weight of their responsibility. Source:

None of these agreed upon ideals are being realized in all places. Indeed, it is unlikely that any one scheme, strategy or policy will work in all places to achieve these goals. Solutions will have to be found locally in many instances, taking into account the different social, historical, ecological and economic context of each place. Conventions, treaties and international agreements do not always provide these solutions or efficiently instigate change, but they do have an important role to play in policy. They may not shape the world as effectively as we would like. As set targets come and go without being met, it is easy to become disillusioned. Yet, they may be important for setting an outline of ideals, for making a statement about the kind of world in which we would like to exist.

For some further reading on the area take a look at these:

- Le Prestre (2002) “The CBD at 10: The Long Road to Effectiveness” Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy, 5: 269-285

- Humphreys (2005) “The Elusive Quest for a Global Forest’s Convention” Reciel. 14(1) 1-10

- Sand (2001) “A Century of Green Lessons: The Contribution of Nature Conservation Regimes to Global Governance” International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 1, 33-72

- Dimitrov (2006) “International Environmental Policy: Regimes and Non-regimes in Global Governance” Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc

By Julia Wester

Saturday, 27 February 2010

New policies hurt as well as help

I know this policy blog is meant to be about conservation, but may I briefly bring your attention to a law that was passed in one of the US states just a couple of days ago. This newly passed piece of legislation outlaws miscarriages. Yes, that’s right, miscarriages.1,2 This means that if you lose a child at any stage of development through natural (or unnatural) causes, you can be taken to court and possibly imprisoned. Nevermind that a high percentage of women lose children during pregnancy (one in four is what I’ve read), that this law sets out to attack those who are at a weak point in their lives (generally miscarriage is not considered to be fun), or that the state which passed this cannot even afford to educate the children they already have (just a few weeks ago they were considering cutting funding for the last year of school – too expensive, and what’s the point anyway?).2

This is an outright attack on half of their population, treating them as incubators instead of people and promoting dishonesty and bad medicine. After all, who will go to their GP to talk about pregnancy, to have tests, or to get advice? If the GP knows a patient is pregnant and she loses the child, she could go to prison. And what if you want to get an abortion? Those are still legal (only just), but if one is denied then there is little else a woman can do, especially frightening for younger women/girls who maybe can’t get out of the state so easily. And what the US really needs is more crazies out there in lynch mobs, thumping away on their bibles and promoting guns.

And one of the constant elephants in the room is, of course, population. So encouraging a state to have more children that they, and we, cannot afford seems to me just as illegal as miscarriage now is. However, population can become a sticky conversation very quickly, so I’ll leave you to make your own minds up about that topic.

I know this is a bit of me being outraged. I despise attacks on human rights, and I abhor stupid people who make rules in order to legalise discrimination. And I’m trying to work toward a safer, cleaner, more peaceful world. I’d like to ensure that ecosystems survive, with all their plants and animals, so that they can evolve and develop and do cool things. I’m working my butt off learning about sustainable agriculture, conservation planning, and ecosystem services, and keeping the planet viable in general.

For these people?

- emma

1 Google News: Utah miscarriage

2 - interestingly, written by a Revernd.

Monday, 15 February 2010

lessons from the tracks

Shortly before you arrive in Oxford, the train from the capital passes by the Didcot Railway Museum. Rolling stock bearing the colours of decades past sit in silent sidings alongside stationary steam engines, a short step from the electrified lines of the modern network. They preserve the last, rare examples of a system that once dominated the length and breadth of the country. In the forty years before 1870, an extraordinary period of active creativity saw the construction of over 20,000km of railway lines. Journey times between the town and the country, between the mill and the market, were reduced on an almost unimaginable scale. In the space of a single generation, the countryside became interconnected. The social and economic impacts of the railway revolution are still being felt today, almost two centuries later.

What lessons can a conservationist learn from looking at the railways? The obvious analogy is between the few remaining examples of once ubiquitous wagons and engines that roamed the rails across the nation, and the now threatened species of wildlife similarly reduced in both number and extent. Like the steam leviathans, there is little room for them in the modernised world; they are assigned the same fate as the inefficient.

Two important reasons, however, make this simple analogy unhelpful. Firstly, we might want to reject the suggestion that, in order to be conserved, plants and animals must be efficient and useful to human society. Surely there are wider reasons to conserve wildlife than simply the use we can make of it? The second reason is more powerful. It concerns the positive ability of a generation to change the world in which they live.

