Knowledge Cumulation in Environmental Governance Research: Call for Contributions

By Jens Newig and Michael Rose

For an Innovative Session on 9 September 2021 at the upcoming Earth System Governance Conference (Bratislava / vitual, 7-10 September), we are looking for junior and senior scholars who would like to give short inputs of 5-7 minutes on different aspects of knowledge cumulation in earth system governance research. Inputs may cover topics such as

  • epistemic prerequisites and limits of knowledge cumulation;
  • methods of knowledge cumulation;
  • experiences and best practice examples of knowledge cumulation;
  • policy makers’ perspectives on knowledge cumulation as evidence production;
  • open science for knowledge cumulation;
  • forward-looking perspectives of how to improve knowledge cumulation.

The virtual innovative session will take place on September 9 from 10.30 to 12.00 Central European Time. If you are interested to contribute a short presentation, please send us your abstract (around 250 words) by July 25 (e-mail to newig@uni.leuphana.de and rose@uni.leuphana.de). We will inform you about acceptance in early August.

The innovative session seeks to bring together researchers from the ESG community – and the wider field of environmental governance – who share a common interest in the debate on knowledge cumulation, its prospects, opportunities, current diagnoses, limits and pitfalls, as well as in building institutions that facilitate a more “cumulative research culture” without compromising epistemic diversity.

While this session is linked to an emerging ESG Task Force on Knowledge Cumulation, everyone is invited to participate regardless of your interest in taking part in the Taskforce. (The Taskforce will be launched at the ESG Conference on September 10, at 1.30 p.m. – virtual. Please et us know if you would like to join, independently of the Innovative Session.)

More details on the Innovative Session can be found in this document.

We look forward to receiving interesting proposals!

Online visualization tools to communicate research results

By Johanna Coenen and Gabi Sonderegger

Communicating our research results to fellow scientists, but also policy makers, practitioners, journalists and the general public, is a core task in science. It is particularly important if we aim to facilitate evidence-based decision-making and aspire to have a real-world impact with our research.

Visualizations play a powerful role in science communication. They help to attract attention, summarize data and make information easily accessible (see also this blog post and recent publication about telecoupling visualizations). Animated and interactive visuals in particular can be highly appealing and effective means for communicating results via websites, blog posts, social media posts and conference presentations. Yet, many scientists seem to lack the time and/or technical capacities to generate appealing visuals that speak to their target audience.

In recent years, a range of visualizations tools has been developed that aim to facilitate the transformation of data into attractive visuals. Often, they are simple to use and do not require sophisticated data visualization skills. In the table below, we present a selection of such visualization tools, which may help us to translate our research results into beautiful visuals.

Type of visualizationsWeblinkCostsExamples
Various static chart types (e.g. Sankey diagrams)RAWGraphsFreeExamples on the RAWGraphs website
Various static and responsive chart typesDatawrapperFree (with extended paid versions)Examples on the Datawrapper website
Animated charts, flow charts, story maps, and much moreFlourishFree version for public data/projects (with extended paid versions)Examples on the Flourish website Just 7 Commodities Replaced an Area of Forest Twice the Size of Germany Between 2001 and 2015 / World Resources Institute
Social network graphs, stakeholder maps and causal loop diagramsKumuFree version for public data/projects (with extended paid versions)Dynamics of concussion / Erin Kenzie / PSU Systems Science, Portland State University
Storytelling with mapsArcGIS StoryMapsTo use ArcGIS StoryMaps, you need full access to the Essential Apps Bundle by purchasing an ArcGIS Creator or GIS Professional user type.Many universities and organizations are already using ArcGIS, so you may be able to get access to ArcGIS via the organization or university you work for.Global interests collide in Madagascar / Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern “Hungry mills” and their role in Indonesia’s palm oil industry / Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern
InfographicsCanvaBasic features are for free (with extended paid versions)The Global Carbon Budget / World Resources Institute
Interactive world mapsMapHubFreeMap of our COUPLED project at the bottom of our website
Geographic flow mapsflowmap.blueFreeExamples on the website

Click here to find an example of a network graph which shows the interlinkages between climate initiatives and the Sustainable Development Goals (created with kumu.io).

