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Environmental Mainstreaming
Integrating environment into development institutions and decisions

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Environment Inside - 1.3 What is environmental mainstreaming?

What is environmental mainstreaming?

In Environment Inside, we define ‘environmental mainstreaming’ as:

the informed inclusion of relevant environmental concerns into the decisions of institutions that drive national, local and sectoral development policy, rules, plans, investment and action.

It results in a better understanding of the capabilities of environmental assets, the consequences of environmental hazards, and the real or potential impacts of development on the environment. Such understanding can consequently improve decisions, especially if there is a systematic institutional framework for making such decisions. In its emphasis on integrated approaches and informed trade-offs, environmental mainstreaming is a major practical component of sustainable development. It can be assisted by a variety of technical and deliberative tools. However, these tools must be well suited to context, the decision at hand, and the actors taking the decision. This latter factor is particularly important since both organisational and individual values and priorities need to change if environment and development are truly to be integrated, and the environment is not to be treated merely a technical aspect.

Effective environmental mainstreaming will, therefore, be a broader affair than prevailing narrower approaches – which tend to fall into two, connected types: firstly, building the capacity of environment authorities and environment interest groups to engage with the ‘mainstream’; secondly, creating a system of environmental safeguards such as EIA. The former tends at best to create a set of ‘supply-push’ guidelines or conditions, but is limited by focusing on the ‘converted’ – i.e. institutions already committed to and responsible for environmental concerns The latter tends to focus on problems and is not able to address the more positive contributions of environmental management. Indeed, in large part, the increasing focus on proactive environmental mainstreaming is a strategic response to the limitations of reactive environmental safeguarding activities in moving development towards environmentally sustainability outcomes (Brown and Tomerini, 2009).

Although we have offered a normative description of environmental mainstreaming above, we acknowledge that this is far from universally understood. Understanding and interpretation of what environmental mainstreaming (or integration) means or entails varies considerably. For example, the UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative interprets environmental mainstreaming specifically in terms of “integrating poverty-environment linkages into national development planning processes and their outputs, such as Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and Millennium Development Goal (MDG) strategies” (PEI 2007) (understandable as these are key focuses for UNDP and UNEP work with partner countries). During our country survey in Uganda, responses to the survey questionnaire showed that suggested definitions differed in detail, by respondent – even within the same organisation, and by the specific issues to be addressed (Birungi, 2008). Different organisations also emphasise different issues (Table 1.1).

Thus for many people, it remains the case that 'environmental mainstreaming’ is an unclear term for different and changing (or sometimes unspecified) intentions, i.e. it has variously been used for (Bass, 2008):

  • mere ‘box-ticking’ exercises – attempting to demonstrate that environmental concerns have been dealt with, even if in a cursory way (i.e. not necessarily changing the ‘mainstream’);
  • the task of informing – offering environment information to players in the ‘mainstream’ of decision-making in the hope that this influences their own deliberations (on policies, plans, investment, etc);
  • scaling up’ – aimed at working ‘upstream’ of the individual project, such as addressing the policy implications/advocacy component of environmental ‘projects’, or increasing the number of successful activities;
  • power-exercising, power-levelling and empowering – using a ‘mainstream’ construct either to force acceptance of the view of powerful players (e.g. some development bank tactics regarding safeguards), or to elevate the concerns of weaker players (e.g. environmental NGO tactics);
  • institutional and cultural change – systematically integrating a particular environment idea, value or objective into all domains of governance, both central and sectoral, as well as into business practices and individuals’ value systems.

