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Integration to solve complex environmental problems




     Science indicates that several planetary boundaries have already been breached, including genetic biodiversity, biochemical (nitrogen and phosphorus) fow, land-system change and climate change. Large scale, transformational change is needed to deal with these problems, and without a stable and healthy Earth system the Sustainable Development Goals will not be achieved.

     In the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2018, 6 of the 10 greatest risks, in terms of likelihood and impact, are environment-related. Food and water crises are both intertwined with the environment, and also in the top 10 risks. A deteriorating global environment poses signifcant threats to environmentally sustainable development.

     Environmental challenges are complex and interlinked, not only in themselves but also with social and economic issues. Better human well-being, for example, poverty reduction, improved human health, energy access and economic growth, are linked to ecological factors. Solutions for one problem can lead to unintended negative consequences, or create new environmental or socio-economic problems. For example, increasing food production in ways that deplete soils, waste water, kill pollinators and increase desertifcation and deforestation, would eventually prove self-limiting.

     Addressing these interconnected and interacting environmental and social challenges requires systems thinking; this is fundamental to better integration. Systems thinking examines the relationships between the different parts of a system, for example, the food supply system, or a commodity supply chain, especially cause and effect relationships, and positive or negative feedback mechanisms, between the biophysical and socio-economic features of the system. Systems thinking also considers the interactions between components of a system across different locations and organizational levels, as well as over time. Many of these relationships are non-linear. Understanding the connections between variables helps to identify points for effective intervention.

     Since its inception in 1992, the GEF has recognized that environmental benefts and socio-economic development objectives can be achieved simultaneously. Integration was built into the design of the GEF: It is specifcally tasked with integrating global environmental concerns with national objectives in the framework of national sustainable development strategies.

     The GEF has made considerable progress in successfully designing and implementing integrated projects: In biodiversity, international waters, land degradation, and in multi-focal area projects. In 2014, the GEF further cemented its efforts on integration with the 3 Integrated Approach Pilot programs on food security, commodity supply chains, and sustainable cities, conceived in response to the GEF’s 2020 Vision.

     The Independent Evaluation Offce’s OPS6 report, “The GEF in the Changing Environmental Finance Landscape”, recommended a continued focus on integration: “The GEF should continue pursuing an integrative principle in its programming based on scientifc and technical merits. A strong, cogent rationale for designing integrated programs and multi-focal area projects - based on demonstrated additionality, GEF experience, GEF comparative advantage, innovative contributions, environmental need, and national relevance - must be the basis for such interventions.”

     Balancing complexity and effciency as the GEF seeks transformational change and lasting outcomes remains a challenge. Nevertheless, STAP encourages the GEF to continue pursuing integrative projects based on systems thinking. These actions will lead to more effcient and effective approaches to planning, monitoring and implementing projects addressing complex human-environment interactions.

     To improve integration further in the design of future GEF projects, STAP recommends: (1) Apply systems thinking: address inter-connected environmental, social, economic, and governance challenges across sectors with an eye towards resilience and transformational change; (2) Develop a clear rationale and theory of change to tackle the drivers of environmental degradation through assessing assumptions and outlining causal pathways - and have a ‘Plan B’, should desired outcomes not materialize; (3) Assess the potential risks and vulnerabilities of the key components of the system, to measure its resilience to expected and unexpected shocks and changes, and the need for incremental adaptation or more fundamental transformational change; (4) Devise a logical sequence of interventions, which is responsive to changing circumstances and new learning (adaptive implementation pathways). Develop clear indicators that will be monitored to determine progress and success in achieving lasting outcomes; (5) Develop explicit plans and funding for good quality knowledge management including: sustainable databases; simple, useful and usable common indicators; face-to-face consultations; and building stakeholder capacity. This is essential for ‘lessons learned’, and scaling up; (6) Apply exemplary stakeholder engagement, including with local communities, not just government offcials, from inception and design, through to project completion. This is crucial for identifying diverse needs and managing trade-offs (7) Allow fexibility in project preparation to accommodate the additional transactions costs and time required to tackle complex issues through multi-agency teams.

  Transformational change necessarily entails risk. Risk and transformational change are intertwined, and lie at the core of building the GEF’s capacity to respond to change and making it resilient. The GEF can strengthen its organizational capacity to deal with change, and to deal with uncertainty through experimentation and innovation. The GEF could also encourage a greater diversity in the risk profle of projects. The GEF is uniquely placed to lead the way in applying and strengthening evidence on the science of integration and systems thinking to deliver global economic, social and environmental benefts.

Vũ Hồng (GEF Source)

(Source: Vietnam Environment Administration Magazine, English Edition II-2018)

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