This post first appeared at coupled-itn.eu on April 21, 2021.

Assessing ‘success’ of environmental governance: How to define effectiveness, legitimacy and justice?

By Jens Newig and Ed Challies

In various projects, we come across the challenge of assessing the ‘success’ of environmental policy and governance. Regularly, we find three main aspects mentioned: effectiveness, legitimacy, and justice (alongside other, mostly related factors such as efficiency, equity, transparency, and accountability). But how can we succinctly define these evaluative criteria? Here’s our attempt, which we have already applied in one project (GOVERNECT). Our definitions are inspired by works of Adger et al. (2003); Fung (2006), and Hogl et al. (2012).

Figure 1: (At least) three dimensions of environmental governance ‘success’?

Environmental effectiveness: Strictly speaking, effectiveness of policy/governance refers to the extent to which a given goal is reached. More specifically, environmental effectiveness refers to the extent to which a policy is likely to achieve environmental improvements in the sense of sustainable use of resources, protection of ecosystems and human health, and prevention of environmental degradation. Aspects of efficiency, delivery, implementation, goal attainment, or improving environmental conditions may all contribute to effectiveness.

Legitimacy: Justified authority. Key questions are: a) Is the policy/governance instrument (likely to be) accepted by the constituency and/or addressees? b) Has it been produced through a fair, transparent process, involving the relevant stakeholder groups and affected parties (procedural fairness) – or is there an imbalanced representation of actor groups and ‘illegitimate’ influence? Legitimacy is culturally specific and may, but need not, be linked to democracy. Note that output-oriented legitimacy is often closely related to (environmental) effectiveness in the sense that a policy may be seen as legitimate if it delivers intended outcomes.

Justice: Environmental justice as a principle embodies the idea that no person or group is systematically deprived or disadvantaged in the distribution of protection from environmental and health risks,  or the enjoyment of environmental quality. Furthermore, environmental justice relates to whether people are given due recognition and treated fairly in public environmental decision-making (an aspect which overlaps with legitimacy). Key questions are: Is the policy/governance instrument likely to create/exacerbate or reduce inequalities or inequity among stakeholders / affected populations – e.g. through spatially or temporally uneven impacts of environmental change, access to resources, or other consequences of the policy/governance instrument?

So, the ‘success’ (or lack thereof) of environmental governance processes may be seen as a three-dimensional concept. There may of course be trade-offs between these dimensions. For example, a process that delivers a high level of environmental protection may be considered a failure by stakeholders who attach a lot of importance to justice, if that process was less than fair. Others, who weigh environmental effectiveness relatively highly, may consider it a success.

To complicate things further, these three dimensions or criteria are not independent, but rather overlapping and related (as mentioned above), so they interconnect in a way that is more complex than depicted in Figure 1. Our contention, though, is that it may be more fruitful to assess environmental governance processes according to these criteria, than to pursue any single definition of ‘success’ for the evaluation of governance processes.

We’d be happy for any comments or discussion on these definitional attempts!

Cited literature

Adger, W.N., K. Brown, J. Fairbrass, A. Jordan, J. Paavola, S. Rosendo and G. Seyfang (2003) ‘Governance for sustainability: Towards a ‘thick’ analysis of environmental decisionmaking.’ Environment and Planning A 35 (6): 1095-110.

Fung, A. (2006) ‘Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance.’ Public Administration Review 66 (Special Issue): 66-75.

Hogl, K., E. Kvarda, R. Nordbeck and M. Pregernig (2012) Legitimacy and effectiveness of environmental governance – concepts and perspectives, in Environmental Governance. The Challenge of Legitimacy and Effectiveness, eds. K. Hogl, E. Kvarda, R. Nordbeck and M. Pregernig. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar: 1-26.

