UNITAR/Yale 2008 Conference on Environment and Democracy

Institutions, Public Participation and Environmental Sustainability

How can democracy and environmentally sustainable development be made compatible and mutually supportive? This question rested at the centre of discussion at the UNITAR-Yale Conference on Environment Governance and Democracy: Institutions, Public Participation and Environmental Sustainability, 10-11 May 2008 at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. The Conference took place in the margins of the 16th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and brought together some 150 environmental governance scholars and practitioners from academia, governments, inter-governmental organizations, and civil society, from more than 65 developed, developing and transition countries.
The event was organized through the UNITAR/Yale Environment and Democracy Initiative, launched in March 2007 by UNITAR and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with the aim to support a growing interest in research, teaching and capacity building in the area of democratic environmental governance. The conference organizers received about 700 requests for participation and 170 submissions of conference abstracts. 30 papers were selected by an international academic review committee for presentation at the Conference. Consistent with theory developed through the “new institutionalism” in political science, the Conference emphasized the role institutions play in shaping public participation and policy outcomes.
Opening session
Speaking on the theme of international environmental governance during the opening session, James Gustave Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and former Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) observed that “while civil society frequently enjoys participation opportunities in national and local level processes, mechanisms for meaningful stakeholder engagement at the international level, as well as knowledge about their effectiveness is lacking.” Carlos Lopes, Executive Director of UNITAR, emphasized that although democratic participation in environmental governance has become an internationally agreed principle, “it is the socio-economic context and local capacities which essentially determine how civic participation can effectively contribute to good governance and environmental sustainability.”
Daniel Esty, Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, highlighted that public participation can foster transparency, accountability and sound environmental outcomes, citing pollution reduction along the Mexican-American border as a case in point. He also encouraged participants to identify best practices. Susan Rose-Ackerman, Henry R. Luce Professor of Law and Political Science, Yale Law School, discussed the diverse nature of national administrative cultures and the challenge this creates for conducting comparative research on the democracy-environment interface.
In a subsequent plenary session, two panel discussions provided introductory perspectives from academic and practitioners’ perspective, respectively. The academic panel, was moderated [name title ] and included presentation from [name and title]. The panel of practitioners was moderated by [ ] and included presentations from [name and title]
Thematic working groups
Conference discussion mainly took place in working groups. The first series of groups focused on public participation at different levels of the governance hierarchy, including: international, national, regional, local, and corporate environmental governance, as well as interdependencies across levels of governance. A second series of group discussions examined cross-cutting themes of the democracy-environment interface, including democratization of knowledge generation, democratizing institutions (i.e. regularizing participatory procedures), access to justice, and public interest mobilization and capacity. Informed by theoretical and case study presentations, participants identified knowledge gaps and, based on this, developed research questions for future research and knowledge generation. Papers, presentations, and working group outcomes can be accessed through the UNITAR/Yale Conference website.
The “unknowns” of participatory environmental institutions
Despite a growing body of research on participatory environmental governance, the Conference revealed significant knowledge gaps concerning how and under what conditions participatory institutions can foster environmental sustainability. Scholars with long-standing academic credentials disagreed, for example, if, or to what extent, public participation in local forestry management advances or impedes forest protection objectives. Concern was raised that such conflicting messages may create confusing and inconsistent messages for policy makers, who often consider the advice of scholars.
Unresolved questions concerning the democracy-environment interface identified through, and discussed at the Conference include, for example: 
  • Does public participation correlate with and promote environmental sustainability? If so, why, how and under what conditions? Vice-versa, can public participation hinder environmental performance
  • How do institutional rules of the game affect the inclusiveness of participation and recognition of diverse forms of knowledge?
  • What is an “optimal” level of public participation from an efficiency perspective and how can such optimum be determined?
  • Are there “best practices” for public involvement from an environmental sustainability perspective?
  • To what extent are the capacities of civil society organizations sufficient to ensure consistent, equal and effective public participation?
  • How do the above questions play out at various levels of environmental governance and in the context of emerging and consolidating democracies?
Understanding public participation: the need for taxonomy
The Conference revealed that comparative research on participatory environmental governance is constrained by a lack of common taxonomy, vocabulary and indicators how to “measure” variations in participatory processes and outcomes. Insights derived from public participation theory can enrich an institutional inquiry by investigating how micro-variations of the “rules of the game” affect stakeholder participation and, through this, decision outcomes. At the Conference, some authors referred to, or introduced proposals how the democratic nature of a public participation process could be classified. Taking these proposals, as well as relevant theoretical literature into account, participants recommended more in-depth follow-up activities (e.g. an expert symposium) to take stock of current classification of public participation and explore development of a harmonized taxonomy for research. Similarly, participants identified a need for developing better indicators to measure environmental sustainability and decision outcomes, the dependent variable of the democracy-environment inquiry.
Implications for policy-making
The Conference confirmed that participatory environmental governance is enjoying growing support around the world. National, sub-national and local governments continue to embed public participation requirements within the respective environmental governance schemes. At the international level, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has initiated preparation of global guidelines to support national legislative frameworks to implement Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. Yet, it is becoming apparent that public participation means “different things to different people” and certain type of engagement process may favour (and legitimatise) interests seeking to maintain the status quo, rather than environmental transformation and justice. Thus, generally phrased participation rights do not seem to systematically foster environmental transformation and sustainability, unless certain conditions are met. As succinctly put by Yale Professor Benjamin Cashore in his concluding remarks to the Conference, the fundamental question for future research, institutional reform, and capacity development is not so much “whether or not democracy is good for the environment, but rather how participatory institutions at all levels can be designed to effectively address the environmental crisis facing our planet”.
Conference follow-up
The Conference confirmed that research on the democracy-environment interface takes place through diverse academic disciplines, creating challenges for systematic research, networking and knowledge-sharing. A dedicated journal on the democracy-environment interface does, for example, not exist. Similarly, regular interaction between the academic community and government officials involved in designing and implementing public participation processes is lacking and should, be strengthened. While discussions at the conference addressed these challenges, they were however, only able touch the surface in resolving open issues. In the medium term, UNITAR and Yale, together with partners are exploring, as suggested at the Conference, to hold the event as a regular, biennial international event. During the inter-sessional period, participants of the informal network catalyzed through the Conference are initiating, individually or jointly, follow-up activities on specific issues identified, but not resolved during the discussions. Proposals for inter-sessional activities proposed at the Conference include, for example:
  • Development of a common taxonomy to facilitate public participation research across countries, levels of governance and thematic areas
  • Development of a structured research agenda and global research programme on democracy and environment
  • Thematic research on specific areas of the democracy and environmental interface, e.g. in the area of climate change, toxic chemicals and biodiversity protection
  • Research targeting specific levels of environmental governance, i.e. how do variations of stakeholder engagement in international, environmental governance affect policy outcomes
  • Research on stakeholder engagement in multi-level environmental governance challenges
  • Examining the interface of public participation and environmental justice
  • Development of a knowledge management platform to share international research and knowledge on the democracy environment interface, including discussion groups and sharing of best practices
  • Consider initiating a dedicated journal on democracy and environment.
As an immediate follow-up, UNITAR and Yale organized a side event at CSD-16 on 13 May 2008, attended by more 100 delegates, to present the conference results at the UN in New York. In early 2009, UNITAR and Yale are taking stock of activities initiated as a follow-up to the Conference. Relevant information will be placed on the Conference website in early 2009.