What is ‘environmental governance’? A working definition

By Edward Challies and Jens Newig

As researchers, we are fully aware that ‘governance’ (like many similar concepts) is multi-facetted, ambiguous and subject to changing interpretation over time. Yet in practice we tend to assume we know what we mean when we employ the term – at least in our research team.

As university teachers, however, we cannot rely on this implicit shared understanding, and need to be more explicit. For teaching purposes, the two of us have therefore developed our own working definition of environmental governance – drawing on previous work by scholars of governance, and of environmental governance in particular.

‘Governance’ has emerged as a prominent topic in disciplines across the social sciences at large. Since the mid-1990s, cross-disciplinary governance research has increasingly grappled with shifting roles of and interactions among societal and political actors engaged in efforts to govern all facets of social life. While the term is ubiquitous, its usage varies and many definitions exist. In the political science tradition, discussion of governance has tended to be rather state-centric, concerned with “change in the pattern and exercise of state authority from government to governance” (Bevir and Rhodes 2011, p. 203). Governance, in this context, refers to a bundle of (new) governing practices and structures characterised increasingly by market mechanisms and network forms, as opposed to primarily by hierarchical state-based modes of governing (see Rhodes 1997; Stoker 1998; Pierre and Peters 2000). The main challenge for states then becomes one of retaining legitimacy and effectiveness in steering relatively ‘autonomous self-governing networks of actors’ (Stoker 1998), or ‘self-organising inter-organisational networks’ (Rhodes 1997).

Despite the importance of various combinations of network and market relations for contemporary governance, and their significant implications for the role and meaning of the state, we adopt here a rather broader conceptualisation of governance (following Kooiman 1993, 2003), which encompasses a wide spectrum of interactions among societal actors (within and across the public and private sectors, civil society and the citizenry) aimed at securing collective interests. According to Kooiman, governance – as ‘social political interaction’ – comprises  “the totality of interactions in which public as well as private actors participate, aimed at solving societal problems or creating societal opportunities; attending to the institutions as contexts for these governing interactions; and establishing a normative foundation for all those activities” (2003, p. 4).

In specifying governance arrangements in the environmental context, Lemos and Agrawal (2006, p. 298) identify as relevant the full range of “regulatory processes, mechanisms and organizations through which political actors influence environmental actions and outcomes”. They stress that while governance is distinct from government, it does encompass the actions of the state, alongside diverse non-state actors (ibid.).

Such definitions allow for consideration of a range of ‘new’ modes of environmental governance (see Driessen et al. 2012), combining aspects of network and market relations without neglecting the (still important) activities of governments, and provide for engagement with the widely invoked ‘shift from government to governance’ (Rhodes 1996; Peters and Pierre 1998) as a contingent tendency rather than a clean break with the past.

On the basis of this perspective on governance, we can define environmental governance as

the totality of interactions among societal actors aimed at coordinating, steering and regulating human access to, use of, and impacts on the environment, through collectively binding decisions. Environmental governance arrangements may be directed towards a range of causes – including conservation and environmental protection, spatial and land use planning, (sustainable) management of natural resources, and the protection of human health – and operate across scales to address local and global environmental problems.

Within this we seek to acknowledge a variety of motives for environmental governance. These may range from rather more ecocentric motivations to conserve and protect the environment for its intrinsic value, to instrumental rationales for the sustainable management of resources for human benefit, to the mitigation of immediate or long-term hazards and risks to human health and wellbeing. We also try to capture the implications of intensifying global interconnectivity, and the way in which this increasingly forces governing actors to confront problems that escape their immediate reach and jurisdiction.

As an analytical field, environmental governance research describes scientific and scholarly endeavour to understand and explain these relationships. As a normative project, environmental governance seeks to achieve some degree of balance between collective social interests and environmental protection. This can be thought of, again following Kooiman (2003), as solving social-environmental problems and/or realising social-environmental opportunities, however these might be defined in a given context.


Cited literature

Bevir, M. and R.A.W. Rhodes (2011) The Stateless State, in The SAGE Handbook of Governance, ed. M. Bevir. London: Sage: 203-17.

