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Sustainability concepts for assessing extractive sector practices

In this article we will introduce the concepts of Institutional Resource Regime (IRR) and Leverage Points to assess practices in the extractive sector

As highlighted in the SUMEX European Sustainable Development Analytical Framework report, the discourse around sustainability over the past 30 years recognizes the limits of traditional environmental policies, which tend to address only the use of the environment as a sink for pollution and, therefore, regulate only the emission of pollutants.

In response to that, the Institutional Resource Regime (IRR) approach offers a resource-based method to sustainability. In the IRR, the focus shifts from pollution restriction to the management of “stocks” used from a resource in a way that will safeguard the reproductive capacity of the resource systems (Knoepfel et al., 2007).

In line with Rockström et al.’s (Rockström et al., 2009) planetary boundaries concept, the IRR framework suggests that the sustainability of a resource system can only be guaranteed if all the users and beneficiaries jointly do not extract from a resource more than what its renewal capacities allow for (resource boundaries). Following that, there is scope for prioritizing the environmental sustainability of the resource over the social and economic dimensions of sustainability, since the environmental sustainability of resource systems constitutes a necessary condition for the support of social and economic sustainability.

Against this background, the IRR sustainability approach encompasses the SUMEX approach on planetary boundaries and sustainability, since the IRR framework facilitates the analysis of the resource management practices and the regulatory measures associated with competitive (and sometimes conflicting), heterogeneous use situations. More specifically, the IRR explores the causal relation between the Institutional Regime in place (a combination of public policies and property rights), user constellations and their appropriation strategies, on the one hand, and the condition of the resource, on the other. The underlying hypothesis of the IRR is that the closer the resource regime moves towards an Integrated Regime, the higher the likelihood for the creation of conditions for the sustainable management of the resource.

A transformative approach towards sustainability requires system changes and slow-paced small step changes

Leverage Points (LP) are a theoretical model that analyse different ways to introduce change in a system at different scales. The most common description of Leverage Points, by Meadows, suggests a range of 12 LPs ranging from shallow to deep. Where ‘shallow’ ones only have the potential to achieve small changes within the system, ‘deep’ ones have the potential to fully uproot and transform a system. Similar to tipping points (i.e. climate tipping points), deep Leverage Points are points in a system where even small changes can lead to significant change. Indeed, they can be seen as the change processes within an existing system, e.g. the European transition towards sustainability. The twelve LPs can be shelved into four main system’s characteristics: parameters, feedbacks, design and intent (see Table 1).

Table showing the 12 Leverage Points grouped into 4 categories and into deep and shallow Leverage Points, these are: deep - Intent and design; and shallow - Feedback and ParametersClick to expand Table 1: 12 different types of leverage points that describe 4 main characteristics of a system

Advantages for taking a leverage points perspective are:

  1. bridging causal/system dynamics and normative/value-based dimensions of system change, allows to shelve different types of interventions into a joint framework;
  2. it acknowledges the complementarity of different LP interventions and recognises the importance of the interplay of both; while ‘shallow’ ones might pave the way for deeper and more fundamental transformative ‘deep’ Leverage Points, they are acknowledged as similarly important where interventions have a longer time-frame and are much more difficult to launch;
  3. providing a boundary object that serves as a joint basis for different stakeholders and disciplines.

Interventions at different LPs should not be considered competitively, but rather complementary with one another. While interventions and measures across ‘shallow’ LPs are quite popular among policy-makers and managers, ‘deep’ LP are difficult to target, hard to change, and reach beyond traditional political election cycles. Figure 2 shows the leverage points approach adopted for the extractive industries. Different examples show potential interventions at different deep and shallow leverage points of the system.

Diagram showing the 12 Leverage Points and related sustainability measures for the extractive industryClick to expand Figure 1: Leverage Points perspective adapted to the subsystem of the extractive industries

As regards the study of leverage points in any system (i.e. the extractive sector), it becomes clear that LP higher on the scale (i.e. intent-transforming) are going beyond what can be considered a singular system or sector. They are taking a more holistic system’s perspective (e.g. economic system & global biophysical system). Indeed, only engaging in an extractives sector perspective without considering the wider societal implications of values, worldviews and beliefs that influence this sub-system (i.e. extractives) will not properly show the full transformative potential of these actions. In addition, for sustainability transitions to become truly transformative, altering the system’s dominant paradigm ultimately shapes the rules on which it operates and designs interventions that address the root cause rather than symptoms of societal challenges (such as climate change or distributional justice).

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Sustainable Management in the Extractive Industry

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