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Chapter Three: Policy Responses - North America

Conclusions

Environmental policies in the region have evolved significantly since the late 1960s. The region has pioneered environmental policy development, first through command-and-control measures, and later through voluntary and market-based approaches. The United States has used a more direct approach with strong enforcement and increasing reliance on market-based measures. Regulatory reforms have incorporated decentralization strategies and have emphasized multi-stakeholder processes and consensus building.

Implementation, enforcement and compliance of MEAs have generally been at a high level. Even when MEAs have not been ratified, national laws or regional MEAs often accomplish the same purpose: for example, the United States has laws and extensive measures to control hazardous wastes and preserve biodiversity, although it has only signed the Basel Convention and neither signed nor ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Major barriers to more successful implementation of MEAs include fiscal incentives which encourage resource use, the absence of economic instruments (such as cap-and-trade or taxation) to encourage appropriate resource use, and difficulties in translating environmental cooperation goals into specific local policies or adapting them to local conditions.

It is more difficult to assess the impact of global MEAs than those of national or regional agreements although some, such as the Montreal Protocol, have clearly been effective. There is a growing interest in evaluating progress under MEAs, particularly in Canada.

Dominating the agenda for policy action under MEAs is the UNFCCC, which will require countries to begin reshaping their energy economies and their industrial structures in this, the most energy-intensive region in the world. Successful implementation will not be easy without raising energy prices. Yet demonstrating an ability to comply with this MEA without sacrificing key aspects of the quality of life would send an important message to other regions; equally, given the economic and political importance of North America, failure to meet international commitments under the Kyoto Protocol would send a powerful negative message.

Many environmental problems persist because technological improvements and gains in ecological efficiency have been overtaken by growth, as in the case of transport-related air pollution. In other cases, improvements have been inadequate, for example for some non-point source emissions and long-term exposure to cumulative toxic chemicals. New concerns, such as climate, biological diversity and persistent organic pollutants, have emerged and require coordinated and effective responses. The recognition of multimedia and cross-sectoral, ecosystem-based linkages calls for coordination, consensus-building and effective stakeholder involvement in policy design and implementation.

Institutional change has also been important: budget and staff reductions have led public agencies to rethink the design and enforcement of policies. Market-based instruments, voluntary measures and co-management are becoming more important. While some of these measures promise more cost-effective solutions, they will contribute to reaching environmental objectives only if public agencies continue their essential functions of standard setting, monitoring and enforcement. Devolving environmental responsibilities with the notion that local governments are more effective in dealing with them will work only if there is sufficient capacity and resources to make the transition.

Better accountability at all levels and better measurement of the performance of environmental policies are widely needed. Target setting, monitoring, scientific analysis and public reporting are essential to keeping stakeholders involved and policies under control. The US EPA's revision programme on environmental protection and the requirement of Canadian federal departments to report on their sustainable development strategies to the Auditor General's office are particularly relevant. Better accountability is expected to become important not only in federal agencies but also increasingly in lower levels of government and private corporations, as they become involved in sharing responsibilities through voluntary action or market-based initiatives.


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