IEA Training Manual - Module 5

6.1.1 Understanding policies and the policy process

Although scholars have proposed many definitions for policy, the term remains a vague concept. The following definition of policy expresses the broad meaning used in this resource book:

A set of interrelated decisions taken by a political actor or group of actors concerning the selection of goals and the means of achieving them within a specified situation where these decisions should, in principle, be within the power of these actors to achieve. – Jenkins, 1978

Policy comes in the form of rules, principles, norms and negotiated decision making procedures (Najam 2005). For purposes of this module, we consider aspects of policy that constitute decisions taken by those with responsibility for a given decision making area; these decisions usually take the form of statements or formal positions on an issue. Policy needs to be seen as an inherently political process, rather than simply the instrumental execution of rational decisions.

Once declared or tacitly accepted, a policy becomes a set of rules or principles to guide individual and organizational behaviour. Policy not only helps achieve specific goals, but also can serve as a basis for judging performance.

Policies come in many different varieties, including:

  • General or specific
  • Explicit or implicit
  • Reactive or proactive
  • Evolutionary or revolutionary
  • Independent or integrated within other policies (nested).
  • prescribed or voluntary
  • puniive or incentive
  • preventive or curative
  • strategic and opportunistic

Of course, individual policies can be anywhere within these extremes. Explicit policies are articulated and announced clearly. Examples include: press releases, green papers, white papers, ministerial speeches, legislative statements, regulations and laws.

In contrast, implicit policies are not as clearly stated or explained, but can be equally powerful. For example, some countries have laws requiring that decisions about forestry be made in consultation with local communities (usually representatives from the village). In reality, decisions in such cases often are reached by the forest officer and, at best, rubber stamped by the village committee without any real consultation. This practice of rubber stamping is an implicit policy that is not written down (in fact, it would be against the official and stated policy), but is the one that tends to be in force. Often, policies result simply from the incremental accumulation of decisions made over time. Although each of these individual decisions may be of little environmental consequence, together they can produce far-reaching effects.

“Policy making” is a long-term, interactive and multi-stakeholder process to develop a framework to implement a certain policy, and to evaluate and modify its implementation on a regular basis.

Environmental policy is developed in a socio-economic and political context, usually in response to a problem. Addressing specific problems in democratic societies often takes a predictable course, called the policy life cycle. The typical policy life cycle has four stages: recognition, formulation, implementation and control (Figure 22). Each of these stages carries a certain amount of political weight, which varies over time. It should be noted that the following four stage cycle is a simplified view of a highly complex and often contentious political process7.

  • Recognition: Early perception of an environmental problem, often coming as a result of scientific research or observation, followed by dissemination and popularization of information by the media.
  • Formulation: This is a stage of rapidly increasing political weight. The public and the media are now aroused, and debate about different policy options to address the problem occurs in numerous political circles.
  • Implementation: At this stage, the policy has been determined, and the focus moves to implementation. Public concern and political weight decline. Over time, greater attention may be given to policy evaluation to assess whether the policy achieves its objectives and solves the environmental problem.
  • Control: By this stage, years have passed since the early recognition of the problem, the problem has been partially solved and it is under control. Public awareness and support have improved, and the public often forgets that there ever was a problem as new problems are recognized and new cycles begun.

One class of policy instruments with special relevance for some environmental issues is multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). MEAs typically cover environmental issues that affect more than one country or in some cases the entire global community. MEAs have been in force since the 1930s and they cover a wide range of issues some with direct, other indirect but important environmental implications (UNEP 2007).

Some MEAs such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have more general applicability, others are more specific and therefore one could not expect to be signed by all countries. Also, being a signatory to an MEA alone does not necessarily lead to enforcement, so more detailed analysis of specific policy measures would be required.

Figure 22: Stages in the policy life cycle
(from Pearson 2005)

While a policy can be described as an interrelated set of decisions and goals, a policy instrument is a tool or a mechanism used as a means to accomplish a policy goal(s). There are myriad ways to categorize policy instruments. Table 8 presents one such categorization according to economic, regulatory, expenditure and institutional policy instruments (IISD and TERI 2003).