Of the above, it is clear that all (except the first bullet) are components of environmental mainstreaming, but only the last might sum it up. As we began this initiative, we took environmental mainstreaming (or environmental integration) to encompass the process(es) by which environmental considerations are brought to the attention of organisations and individuals involved in decision-making on the economic, social and physical development of a country (at national, sub-national and/or local levels), and the process(es) by which environment is considered in taking those decisions. In retrospect, this seems to be a limited, functional view of the wide range of institutional changes that are actually needed, and indeed seems to imply that environmental mainstreaming might be a mere option. One respondent in a survey of perspectives on environmental mainstreaming in Kenya commented:

The definition seems to allude to a process of environmental mainstreaming that is optional, that the environment is considered in the policy process. We need to move to a process that includes the environment as a mandatory part of decision-making. The definition seems to me to take a weak position: trying desperately to make the environment considered by policy-makers. It is not a matter of consider the environment, but to really build it into the process” (PEI, 2008a)

We would fully agree with this sentiment. But the present reality is that environment is ‘off the agenda’ in many countries. Many might argue that responding to climate change is now one of the top political priorities and that this is the major environmental issue. True. Some might also argue that the current concentration on climate change, accompanied by huge amounts of funding for mitigation and adaptation, has had the effect of crowding out most of the other environmental dimensions – particularly natural resources which are critical to survival and the economies of many poor countries. Furthermore, climate change policy tends to address the economic and social causes and consequences of climate change, but is skewed because it does not also recognise the environmental causes and consequences of climate change - and some of the environmental solutions to climate change (building ecosystem resilience). This may be the case but, looking at mainstreaming as a long-term institutional change process, these are precisely the kinds of initial (and albeit incomplete) adjustments which we should be identifying and working with. Thus environmental mainstreaming can be advanced by ‘jumping on the climate bandwagon’ – to benefit from its momentum. Whilst ‘bandwagons’ have negative connotations, their very locus in the mainstream itself can offer a potential ‘entry point’ with latent demand for further environmental input.

The trend is that the attention generated by the climate challenge is already transforming the environment and sustainable development agenda in the most lively and interesting policy debate amongst the general public at a global scale.

The climate proofing window of opportunity provides a great option to focus on the long forgotten comprehensive price tagging of environmental values including ecosystem resilience costs and benefits and including costing of avoided damage (to infrastructure, economic goods, livelihoods, human health and sufferings, migration flows etc.”.

The Paris/Accra agenda [for aid effectiveness] should be used to prevent opportunistic and calculating civil servants as well as the big climate funds from generating new, parallel systems and bureaucracies, by embedding climate change considerations into existing frameworks, mechanisms and toolboxes and insisting that they be used at high level policy fora.

The climate ‘label’ should not create new silos of power and vision, but stimulate synergies; environmentally ‘labelled’ institutions should not react defensively, but rather be open-minded and embrace the climate challenge”.

Annalies Donners (pers.com)

In the absence of a systemic approach where all central and sectoral actors play their roles, a bipartite approach remains necessary – where distinct environmental interests aim to ‘influence’ a separate ‘mainstream’ through the decision-making cycle. This is analogous to much of the gender mainstreaming experience.1

Environment Inside is concerned with the variety of approaches that can be used to carry out the above processes, recognising that in most countries it will be less a question of operating an existing integrated system than one of generating that system through influencing current institutions. These approaches include:

  • broad tactics (ways of raising issues and making a case/getting heard);
  • specific instruments, technical tools and analytical methods (e.g. for gathering information, planning and monitoring);
  • methods for consultation and engaging and empowering stakeholders (including grass root organisations and citizen actions movements); and also
  • a range of more informal, voluntary and indigenous approaches.


1 The UN describes Gender Mainstreaming as a globally accepted strategy for promoting gender equality. It involves ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities - policy development, research, advocacy/ dialogue, legislation, resource allocation, and planning, implementation and monitoring of programmes and projects (see: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/gendermainstreaming.htm).

Resource Menu
  1. Purpose of EM
  2. Policy framework & mandates
  3. Targeting EM
  4. Main EM issues
  5. Challenges
  6. Concepts and principles
  7. Skills and capabilities
  8. Needs assessment
  9. Capacity development
  10. Institutionalising EM
  11. Environment-poverty-development linkages
  12. Outcomes to achieve
  13. Entry points of EM
  14. Country Evidence
  15. Influencing policy processes
  16. Budgeting and financing
  17. Implementing measures
  18. Influencing national monitoring system
  19. Advocating & communicating EM
  20. Stakeholder responsibilities
  21. Monitoring and evaluation
  22. Key steps in EM
  23. Tool Profiles
  24. Key literature
  25. Case materials
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