Driessen, P.P.J., C. Dieperink, F. van Laerhoven, H.A.C. Runhaar and W.J.V. Vermeulen (2012) ‘Towards a Conceptual Framework for The Study of Shifts in Modes of Environmental Governance – Experiences From The Netherlands.’ Environmental Policy and Governance 22 (3): 143-60.

Kooiman, J. (1993) Social-Political Governance: Introduction, in Modern Governance: New Government-Society Interactions, ed. J. Kooiman. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage: 1-8.

Kooiman, J. (2003) Governing as Governance (London: Sage).

Lemos, M.C. and A. Agrawal (2006) ‘Environmental Governance.’ Annual Review of Environment and Resources 31: 297-325.

Peters, B.G. and J. Pierre (1998) ‘Governance without Government? Rethinking Public Administration.’ Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 8 (2): 223-43.

Pierre, J. and B.G. Peters (2000) Governance, Politics and the State (New York: St. Martin’s Press).

Rhodes, R.A.W. (1996) ‘The New Governance: Governing without Government.’ Political Studies 44 (4): 652-67.

Rhodes, R.A.W. (1997) Understanding Governance. Policy Networks, Governance, Reflexivity and Accountability (Buckingham: Open University Press).

Stoker, G. (1998) ‘Governance as Theory: Five Propositions.’ International Social Science Journal 50 (155): 17-28.

Towards Sustainability in EU-Brazil Trade Negotiations

By Jens Newig, Benedetta Cotta, Johanna Coenen, Andrea Lenschow, Edward Challies and Almut Schilling-Vacaflor

While European countries and EU policies have made some progress in enhancing domestic sustainability, we are pretty much failing when it comes to taking responsibility for the far-away consequences of our way of living. Chemical pollution and loss of native forests are two striking examples of such distant effects of our local meat production that relies on Brazilian soy imports as protein-rich animal feed. We call such distant effects “global telecoupling”. Labels for sustainable production standards developed by private industry and non-governmental organizations (such as by the Round Table for Responsible Soy) have not proven overly effective. Governmental bodies in Europe should therefore stronger than they did previously take up their responsibility to pass effective policies. In our team, we are currently studying the  governance responses to unsustainable global telecoupling, in the DFG-funded project “GOVERNECT”, and the EU-ITN “COUPLED”.

With a view to current EU-Brazil trade negotiations, an open letter was published yesterday in Science, with co-signatories including 602 scientists from every country in the EU and two Brazilian Indigenous organizations, which together represent over 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups. The letter calls to prioritize human rights and the environment in EU trade talks with Brazil.

Participatory and collaborative environmental governance – just symbolic exercises to sustain unsustainability?

By Jens Newig

No matter if it’s about siting new landlines, declaring protected areas or developing water management plans: Citizen panels, stakeholder roundtables and deliberative decision-making have become commonplace in Western democracies. While great hopes have been placed in such participatory and collaborative forms of governance to advance environmental sustainability, the debate is now more nuanced and partly skeptical as concerns both their democratic and their sustainability-oriented benefits. Ingolfur Blühdorn and Michael Deflorian from WU Vienna add an interesting facet to this debate, building strongly on Ingolfur Blühdorn’s earlier work on simulative politics and democracy. Their thought-provoking article entitled “The Collaborative Management of Sustained Unsustainability: On the Performance of Participatory Forms of Environmental Governance” was published just two weeks ago in Sustainability.

What makes this an interesting read is its broader sociological perspective. Rather than asking how governance does or should function to achieve normative goals, the article investigates why participatory and collaborative forms of governance are proliferating and which societal functions are served through these. The authors start out by arguing that collaborative and participatory forms of governance are neither (1) particularly democratic nor (2) likely to be effective in the sense of their transformative potential towards sustainability. This, they argue is because (1) collaborative and participatory forms of governance are typically coopting citizens or selectively empowering only some actors who do not have a clear democratic mandate, and (2) because “their proliferation has, as yet, not taken modern consumer societies much closer to the great socio-ecological transformation”. This, the authors speculate, is “perhaps because the prevailing forms of decentralized and collaborative governance are explicitly designed not to disrupt the established order and are, therefore, structurally unable to deliver the kind of change that scientists and environmental movements demand.” If this is so, then why are collaborative and participatory decision-making processes becoming so prevalent?

