The global environment, in its entirety, is composed of complex, interrelated ecosystems. To protect and preserve this complex environment requires a holistic approach that better integrates environmental problem-solving at the local, national and international levels. The human and environment systems are intricately connected. On the one hand the human system is dependent on the environment for its survival, and on the other the environment is constantly changing from anthropogenic activities. Within the human system itself, a set of interconnections also exist between the social, economic and political needs and aspirations of a population. Furthermore, in a rapidly globalizing world, policy responses at the international level have ripple effects at the regional, sub-regional, national and local levels.

Because of these interlinkages between the environment and human systems, and within each, it is imperative that the implications for the environment of all policy responses, whether in environmental or non-environmental sectors, are given due consideration. For example, macro-economic reforms undertaken by a government may impact on the effectiveness of policies governing the environment and social services. Similarly, as environmental policies are being developed or modified, their implications for policies in other sectors must also be considered (Stahl 2005). The objective in doing so is to enable a country or the region to reap the benefits of policy convergence and synergies and reduce policy conflicts.

The same holds true at the international level. It is important to consider how MEAs relate to and impact on the objectives of each other. The case of the three Rio Conventions is illustrative. The common objectives and implementation requirements of the CBD, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) constitute a clear case of interlinkages, which if carefully considered can enable a more synergistic approach to the implementation of these conventions. The issue of biodiversity, for instance, is not only important in terms of the CBD but also for the UNCCD, regarding the impact of desertification on biodiversity, and the UNFCCC in terms of the relationship between biodiversity loss and climate change. For Africa, all three conventions directly relate to the issue of local livelihoods and their sustainability:

  • The CBD in addressing issues of biodiversity links the need for conservation directly to sustainable use, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of biological resources.
  • The UNCCD addresses processes of desertification and land degradation, which are directly related to the ability of people to meet their material needs, including food security.
  • The UNFCCC addresses climate change and its impacts. Climate change and variability potentially impact on freshwater resources, food production and both household and national food security.

The similar requirements of these conventions on monitoring, reporting and assessment provide an excellent opportunity for common data collection (Raustiala 2001). Synergistic approaches to the implementation of these conventions will help reduce transaction costs and avoid overstretching the limited institutional capacities in developing countries (Blaikie and Simo 2000). Such an approach can, however, be undermined by the machinery of governments, especially bureaucratic arrangements and the fragmentation of environmental functions across ministries and other institutions. These institutional arrangements, although intended to enhance efficiency, encourage policy responses that tend to overlook collaboration. Often a policy response in a given sector, such as water, is taken without due consideration of its consequences for policy performance and outcomes in other sectors, such as land, agriculture and industry. In the absence of mechanisms that foster inter-sectoral collaboration in policy development and policy implementation, interlinkages cannot be developed, and the benefits associated with an interlinkages approach will not be realized. Interlinkages create opportunities for minimizing policy conflicts, creating synergies and sharing costs. Some countries have made progress in instituting inter-sectoral collaboration in policy development and implementation.