Citizens’ Councils for Promoting the Global Common Good

By Okka Lou Mathis

Prioritise climate protection, promote sustainable food production, increase funds for development cooperation, and create a sustainability ministry: These are just four of the 32 proposals from the citizens’ council on “Germany’s Role in the World”, consisting of 154 randomly selected citizens. The Bundestag will receive the final report on 19 March. The citizens’ council is an instrument of innovative citizen participation that has been used in many countries and at various political levels.

Citizens’ councils promise to reduce disenchantment with politics and to promote courageous solutions to socially controversial issues. The trick is that certain people come together by lot, ideally representing the socio-economic composition of society, in a so-called “mini-public”. The council is therefore much more inclusive and diverse than, for example, the Bundestag. Moreover, the councillors have neither voters, nor a party line, or lobby interests breathing down their necks. The idea is that this allows them to discuss political issues more impartially and at eye level. In addition to learning together, an appreciative, personal and yet fact-oriented exchange of experiences and views can take place according to the principle of “deliberation”: In the end, the best argument for the common good should actually be convincing, not just the loudest voice or the best-organised interest. For this reason alone, citizens’ councils are a useful addition to our democracy. In concrete terms, citizens’ councils can provide valuable impulses in terms of content, as the political recommendations on sustainability from the citizens’ council “Germany’s Role in the World” show.

The citizens examined this broad topic from five perspectives in working groups: sustainable development, peace and security, democracy and the rule of law, economy and trade, and the EU. The topics were selected in advance through a participatory process, and it is gratifying that sustainable development was considered very important. A small drop of bitterness, however, is that sustainable development was not, by its very nature, considered as a cross-cutting basic principle everywhere. Be that as it may, both the agreed guidelines and the concrete recommendations of the sustainable development group showed that the randomly chosen citizens were serious about wanting to anchor sustainability as an overarching guiding principle in German politics. For example, at their final meeting on 20 February, they agreed that Germany should “promote sustainability, climate protection, the right to clean water and the fight against world hunger as a global cross-sectional task (…) and place them at the centre of its political action so that future generations can also live well”. They proposed “enshrining sustainability in the Basic Law” and the “establishment of a sustainability ministry that coordinates, controls and monitors other ministries and ensures transparency”. They also found clear words for prioritising climate protection and for Germany to show “courage to embrace a reorientation towards the common good and end the continuous growth paradigm”. In addition, funds for “development aid” should be increased to 2% of gross national income (currently the rate is 0.6%). In addition, food production should become sustainable worldwide – “even if food prices in Germany rise as a result.”

If we think of the international agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, sustainability and the reduction of greenhouse gases are central and overarching political goals, and are not exactly new. What is new and encouraging, however, is that the international community’s existing goals, and their consequences for us in Germany seem to enjoy support among the general population, at least when citizens are given the opportunity to discuss them in an informed way. This could increase both the pressure on politicians for the ambitious implementation of these goals and the social legitimacy of sustainability measures in Germany. Despite all the euphoria, however, questions remain about the citizens’ council as an instrument, for example how to strengthen its political weight and how to attract broader public attention to the discussions and conclusions.

The citizens’ council “Germany’s Role in the World” shows the instrument’s potential for searching for solutions oriented towards the common good – both at national and global level. This makes the format directly relevant for international (development) cooperation, because the global common good is the very rationale behind the climate and sustainability agendas. The institutionalisation of citizens’ councils in Germany, especially on sustainability issues, would therefore be a promising way of exerting pressure for the implementation of these international targets. Incidentally, this is also a recommendation of the panel itself: “Germany should (…) use and account for citizen-based, political forums (e.g., citizens’ assemblies) on a permanent basis”. The next citizens’ council that could work for the global common good is already in the starting blocks – the topic: climate.

This post first appeared as The Current Column (2021), Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik / German Development Institute (DIE) on 18 March 2021.

An Odyssey of publishing from a PhD thesis: A Catch-22 of self-plagiarism, or just irresponsible journal editorship?