Discussion Questions

Table 8 illustrates just one way to categorize types of policy instruments.

Q: What other types of policy instruments are familiar to you?
Q: What categories do your policy instruments fall under; are they represented in Table 8, or a new category completely?

Policy analysis is meant to help understand why ineffective policy happens. Ineffective policy can be a result of many things, such as relevant actors being ignored, a misunderstanding of the policy context, policy goals not being supported, and/or a misreading of the politics of the issue (Najam 1995; Najam 2000).

Table 8: An example categorization of policy instruments (from IISD and TERI 2003)

Instrument Description
Economic Economic instruments – also referred to as market-based instruments or financial incentives – are measures that directly influence the price that a producer or consumer pays
for a product, behaviour or activity.
  Tradable Permits Market Creation Instruments: A system of direct regulations can be used to create a tradable good or service and a market in which it can be traded. Previous to the establishment of the market, the use of
this good may have been implicitly appropriated by polluters.
Examples include emission permits (i.e., CO2); development quotas
(i.e., for tourism construction); water shares (where the resource is
indivisible in space, but divisible in use [Panayotou 1998]).
  Deposit Refund

Performance Bonds


Earmark Taxes 
and Funds

User Fees
Revenue Generating Instruments: Examples such as taxes, charges, user fees and deposit-refund schemes require that money be paid to government in return for engaging in some behaviour. These economic instruments discourage undesired behaviours by raising their prices. To induce a significant degree of behavioural change, a tax or fee may have to be imposed at a level that raises the price of an undesired behaviour above that of an alternative behaviour, in order to achieve the correct relative pricing between the two options. The general principle to follow in applying revenue generating instruments is to tax activities or behaviours that are to be discouraged or reduced (Barg et al. 2000).

Tax - breaks
Subsidies: Instruments such as cash subsidies, tax breaks and grants induce behavioural change by making the more desired behavioural option cheaper, thereby increasing its attractiveness to the producer or consumer (Barg and others 2000).
  Administered Prices Price control by governments via a regulated market.
Governments influence producer and consumer behaviour by channeling expenditures directly at the behaviour they want to encourage. Direct expenditures differ from subsidies in
that they are typically broad programmes of expenditures targeted at a macro level to foster activities like technological innovation, whereas subsidies reward incremental changes in individuals’ behaviour (Barg and others 2000).
Governments may direct their budget toward programmes that work directly on the environment to carry out ecosystem protection and/or restoration.
  Green Procurement Governments can opt to spend its routine procurement budget on goods and services that support environmental improvement goals.
  Research and 
Governments can allocate budget expenditures to R&D directed at specific economic, social and environmental goals.
  Moral Suasion Governments can encourage behavioural changes consistent with ecological goals by funding programmes designed to provide
information and education to raise awareness. These moral suasion and education programmes are based on the premise that people behave in environmentally harmful ways because they lack information and knowledge, and that if they have good information they will do
the “right” thing (Barg and others 2000).
Regulatory: Creating change via legal avenues
Acts and regulations passed to carry out legal mandate for change
  Enforcement Activity The enforcement of legislative instruments.
  Liability Aims to induce socially responsible behaviour by establishing legal liability for certain activities, such as natural resource damage, environmental damage, property damage, damage to human health, non-compliance with environmental laws and regulations, and non-payment of taxes, fees or charges (Panayotou 1998).
  Competition and 
Deregulation Policy
Government policy initiatives directed at orienting markets such that “prices are established and investments are made in competitive and freely functioning competitive markets” (NRCAN).
Institutional: Affect the workings of the government itself in an effort to promote change.
  Internal Education Internal efforts to educate technical officers and policy-makers on sustainable development topics (i.e., a national round table on the environment and economy).
  Internal Policies 
and Procedures
Governmental institutional changes (i.e., Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development) or procedural changes (requiring drafting of a sectoral sustainable development

7 Richard T. Wright, “Environmental Science,” Pearson, 2005


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Module 5 - Integrated analysis of environmental trends and policies
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