A new report from the Universities of Geneva (UNIGE) and Lausanne (UNIL) examines the effect of regulations with respect to natural resources (specifically, water). The authors suggest that rules designed to improve resource management come into conflict in the long run, creating an equal number of positive and negative effects until the system falls apart at which point the only way out is for the state to overhaul governance.
The research acknowledges that competing interests of private and public actors create environmental challenges. In general, regulations create positive results but over the long run this positive effect may deteriorate.
The group analyzed water governance in six European countries from 1750 to 2006. In summary, the research shows that the rules designed to improve resource management can proliferate to such an extent that over the long run they can conflict with each other, eventually wiping out any real benefit.
“To assess whether a regulation is positive in the long run, you need to factor in the ecosystem of rules that it is part of, and which it may either reinforce or disrupt”, according to Thomas Bolognesi (press release), a researcher at the Institute for Environmental Sciences (ISE) at UNIGE, explaining that the effectiveness of governance is based on two key components: the scope of the rules (quantity) and the consistency of them (quality).
The researchers identified three phases in the evolution of the governance in the six countries studied. From 1750 to 1850, rules seemed to have very little impact. Rules imposed during second phase from 1900 to 1980 generated “significant positive effects”. However, since 1980 the system has become saturated with regulation and the positive effects have begun to reverse. The proliferation of regulations that were designed to supplement existing regulations, in fact decreased efficiency, leading to “systemic malfunction”.
While water governance is improving, the researchers were able to demonstrate that stresses in the system developed as a consequence of the introduction of more and more rules.
Bolognesi concludes: “That’s why we think it’s important that the state and government policy should take charge of environmental governance issues. That way, we can avoid introducing separate rules that generate frictions and uncertainties, and that could create insurmountable obstacles for coordinating the system".