By Sarah Velten

This is a story about a publication process that went very wrong but eventually came to a happy end – but only after a considerable amount of time and loss of hair out of despair. I tell this story so that other authors who may find themselves in a similar situation can draw on the experiences my co-authors and I have had here, and hopefully also get their paper published against all odds. This account could be particularly interesting for PhD students because this story is about one of my PhD papers. And that was also part of the problem. What is more, there is also a fun element to this story – as one of the co-authors of this paper frequently stated, this whole process would have been quite a slapstick comedy if it had not been so serious.

It all started with the submission of the last paper of my cumulative dissertation. Until then, I had been quite lucky with the publication of all the other papers in my dissertation. Publication had been very swift with reasonable review times and limited requests for changes. Thus, I also had high hopes for this paper when I submitted it to a journal shortly before handing in my complete dissertation. While waiting for the reviewers’ response, I defended my dissertation and was now eager to publish it.

Before doing so, I informed the journal where I had submitted the paper of my intention to publish the original manuscript non-commercially as part of my dissertation. I also asked if there were any copyright issues. The first answer was that it should not be a problem to include the manuscript in my dissertation. I also pointed out that my thesis would be freely accessible online through library web catalogues. Thus, the journal stated that it would be fine to reprint the manuscript in my dissertation, but only after final acceptance of the paper. However, when I received this final statement after a few weeks, I had already submitted my dissertation. After all, the initial response from the journal was that there would not be a problem.

Not long after, the paper came back with rather favourable reviews from three reviewers. My co-authors and I revised the manuscript and sent it back … and were almost immediately told that the paper had to be rejected because of its high similarity to existing publications.

At first, we were puzzled. In searching for the cause of this problem, the journal was not very helpful, as they were reluctant to share the plagiarism check report with us. Nevertheless, we figured out that it was indeed the original manuscript in my PhD thesis that had caused the plagiarism alert. Was I stuck in a Catch-22?

Admittedly, not having waited for the journal’s final decision on the publication of the paper in my thesis was my mistake. Thus, we apologized and explained why the manuscript had already been published. The editor of the journal then informed us that they “prefer publishing original texts, which are not copy-paste products from the web. On the other hand, excerpts from reports, thesis works, etc. are acceptable provided the copy owner will not accuse the publisher for plagiarism.” He also asked us to “resubmit the version [we] would like publishing as a new manuscript”.

Relieved, we resubmitted the revised manuscript, assuming that this would be a mere technicality. But after some time, we learned that the manuscript had been sent out again for review (which, of course, we had not expected, given that it had already been reviewed and revised once before and that the reason for resubmission had nothing to do with the quality of its content). We were asked for minor revisions, revised the paper, sent it back and… were told again (!) that our paper had been rejected because of suspected plagiarism.

We explained everything to the editor of the journal again, and after some back and forth, he informed us that he „finally proposed accepting the text as it stands.” We were very happy, but after the experiences we had had up to that point, we did not truly believe what we were reading.

And rightly so: nothing happened for weeks. Upon enquiry on our part, the editor first claimed that he had understood that we wanted to revise and resubmit the manuscript (no one had ever even mentioned this). Then he claimed technical difficulties as the cause of the delay in publication and promised to look into it. Yet again, the only thing we heard back about the manuscript was extended silence.

I was beginning to despair because a meaningful conversation and conflict resolution with the editorial office seemed impossible. Thus, I tried a higher level and made a request through the publisher’s author support, which, however, could not have been less helpful: My request was redirected to the journal itself. And the journal’s response was – you guessed it – that our manuscript was rejected, without further explanation. I challenged this decision again, but I never received a reply.

By this time, about two years had passed since the manuscript was first submitted and, not for the first time, I was on the verge of giving up. In addition to the confusion and unreliability in communication with the editorial office, there were other issues. For instance, after submission the paper kept sitting on the editor’s desk for months before it was passed on to the reviewers (almost three months after the first submission, five months after the second submission). Also, both times the paper was forwarded only after additional request from our side. And often, the editor only answered requests from the co-authoring senior researcher, while requests from my side remained unanswered.