The key to understanding this apparent puzzle, the authors argue, lies in the performative aspect of governance. Referring to the title of our 2018 paper on conceptualizing the “performance of participatory and collaborative governance”, the authors re-interpret the notion of ‘performance’. In a nutshell, they distinguish

  • performance as delivery of outputs – both in a “democratic” and in a substantive (“systemic”) sense – from
  • performance as theatrical display, enactment or illusion in the sense of symbolic or simulative politics.

It is this second perspective that the article focuses on, proposing “that these new modes of environmental governance have become so prominent because they actually correspond very closely to the particular dilemmas, preferences, and needs of contemporary consumer societies—notably the desire to sustain particular lifestyles and understandings of freedom and self-realization, which are known to be socially and ecologically destructive (unsustainable)”. Hence, new modes of environmental governance, “if assessed from the perspective of these contemporary dilemmas, preferences, and needs, they do actually perform exceptionally well. More specifically, they provide contemporary consumer societies with a practical policy mechanism that helps them to reconcile the widely perceived seriousness and urgency of socio-environmental problems with their ever more visible inability and unwillingness to deviate from their established societal order, patterns of self-realization and logic of development.” Put simply, while we cannot achieve sustainability and at the same time continue the established logic of consumption, participatory governance helps us to at least symbolically resolve this apparent contradiction. ‘Symbolic’ stems from the Greek term symballein, meaning to ‘throw together’ – here otherwise irreconcilable aims (I’ve written earlier about symbolic politics and legislation, as it happens in a special issue edited by Ingolfur Blühdorn). Hence, ‘performing’ collaborative governance gives us the feeling of teaming up for sustainability, while at the same time we do not give up on our unsustainable lifestyles. As a consequence, these collaborative practices contribute to stabilizing (rather than transforming) current systems of unsustainability – thus the argument of the authors.

While I find these lines of arguments illuminating, my main point of criticism concerns the lacking empirical grounding. The authors illustrate their points by three empirical cases, but these of course cannot be representative. We should be aware, therefore, that the performative functions identified here may apply to some cases of participatory and collaborative governance, but not to others.

Assuming we do strive for environmental sustainability, and assuming further that governance (by whatever mode) can play a vital, if not indispensable role in this – what insights do we gain from this article? In terms of normative guidance, this paper may leave us with a fatalistic impression that not much can actually be done, because – and so long as – societies embrace the “notions of freedom, self-determination, self-realization”, which are “firmly based on the principle of sustained unsustainability”. Having said that, I see three productive lessons we may take from the article:

  • First, the paper is enlightening for all those of us who either adhere to rationalist and instrumentalist models of decision-making, or who see decision-making through the lens of power-play (in which big business tends to ‘win’). Having read this paper, one can no longer claim not to have heard of the potential dangers of participatory and collaborative governance – not just because it may be ineffective but also because in a subtle, hidden, yet striking way it may serve to obscure its symbolic functions which result in sustaining unsustainability.
  • Second, these insights by no means imply an empirically grounded verdict! Despite its three examples, this is not an empirical paper. In fact, the jury is still out on how participatory and collaborative environmental governance actually delivers (to avoid the term ‘performs’) in both a democratic and a sustainability-oriented sense. What is required, more than ever, is solid empirical evidence of which modes of governance ‘deliver’ und under what circumstances.
  • Third, from a governance perspective, it is one thing to be aware about the potential deficiencies and misleading hopes of participation; it is another to ask: What is the alternative? Should we go “back” to strong state-based decision-making? Is there just too much governance and too little government? Arguably, we not only don’t know enough about the delivery of participatory and collaborative governance, but also we lack robust evidence on the role of expert-led decisions, the role of administrative capacities and of elite-networks in shaping decisions for environmental sustainability.

All in all, I highly recommend this enlightening article – not least for use in teaching sustainability governance courses, confronting students with sobering insights on the functions of participatory and collaborative governance, and triggering discussions about ways to effectively govern towards sustainability – including or not collaborative forms.

