Checks for Institutional Reform Towards Green Economy


  • 2012•05•31

    Volker Mauerhofer and Felister Nyacuru

    Checks for institutional reform towards green economy

    Austrian forestry resources. Photo: Martin Gevonden

    “This article is part of UNU’s Rio+20 series, featuring research or commentary on the conference’s themes
    of green economy, poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development.”

    • • •

    Green economy is one of the two focus themes of the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (the Rio+20 “Earth Summit”). The conference will look at the theme within the particular context of poverty eradication, with emphasis on a holistic, equitable and far-sighted approach to decision-making at all levels.

    A green economy is one that results in “improved human well-being and social equity while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2011 Green Economy Report. Thus, as a means to achieve sustainable development and poverty reduction, green economy should protect and enhance the natural resource base, increase resource efficiency, promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, and move the world toward low-carbon development.

    The expectations towards a green economy are very broad and extremely high. While many manners of social interactivity — such as friendship or subsistence agriculture — exist without the need of economic intermingling, any economic system (even a green one) has been and always will be embedded within the social system because all economic activity is dependent on production or consumption by people. Achievement of a green economy, therefore, is unthinkable without its insertion into an institutional framework consisting of formal social norms.

    It is not enough to develop policies without an effective framework in place to implement them. This is why the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development will be the second major focus theme at Rio+20. The current formal institutions for global environmental governance are not sufficient to allow attainment of the aim of sustainable development. As global social and economic systems are both intricately tied to environment, this is particularly valid in terms of environmental sustainability.

    Institutional change

    It is obvious that improved environmental governance is necessary if the challenges related to formulating and implementing concrete environmental policies for the achievement of sustainable development are to be addressed on the adequate local, national, regional and global levels.

    In order to achieve the adequate depth of institutional change, there is great need to create, adopt and implement new approaches. Recent research and its practical application have paved the way for some new concepts to be adopted in this scenario, such as our Convention-Check, Governance-Check and the Legislation-Check methods.

    The Convention-Check approach simply looks at international regulations and their improved implementation at the national level through voluntary activities. Governance-Check and Legislation-Check both apply as a benchmark for better national and sub-national governance and, in addition, the applicability of a new concept called “3-D Sustainability” that provides criteria in a flexible hierarchy for solving conflicts of interest between economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability in a precautionary way.

    This set of approaches tackles the institutional issue from different angles: from the local to the global level of the geographic scale, from informal to formal institutional settings and from voluntary activities within the framework of exiting institutions to the change of authoritative structures for environmental governance, and norm creating and implementing institutions.


    The Convention-Check constitutes a new bottom-up approach to improve implementation of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). It assesses the contribution of large-scale protected areas to the implementation of such MEAs that are introduced from the top down. The analysis consists of three subsequential parts: the current contribution of a protected area to the implementation of the MEAs, recommendations for improvements and — ex-post-evaluated — the impact of the recommendations provided.

    An Austrian example of the Convention-Check already shows, after two years, its significant and causal impact towards improved protected area governance: about one-quarter of the recommendations developed were implemented (partially or fully) at the management level. The Convention-Check combines different working methods, from both social and natural sciences, in a new way. It is created to overcome deadlocks in the top-down implementation of MEAs by means of encouraging bottom-up initiatives to emerge from large-scale protected areas, thereby contributing to the improvement of global protected area governance.


    The Governance-Check provides a new approach to addressing the organizational sustainability of national administrative and legislative decision-making structures, as seen in the Austrian example.

    The analysis consists of three parts, namely: (1) the constitutional distribution of jurisdictional competences among public authorities on a spatial scale, (2) the distribution of different competences to a single public authority based on sub-constitutional legislation, and (3) the relationship between different public authorities in a federal state based on sub-constitutional legislation.

    During the Convention-Check, public authorities are assessed regarding the public powers given to them to govern environmental, social and economic capital and capacity as capital authorities and/or as capacity authorities. Thus, incoherencies, conflicts of interests and inadequate extents of cooperation are identified so that Governance-Check can then provide innovative and practical pathways towards a more sustainable type of governance.

    This can be exemplified by a ministry that is, on the one hand, responsible for the conservation of natural capital, but on the other hand is also given the task of promoting the use of the resource or its pollution sink capacity. This apparent conflict of interest should be solved by transferring one task to another authority in order to accomplish transparent discussion prior to decision-making


    The Legislation-Check takes a closer look into the institutions formulated for thematic sectors. It assesses the number and quality, respectively, of legislative and administrative implementations of sustainability. In this way it aims to identify shortcomings in national legislation in terms of how well it implements sustainable development, and ways of improving the legislation.

    Based on the practical example of Austria, the use of sustainability related terms in generally applicable legal instruments (both federal and provincial) can already be shown to have increased significantly since 2003. Furthermore, several hierarchical disorders between different legal acts, as well as opportunities for improving them, were identified. For the Austrian forestry sector, for example, a more hierarchical order in the sense of 3-D Sustainability would mean prioritizing natural rejuvenation as the eco-effective measure and, where the user wants to apply artificial reforestation, shifting the burden of proof to the user to establish that this is appropriate.

    Finally, that example brought to light inadequacies in the way that the country’s legislation handles sustainable development, as well as a total lack of overall objectives and targets in terms of sustainability, which can jeopardize a nation’s attainment of sustainable development.

    Research designed to address real-life problems

    Due to the development of numerous environmental conventions, all aiming to protect both the fauna and flora of the world, the field of environmental sustainability has been given a wide focus by academia, civil society organizations and governments. All these conventions were developed at a global level with the intention that the implementation takes a top-down approach through the global, regional and national levels. However, this kind of approach has not yielded much fruit due to the fact that concrete institutions at the global level are too weak to take up such a challenge. Moreover, regional and national institutions are often either lacking or insufficient to help in implementing the conventions developed at the global platform level.

    The Rio+20 Earth Summit aims to achieve greater integration among the three dimensions (economic, social and environmental) of sustainable development aimed towards achieving a green economy. The much-desired integration can only be achieved if there are proper institutional mechanisms to address the issue.

    While there are genuine calls for strengthening the institutional framework for sustainable development, these only focus on global institutions and mechanisms and do not pay the much-needed attention to regional and national institutions and mechanisms. Convention-Check, Governance-Check and Legislation-Check are recently developed approaches capable of addressing these shortcomings. They share the common idea that research can be designed to address real-life problems.

    These three instruments should be seen as complementary to other already established tools for addressing institutional problems obstructing the path towards sustainable development. In this manner, they also provide additional support and guidance for the attainment of a green economy.