Yet, there was one last hope. Rather by chance, I had come across the publisher’s ethics reporting contact where you could raise concerns about editorial or publishing matters (and that was lucky enough, because this contact is really hard to find). So, as a last resort, I wrote up the whole story and sent it to this ethics contact, along with copies of all email correspondence, alleging unethical behaviour on the part of the journal.

On the same day (!) I was contacted by an associate publisher who promised to discuss the matter with the editor concerned. Only about ten days later, I was informed that “[t]he content of the article is good for publication and the only reason to reject the paper was the overlap with the thesis. As the thesis contains unpublished work, this should not be considered prior publication. For this reason, the rejection decision will be rescinded.” The only condition was that I would have to include the citation of my dissertation in the manuscript and I should be contacted by the journal for this.

The journal stuck to its former modus operandi and never sent me a request for this minor edit. Thus, after a few weeks of waiting, I wrote again to the associate publisher. And then, truly and finally, our paper was officially accepted for publication, with no further requirements. Now that the manuscript was no longer in the hands of the journal but in the hands of the publisher, publication of the paper was surprisingly swift.

I am very relieved now that this odyssey has come to a happy end. And at the very least, it taught me some lessons: 1) Be very careful about publishing your PhD thesis if it contains papers that have not yet been published. 2) If there are problems that cannot be solved with the editorial office of a journal, get the publisher involved – but do not use the normal author support system for that. 3) Do not give up on a publication lightly, even if it encounters problems.

By the way, the paper concerned presents a case study meta-analysis on the success of collaboratives striving for a more sustainable agriculture and you can find it here.

What it takes to exercise adaptive planning

By Shirin Malekpour and Jens Newig

This research was a collaboration between Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), and the Research Group Governance and Sustainability, Leuphana University (Germany). Dr Shirin Malekpour (Monash) is the recipient of the Green Talents award, which enabled her to undertake a research sabbatical at Leuphana in 2019, conducting this study in collaboration with Prof. Jens Newig.

Adaptive planning is an approach to long-term strategic planning when confronted with significant uncertainties that dwarf any seemingly robust forecast (think Covid-19 pandemic). It is a shift from the conventional ‘predict-and-act’ approach, which assumes that we can anticipate the most likely future scenarios, and optimise our strategies accordingly. When uncertainties are profound and we have no good grasp of what can happen in the future, adaptive planning posits that decision makers should not even dream of an optimal strategy that can work in the long term. Instead, they need to adopt strategies that are flexible, and a planning approach that remains open to adaptation over time, in order to proactively respond to changing circumstances.

In today’s world overwhelmed by unprecedented events and profound shocks, adopting an adaptive approach to long-term strategic planning might sound like a no-brainer. There are, in fact, a range of tools for adaptive planning available to decision makers, such as those developed by the Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty (DMDU) community. However, reactive planning and over-reliance on narrow projections still appear to prevail.

Some scholars have argued that the poor usage of adaptive planning is not due to a lack of appreciation of adaptive planning, but because of unfavourable governance processes, institutional frameworks and organisational arrangements within which adaptive planning should take place. Some of these issues impacting adaptive planning have been discussed in individual case studies, but there has been no larger scale comparison across various cases to provide a comprehensive picture of what it takes to put adaptive planning into practice.  

In our recent publication, we present a meta-analysis of 40 cases of adaptive planning applications. The cases were from diverse geographies (i.e. all continents), sectors (e.g. water, transport, etc.) and implementation scales (i.e. local to national). We assessed: 1) to what extent those applications adhered to the principles of adaptive planning – in other words, how adaptive were those adaptive planning applications, and 2) what enablers and barriers they faced in the broader governance and institutional arrangements.

So, what did we find?

Figure 1: Adaptive planning in different geographies. The data has been sorted (left to right) based on the number of reported cases of adaptive planning. Check the publication for further details on how we calculated average adaptiveness.

Figure 2: Adaptive planning in different sectors. The data has been sorted (left to right) based on the reported number of cases of adaptive planning. Check the publication for further details on how we calculated average adaptiveness.