What strikes me about the railway revolution is the time in which it was achieved. Without modern construction equipment. Without JCBs and diesel-driven diggers and four-ton trucks. Without these aids, a generation built a network of corridors that linked the entire country, across fields and pastures, through cities and towns, around and under the chalk sea-swept cliffs and across the mountains, mire and moor. Twenty thousand kilometres of track, in less than forty years.

Alongside many of my generation, I think that the future of conservation must look beyond the old approach of isolated reserves, somehow meant to survive surrounded by a hostile industrial landscape where there is no quarter made for anything ‘natural’. Instead, whilst reserves are still essential, to succeed we must also address the landscape mosaic in which they exist. The future of conservation lies in connecting these vestiges of the natural world in a matrix in which human and non-human society can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.

The lesson that we should take from the railway builders of the nineteenth century is this: it is possible to re-connect the countryside with itself in the space of a single generation. If we have the will, it can be done. It is a reminder of the incredible creative potential of human societies. It is a message of hope.


Monday, 8 February 2010

Dangerous toys The use of models in biodiversity politics

'You could plan a pretty picnic
but you can't predict the weather, Ms. Jackson...'

Ms. Jackson - Outkast

What will the future bring? This is always an important question to ask. Conservation policy makers tend to be interested in the future, as expressed in the term sustainability (Brundtland report, WCED 1987) which centres around our obligations to future generations.

However, the future is not always predictable. Our understanding of biodiversity and ecosystems is very limited. Most of the species on earth have not been described yet, and we know even less about their roles in ecosystems. Furthermore, although there are some exceptions (see Willis et al., 2007 for an overview of long-term data) most of the data used does not go back more than 60 years.

Mathematical models can be used for forecasting the effects on future biodiversity. In order to develop a model, scientists start by simplifying perceived reality through a number of assumptions, such as “all animals know the locations of all the food items” (an assumption behind the Ideal Free Distribution, a model from foraging ecology) or “all species are equally affected by climate change” (an assumption from Williams and Araujo, 2002). Using a number of predictor variables (such as precipitation, temperature or vegetation) and mathematical relationships between these variables and a response variable (such as species distribution) a model can then be used to predict the future state of the response variable. Subsequently, a model is ideally verified against existing observations of the response variable.

A successful model? Observed and predicted range of the red-backed shrike (Lanius collario) in the 1990’s using a species distribution model. Whatever might govern the distribution of this bird species, it is not quite covered in this model… Figure from Araujo et al., 2005

Although some mathematical models are simple and relatively straightforward (if the mathematical hoo-ha is removed), others are quite complex. For instance, whilst the Bioclim model, used for forecasting the effects of climate change on biodiversity, could be compared to a primary school counting exercise, the spectral models used by the IPCC require skilled mathematicians to translate them.

We think that biodiversity-response models are crucial to conservation planning. Policy makers require, at the very least, the best guess of the scientific community as to what the impact of different policy choices will be. Without these predictions, they would be flying-blind, making decisions on the basis of myth and dogma.

However, we also think it is important that biodiversity policy makers remain aware of the limitations inherent in modelling. We want to remind them that our knowledge of biodiversity is very limited, and that mathematical models are sometimes no more than a way to hide the deficiencies in our understanding. Models, especially the less transparent ones, need a thorough verification and review process. Those making policy decisions want simple answers, clear-cut choices, and in this context there is a tendency to attach too much certainty to uncertain findings through modelling. It is crucial that conservation scientists resist this temptation.

Wouter Langhout and Tim Hodgetts


Araújo, M.B., Whittaker, R.J., Ladle, R.J. and Erhard, M. (2005) Reducing uncertainty in extinction risk from climate change. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 14: 529-538.

WCED (1987) Our common future. Available online at

Willis, K.J., Bennett, K.D., Froyd, C. and Figueroa-Rangel, B. (2007) How can knowledge of the past help conserving the future? The need for a long-term perspective in biodiversity conservation Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B, 362: 175-186

Williams, P.H. & Araújo, M.B. (2002) Apples, oranges and probabilities: integrating multiple factors into biodiversity conservation with consistency. Environmental Modeling and Assessment, 7: 139-151.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Is REDD really “green”, or are we just colour-blind?

Is REDD really “green”, or are we just colour-blind?

REDD stands for Reducing Emissions for Deforestation and Degradation, and is set to come into force in 2012. The concept was first introduced at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP11) in December 2005 by the governments of Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica. The aim is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide realised from the destruction of the world’s forests, which amounted to approximately 20% of annual global emissions in the 1990s (IPCC 2009). More recently, the REDD+ scheme has been introduced, to reward countries for the conservation of standing stocks of carbon, forest restoration and reforestation (see underlined text below). REDD+ rewards countries that have preserved their carbon stocks by giving money to High Forest, Low Deforestation (HFLD) countries. It stems from article 1 b) (iii) of the Bali Action Plan (2007), which states that there should be enhanced consideration of:

“Policy approaches and positive incentives on issues relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries; and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.”