Starting today: Leverage Points 2019

Today, day 0 of “Leverage Points 2019 – International conference on sustainability research and transformation” is starting. If you haven’t made it to the conference, please check out the programme here (http://leveragepoints2019.leuphana.de/programme/). Throughout the next days, many from our research group will present their research on the governance of sustainability transformation, institutional change, the productive functions of institutional failure and decline, and on the effectiveness of different modes of research.





Food Democracy Now! The Second Networking Congress of German Food Policy Councils

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Annelie Sieveking

This blog post reports back from the second networking congress of German food policy councils, which was held this year, between 23rd and 25th of November, in Frankfurt, Hesse. This event brought together food policy council (FPC) initiatives from all Germany and its neighbor countries Austria, Luxemburg, Netherlands and Switzerland. The FPC initiatives from the German-speaking countries and regions met for the first time in 2017 (for more details see my blog on “The beginning of a new food movement in Essen” from November 2017). In the meantime, more FPCs were established, e.g. in the cities of Munich or Freiburg, and the number continues to rise. Currently we can talk about around 40 different FPC initiatives that are emerging in German-speaking countries and regions.

About 150 participants joined this event in Frankfurt with the aim of (1) exchanging experiences that they gathered in the…

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Sustainability Governance Working Group at 2018 Utrecht Earth System Governance Conference

by Stephanie Jahn and Elisa Kochskämper

Several members of our research group attained the 2018 Utrecht Earth System Governance Conference: Benedetta Cotta, Lisa Glass, Nicolas Jager, Stephanie Jahn, Elisa Kochskämper and Jens Newig. Here we would like to share some insights from the conference:

The conference is organized by the global Earth System Governance Research Alliance, representing the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change. This research alliance aims at exploring political solutions and novel, more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet towards sustainable and socially equitable development.

Our team had the opportunity to present the latest results and insights from different research that is all linked to this overall aim. We presented findings form the research projects Governect, MONA, EDGE and from Lisa Glass’ Phd project on Governance and the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as Elisa Kochskämper’s Phd project on Systematic Learning in Water Governance.

Organized in six overarching streams (Architectures, Agency, Accountability, Allocation, Adaptiveness and Theoretical and Methodological Foundations of Earth System Governance), the panels offered diverse views on how to tackle transformation from various disciplines. In order to gather these and further insights, the alliance launched their own journal during the conference. Papers can be submitted from now on.

Furthermore, the new Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan was introduced by leading authors Sarah Burch, Aarti Gupta, Cristina Yumie Aoki Inoue, Agni Kalfagianni, Åsa Persson to guide further research within the community: „Our vision is to understand, imagine and help realize just and sustainable futures by stimulating a pluralistic, vibrant and relevant research community.“

The new Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan can be downloaded here.

The conference organization also opened-up space for visibility of and information on researchers participating, which was a welcomed initiative not that frequently used at academic conferences. Our group members Elisa and Stephanie were interviewed by the conference media team:

Other interviews of participants of Earth System Governace Conference i.e. Ortwin Renn, Oran Young, etc. can be watched on the Earth System Governance Youtube Channel.


Workshop on “Rethinking the governance of European Water protection” 

By Nadine Schröder

When:  January 8th-9th 2019

Where: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig


Nadine Schröder  (Leuphana University Lüneburg)

Barbara Schröter (Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF))

Frank Hüesker (UFZ Leipzig)


During this workshop we want to discuss on European Water governance and to address frameworks/ lenses/ concepts/ theories and methods to research water governance: Which factors, levels and scales do they focus on? Which roles play participation, sector integration and basin approaches? We draw conclusions how the governance might be improved in favor of better performance: Which factors may influence local, regional and national success or failure? Are best-practice examples identifiable empirically? Additionally, we critically reflect how the chosen frameworks and methods predetermine the findings of regulating parameters. We aim for joint products as results of the workshop, like e.g. a special issue, a book, joint conference panels, seeding joint projects, work on the science-policy interface, a manifest and so on, which is open to be discussed and depends on the interest of the participants.

You can have a look at the abstract and preliminary program here:

Preliminary Program