Order! Researchers call for more rigor concerning indirect effects of environmental policies

​“Leakage” is a term commonly used to describe the effects an environmental policy has outside the targeted area or country. But since these effects can be both negative and positive, intended or unintended, Chalmers researchers Mairon G Bastos Lima and Martin Persson now propose a clearer definition of these effects and understanding of how they take place, something that future environmental policies would benefit from. 
 Up to now, leakage has been the kind of concept that people use very vaguely, assuming that others will grasp it the same way. But the more clearly defined and standardized something is, the better and more consistent the analysis will be, says Mairon G Bastos Lima, at Chalmers department for Space, Earth and Environment.

In the recently published paper “Leakage and boosting effects in environmental governance: a framework for analysis” Mairon, Martin and Belgian colleague Patrick Meyfroidt at the Catholic University of Louvain identify several key insights about leakage. 

As defined in the paper, leakage is when an environmental policy, be it area protection or climate protection, has an indirect negative impact elsewhere on the same issue it is trying to address. For instance, if stricter climate policy in one place causes industry displacement and increased emissions elsewhere, possibly negating any overall benefits. Or if conservation policy in one area leads to greater deforestation in another. 

​An example of the opposite, a “boosting effect”, is when an environmental policy in one country influence another country to adopt similar or matching policies that create further effects or even synergies. 
Becoming more aware of such indirect effects and understanding how they work is extremely important from a policy-maker point of view. 

– If you try to understand how your policy will play out in a greater context, you can deliberately plan for a policy design that will produce synergies with other policies already in place, and deliberately create such boosting effects, says Mairon. 

Really unintentional or not? 

Today, leakage is often assumed to be always unintentional, but in their studies Mairon and his colleagues have observed several examples of the opposite.  

– Science studies as well as news reports often assume that leakage is always unintentional. However, we have done some assessments and can show that some policies have been put in place in full awarenress that they would likely affect other countries and regions. This can be done on purpose to serve political or industrial interests in their own country. We have seen this take place both around the Amazon in Brazil and in Southeast Asia.

– If such a thing can happen intentionally, as part of policy planning, you need to understand why they are doing that and what could be done to address such actions. If you assume that leakage is always unintentional, you are never going to have adequate recommendations to give, because you didn’t grasp from the start why they were doing it. We have seen this take place both around the Amazon in Brazil and in Southeast Asia.

Read more in the paper: “Leakage and boosting effects in environmental governance: a framework for analysis”, published in the journal: Environmental Research Letters. 

Text: Christian Löwhagen.

Published: Thu 21 Nov 2019.