REDD+ has received a great deal of international attention, and the forest negotiation track at Copenhagen was one of the most successful. However, this promising piece of policy has a number of problems that undermine its environmental integrity.

Additionality and Leakage are two ugly beasts that raise their heads when the green virtue of REDD is discussed. The problem of additionality refers to the risk that payments will go to areas that were not threatened by deforestation, i.e. additional forest protection will not be achieved. One solution suggested is the use of Global Regional Averages of deforestation; records that can be used to assess the additional benefit from investment in certain areas. The term leakage is being replaced by displacement, which more accurately describes the problem; preventing forest loss in one area may displace logging to a previously unthreatened site. If this occurs, there will be no net reduction in deforestation. It has been suggested that forest loss should be monitored at a national level to overcome this problem. However, this will not prevent ‘international leakage’ where loggers move out of one country and into another with fewer regulations.

Integral to these issues are the challenges of monitoring, making changes in deforestation Measurable, Reportable and Verifiable (MRV) and establishing appropriate reference levels for deforestation. Without the ability to determine relative changes in deforestation, REDD+ will fail to have a positive environmental impact. The resources and expertise available to monitor deforestation varies greatly between countries, although with sufficient investment it would be possible to establish effective remote-sensing techniques. Brazil, for example has an effective system run by the National Space Research Institute (EDF 2009). The bigger challenges involve establishing consistent methods that are comparable across the globe, and whether monitoring organisations should be internal or external to any particular state. This last issue is particularly politically sensitive; even though independent monitoring is theoretically preferable, no country likes the idea of being spied on. The different reference levels being discussed can also be pretty controversial. The big debate is over the use of historical rates of deforestation or a projection of likely deforestation given the developmental status of a country. The socio-economic assumptions integral to the latter option, and the lack of data for much of the world, mean that it could end up being little more than sophisticated guesswork.

Another issue that will affect the effectiveness of REDD+ is the scope of the scheme. This refers to the breath of focus that REDD+ will take, and which aspects should be prioritised. Even if the primary focus is carbon, decisions need to made about the importance of rewards for changes in deforestation, forest degradation, reforestation or forest enhancement. There is also a concern that we should look beyond the carbon paradigm and that other ‘co-benefits’ are considered, including biodiversity , ecosystem services, land rights and poverty alleviation. Tackling these problems will be critical to the success of REDD+. A forest will not survive without the ecosystem functions supported by biodiversity, and the defined access rights dependent on land tenure. Safeguards are needed to ensure that these essential issues are addressed. However, trying to make REDD+ a panacea for all the world’s problems will surely make it weaker.

The financing of REDD+ is the one of the trickiest problems to resolve. It remains unclear exactly where the money will come from, how payments will be calculated, and who the recipients will be. At Copenhagen, it was announced that a total of $3.5 billion would be given by 6 countries. However, this falls far short of the estimate that $6 billion will be needed for 2010 – 2012, made by the Informal Working Group on Interim Finance for REDD. It is also unclear whether this money is additional, or redirected from other environmental and aid projects. The debate also continues over the efficacy of different payment mechanisms. A stocks approach to financing could be a much better approach than the flows approach currently being advocated. The ‘stocks’ approach would focus on paying countries for the quantity of trees they have standing, and would get around the challenges associated with calculating deforestation rates and reference levels. Payments would be made from a global fund, with contributions made by each country based on the per capita GDP. The system would therefore benefit the poorest countries the most, giving the countries with the highest opportunity cost the greatest reward for protecting their forests. However, the equitable distribution of funds within each country will require strategies for dealing with corruption and improvements in forest governance.

There clearly remain many unsolved problems that affect the positive impact that REDD+ might have. REDD+ is still an immature piece of policy and many countries lack the infrastructure and political willpower to make it a success. However, there are many potential solutions to the issues discussed above and progress is still being made at an international level. The continuing negotiations over the next few months and years will determine exactly how "green" REDD+ can be.

Thanks to everyone involved in the REDD policy workshop that brought up these issues, and specifically to Wouter Langhout for ace inspiration for the title and Tim Hodgetts for introducing us to the idea that we should just count trees and pay people for them. -Claudia Gray.


IPCC (2009). Fact sheet: Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries: approaches to stimulate action. Read this!.

Bali Action Plan (2007). Read this!

Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) (2009). Brazil national and state REDD report. Read this!