When centre board member Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2009, she gave research on polycentric governance a face and quite a boost.
From lobster fisheries in Maine to irrigation systems in Nepal, Ostrom found that people developed sophisticated governance systems to ensure sustainable management of natural resources.
Stay clear of the pitfalls
In an article recently published in Ecological Economics, centre researchers Victor Galaz, Beatrice Crona, Henrik Österblom, Per Olsson and Carl Folke have taken Ostrom's work a step further.
They looked at how polycentric governance can be applied on the combined impacts of climate change, ocean acidification and loss of marine biodiversity, all crucial elements of Earth's planetary boundaries.
Polycentric governance comes with a range of exciting prospects. It represents flexible solutions for self-organisations where more formal procedures seem to fail. It can also facilitate experimental efforts and boost learning about Earth system governance. But there are also are several aspects that renders it fragile.
"While polycentric governance certainly holds potential, it is also vulnerable to tensions between actors, unreliable flows of funding and negative institutional interactions," says lead author Victor Galaz.
"Building a polycentric setting also requires a different type of structure than those loose ties maintained by pure information sharing and ad hoc collaboration".
In their study, Galaz and his colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with key representatives of the Global Partnership on Climate, Fisheries and Aquaculture (PaCFA) initiative.
Interview questions were designed to capture the development of how marine governance can be better streamlined to address complex Earth system interactions. The challenges posed by climate change and additional environmental stresses led international organisations like FAO, WorldFish and the World Bank ProFish Programme to identify gaps and better coordinate their work.
"Climate change, ocean acidification and loss of marine biodiversity are treated as virtually disconnected silos, and the absence of an overarching institutional framework has encouraged nation states, international organisations like FAO and UNEP and local NGOs to self-organise and adjust their work," co-author Beatrice Crona says.
As one representative from a major international biodiversity NGO puts it:
"If anything, there's too many [organisations]. I mean marine work is very fractured in that you have different industries that are engaged in like the oil and gas industry, shipping, fisheries, tourism and so on. So it's a whole flora of different sections and they never tend to get together because they have, you know, very different types of specialties and interests and so on."
A delicate balance
The study shows that although polycentric governance initiatives like PaCFA serve as an important platform for learning and exchange of information, they come with some big challenges.
Not only are they trying to boost international collaboration that can deal with complex interactions between individual planetary boundaries, they also have to strike a balance between building political influence and staying within the mandates of each member organisation.
In fact, keeping the network together has proved challenging.
When PaCFA became heavily involved in the 2009 UN climate negotations in Copenhagen (COP15), the initiative went from one of collaboration and knowledge exchange to a more policy-oriented one.
Tension among its members increased when the political nature of some of its goals conflicted with the mandate of some of the member organisations.
A useful reading for many
The article reveal some critical and possibly generic challenges that could provide useful reading for similar global initiatives elsewhere.
"The role of PaCFA and similar initiatives will be of increasing interest in the future, but the many inherent vulnerabilities pose severe challenges for the effectiveness of them," Galaz concludes.
Source: Galaz, V., et al., Polycentric systems and interacting planetary boundaries — Emerging governance of climate change—ocean acidification—marine biodiversity, Ecol. Econ. (2011), doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2011.11.012