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Climate change: transitions to sustainability
Climate change: transitions to sustainability

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3.2.2 Good green governance in five easy steps

It would be a serious error to imagine that ‘government’ has evaporated: it still shapes many aspects of our lives from beginning to end (welfare, taxation, transport and, of course, the recording of births and deaths). Governments are the central negotiators of environmental-change policies at international level, and of their implementation at national and local level. Nevertheless, for many areas of life, governance is undeniably a better description both of new processes that are already in play and of ambitions for the shape of decision making in the future. In other words, although the term ‘government’ is descriptive of new patterns of decision making, it is also prescriptive. This is perhaps truer of environmental decision-making than anything else. Perhaps this is not surprising: new thinking about governance appeared at the same time as issues of global environmental change and economic globalisation.

The numerous documents that promote good governance tend to make very similar demands, and are likely to include the following features (use the mnemonic OPASI, from the initial letters, to help you remember them).

  1. Openness Accessible and understandable language that can reach the general public and improve confidence in complex institutions.

  2. Participation ‘Quality, relevance and effectiveness’ depend on wide participation throughout the policy chain. Effective participation demands an inclusive approach from all layers of government when developing and implementing policy.

  3. Accountability Legislative (scrutiny and passing of laws and policies) and executive (initiating and executing policies) responsibilities and powers need to be clearly separate.

  4. Subsidiarity Taking decisions at the most appropriate level.

  5. Integration Policies and actions need to be effective: i.e. timely and answering clear objectives, and based on the evaluation of future impact (and, where possible, relevant precedents). They must have coherence: i.e. be easily understood, and hang together in sensible ways.

Table 3 shows these five features in relation to the four main (interacting) levels of governance, concentrating on dimensions relevant to advancing sustainability.

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Activity 3 What makes for good governance?

(a) Pick a sector that is important in terms of sustainability (transport, energy, agriculture or tourism), and note down whether you think ‘good governance’ that promotes sustainable development is being achieved in that sector according to the ‘OPASI’ headings in Table 3.

(b) Which scale matters most in the delivery of good governance?

(c) How can the Web promote ‘good governance’?



(a) Whichever sector you chose, you probably concluded – at best – that it is still early days. Decision making is becoming more open in many areas, aided by both top-down obligations (for example, to the Aarhus Convention) and grassroots pressure, partly facilitated by the Web. But you might also observe that wide participation in some sectors can simply lead to contradiction and conflict rather than desired consensus. It is difficult to assess accountability and subsidiarity in general terms: complex interactions across scales can get in the way of a judgement about local, national or supranational institutions. Ultimately, the degree to which vertical and horizontal integration has been achieved will be the measure of successful governance of sustainability challenges. Will there be occasions when this integration contradicts other components of the recipe for good governance?

(b) It doesn't make sense to separate out scales; each is relevant in different ways. Furthermore, they are interlinked and the delivery of a policy may require different kinds of actions at different levels – and different degrees of fulfilment of the contents of Table 3. There may be more room for openness and participation at local level, but the principle of subsidiarity proposes that decisions should be made at the most appropriate level – sometimes this is international, at other times national or local.

It can promote all five features identified above. Openness, participation and accountability are all made easier by the quick, cheap, searchable and comprehensive nature of this distinctive medium. Claims can be tested and alternative views put. Subsidiarity and integration may be advanced through improved communications and analysis within policy communities, both horizontally – across sectors – and vertically – across scales from global to local within particular policy sectors. ‘Good governance’ as laid out in the pious tomes of the EU, the UN and other organisations is a very high ambition; there are cases where it is claimed to be in place, but it patently isn't. There are cases where it has been practised, but the conditions are difficult to make universal. In other words, if the funding, public support and professional time are available, and the problem at hand is on a manageable scale, the model is good. Hence participation might greatly improve the planning of a new cycle lane or a recycling facility. However, it seems less likely that the transformation of the global political economy to deal with climate change will be achieved by progressively going through all these steps. Yet that is precisely what is being demanded of global environmental governance in the rhetoric of sustainable development. There seems to be something missing. That something may be citizenship.