Policy analysis in the Anthropocene

Senast ändrad: 02 september 2020

Torbjörn Jansson

When Jules Verne in 1870 let professor Aronnax follow Captain Nemo on the submarine Nautilus, the world they travelled was essentially wilderness, and its resources seemed infinite. Change was under way, though, and at least from the 1960’s, with authors such as Rachel Carson, it got increasingly clear that human actions influence the planet in profound ways. Today, we know that human activities dominate the ecosystems of the earth, and that we influence physical properties such as climate. The interactions between humans and the rest of the planet have motivated scientists to define a new geological era, the Anthropocene. The advent of the Anthropocene has eventually trickled down into policy design and policy analyses, where focus has widened from sector specific problems to include environmental impacts.

The widened focus is particularly evident in agriculture, where the interaction with the environment is direct. In the 1990’s, the major concern of agricultural policy makers was the mounting costs of the policy. “Milk lakes” and “butter mountains” resulted from market intervention measures aimed at supporting agricultural incomes. Structural change within the sector and lagging productivity compared to the rest of the economy were other problems that policies were expected to address. The policy analyst could rely on comparatively specialized methods and tools. When we studied the abolition of the milk quota system in the year 2000, good estimates of milk quota rents and supply elasticities were crucial, but environmental impacts were not.

Since the 1992 reform, an increasing share of the EU agricultural policy budget has been directed towards environmental policies, and from 2014, environmental objectives and constraints have been introduced into the farm payment systems that previously focussed on income support and structural change. Research calls for tender within agriculture regularly require studies to consider a wide set of policy and regulatory frameworks and to analyse impacts on biodiversity, crop nutrient leakage and climate gas emissions. For the future policy analyst, sector specific methods are no longer sufficient.

There are two main strategies to cope with the widened scope. The first is an expansion of the existing tools towards more comprehensive models integrating elements from various scientific disciplines. An example is the extension of the agricultural sector model that we work with to include global climate gas emissions and their link with trade. The other strategy is model linking, where specialized models from different disciplines are integrated to a methodologically heterogeneous system. As an example, we have linked an agricultural sector model with biophysical models to find out how the common agricultural policy influences eutrophication in various parts of the Baltic Sea.

The increased scope and complexity of the analytical tools pose challenges to analysts and policy makers alike; challenges that future analyses need to tackle. The analyst is expected to master the growing complexity of such modelling systems, and to address questions of theoretical consistency. A system consisting of methodologically heterogeneous components might behave in unexpected ways or contain contradictory assumptions. The policy maker is challenged with trying to understand how policy analysts use what looks like black-box models. This calls for changing the way results are communicated between policy analysts and policy makers, but also in the methodological approaches that scientists use to validate their tools and to open them up for scrutiny by their peers.