Social-ecological resilience through institutional diversity – Marine protected areas to solar systems

This morning I had the pleasure of attending a seminar entitled ‘Governing marine protected areas: social-ecological resilience through institutional diversity’ by Peter J. S. Jones, a geographer at University College London researching the governance of marine protected areas.  While not directly related to my research, I attended the seminar thinking the material would be useful when discussing examples of environmental policy and planning with students.  I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find there were elements of his presentation that were not only entirely relevant to my work, but actually provided grounding for the basis of my thesis.

marine protected areas

Evaluating success of marine protected areas

The presentation by Dr Jones focussed on an empirical system for evaluating the potential success of marine protected areas, after having been applied to 20 case study projects around the globe.  The system of evaluation combined rates of effectiveness in terms of environmental outcomes with measures of equity for community and quantitative statistics based on the level of development of the host nation.  It then analysed different incentives used to achieve the objectives of marine protected areas, asking case study researchers to evaluate the potential for incentives to achieve outcomes and asking what additional incentives would be preferred.

The research findings, based on the 20 initial case studies, indicate that the ‘success’ of marine protected areas is increased where a comprehensive suite of incentives is used, and where these incentives spread across a range of administrative areas – from legal, to economic, to societal knowledge to participative incentives.  Importantly, however, it was determined that the type of incentives deemed as most ‘in need’ by researchers (who were a mixture of academics and management officers) were legal incentives.

Success was most likely to be achieved as a combination of robust incentives enabling resilience of the marine protected areas to external pressures, and legal frameworks creating sanctions to prevent ‘worst case scenarios’ or mandate aspects of management of resources beyond the capabilities of communities.  It was explained that the governance of marine protected areas is much like interactions  in complex ecosystems – they thrive in situations of species and functional diversity (incentives) but require an apex predator with ‘teeth’ to keep players in check (government and associated legislation).

Translation to energy policy…

On the surface, I can see how this could be translated to energy policy and the promotion of domestic solar energy more specifically.  Adoption of solar systems is promoted by incentives, and there needs to be a greater role for government to ‘bite’ unruly players within the system.  Furthermore, the success of adoption is entirely dependent on the ability of the community to respond to incentives in the way that institutions (government, public sector, regulators, retailers) intend.  But it was the background theory, the introduction to the idea of marine protected areas, that seemed particularly relevant to me.

Three theories of control

Dr Jones described ecosystem management as being centred around three theories of control: ‘neo-Hobbesians’ believe expert knowledge and state control are capable of structuring and delivering appropriate ecosystem protection programs; neoliberals support the idea that government does not have the sustained capacity required to ‘control and command’ complex systems and so systems are better left to the control of the market, with ‘pricing’ of ecosystem services capable of resulting in efficient management; and neo-institutionalists believe that communities are best placed to manage their own resources, given existing systems of control and elements of understanding and respect implicit in traditional knowledge (or similar in a colonised context?).

What Dr Jones proposes is that, in fact, neither of the three are capable of managing complex systems on their own, and instead ‘success’ is best achieved through unifying all three systems of control and creating a network of interactions to place the interests of all players in the context of their ability to promote change or management (depending on objectives).  There is therefore a need to balance government, the economy and society.  It’s like looking at sustainability objectives in reverse – instead of promoting objectives with economic, environmental and social achievements in mind, you look at how the economy, the environment, society and, importantly, government can be used to establish and sustain ordered progress, with mutually beneficial outcomes.

Governmental, economical and societal balance

This is then entirely what my research is investigating – the interaction between society, government and the marketplace.  The current literature around domestic solar electricity system adoption is based around the ability for different economic incentives to promote installation, economic interactions between installation, incentives and the market price of solar, and what motivates consumers to purchase systems.

My research has generally sought to take this one step further and look at the interactions between these players – instead of looking at economic aspects of incentives I look at how incentives change the way community members perceive their own experiences with solar systems.  I look at the way the industry has responded to market incentives and the ways government could better regulate the system to maximise efficiency of schemes.  I look at the equity outcomes of incentives.  By looking at these interactions I hope, like Dr Jones, to be able to establish that future policy is best developed by considering not only the ways in which incentive programs will function in the market, but to examine how different players will respond to stimulus.

How can we reduce the perverse outcomes and free-riding of so many domestic incentive schemes?  By understanding the point at which incentives are co-opted by industry, understanding where industry should be regulated, and by communicating with the community to understand their own expectations and inform them of complexities around schemes like these.

After feeling like I was hanging on to the final threads of what, exactly, I was doing, I feel like this is a systematic framework that can tie my research together.  What a relief!

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