We found that in the studied cases, adaptive planning applications are far from ideal. The main challenge is in setting up a monitoring regime that can identify early signals, and a systematic process that can assist with activating contingency plans when needed. The principal barrier to this is the lack of long-term investment strategies that go beyond short-term budgetary cycles for individual projects. There is a need for a redefinition of planning priorities and success indicators, from efficient delivery and implementation (i.e. a quick fix), to long-term outcomes achieved through experimentation, learning and adaptation.

Another challenge has been in using a wide range of future scenarios as the basis for decision making, which is another principle of adaptive planning, in addition to monitoring and keeping options open. The implicit assumption that future conditions could be estimated from existing trends was identified as a significant barrier to using a wide range of scenarios. This confirms earlier observations in the literature that, despite encountering major uncertainties, decision makers still rely on forecasts and a limited number of future scenarios to plan for the future. Another barrier is decision makers’ risk aversion and reluctance to acknowledging that ‘they do not know’. They prefer to squeeze future scenarios into a manageable set that is easier to grasp and communicate with stakeholders and the broader public.

On the other hand, there are a range of enablers that can facilitate adaptive planning. When strategic planning takes place in a transdisciplinary environment through effective and uninterrupted science-policy exchange, it is easier to avoid a reductionist approach to decision making.

Furthermore, adaptive planning is better enabled when there is a dedicated governance body that takes on the coordination role for adaptive planning activities. This would avoid situations where adaptive planning is taken on as an add-on to ongoing activities of a strategy team, with little to no dedicated resources for effective implementation. A coordinating body is not meant to drive all activities in a top-down approach, but rather to broker and negotiate activities across different stakeholders, and to absorb some of the transaction costs for adaptive planning.

The findings of our study shed light on some of the ingredients of a governance framework for enacting adaptive planning. They indicate what enablers should be harnessed, and what barriers should be overcome in an adaptive planning endeavour. Future research could extend the findings of this study to fully articulate how adaptive planning could be operationalised: who should be involved, what structures should be set up, what resources would be needed, and what practices would need to be put in place to successfully exercise adaptive planning.

Malekpour, S. and J. Newig (2020) ‘Putting adaptive planning into practice: A meta-analysis of current applications.’ Cities 106: 102866.

Workshop Invitation: Democracy & Intergenerational Justice – Overcoming Harmful Short-termism Through New Institutions? (8–9 September 2020)

By Michael Rose

Sustainable development requires legitimate and effective governance for the long-term that somehow considers the needs of future generations. As part of the MANCEPT Workshops 2020, an annual conference in political theory at the University of Manchester (this time online), we co-organise a two-day panel to discuss the relationship between democracy and intergenerational justice and the opportunities and challenges of institutional reform.

Date: 8–9 September 2020, from 9 to 18:30 hrs (British Summer Time UTC+1), online

We welcome everyone who is interested in the topic! There is no fee for non-presenters, just send me an e-mail to get the Zoom login data. Let me know if you’d be willing to volunteer as a discussant (not required).

On Tuesday, Axel Gosseries will give a keynote speech “On Why We Should Not Expect Too Much from Intergenerational Legitimacy“ (11:3012:30).

On Wednesday, Simon Caney will deliver a keynote speech on “The Challenges of Governing for the Long-Term: Why the Problem is Deep” (11:0012:00).

Workshop Description

Democracies are commonly diagnosed with a harmful short-sightedness which makes it difficult to recognise and deal with long-term risks and challenges. This bias towards the present arises out of many institutional, cultural, and anthropological factors, among them the election cycle, the influence of special interest groups and the ineptitude of humans to deal with ‘creeping problems.’ In light of this, democracies seem ill-equipped to deal with challenges such as the climate crisis, artificial intelligence or microbial resistance. Thus, the ability of the living generation to take the interests of future people into account and to fulfil its obligations to future people is hampered.

Consequently, several countries have taken measures to facilitate long-term oriented decision-making, e.g. by establishing commissioners for future generations (Hungary, since 2008; Israel, 2001-06; Wales, since 2016) or a parliamentary committee for the future (Finland, since 1993), some of them having considerable capabilities for influence. Furthermore, scholars discuss a wide range of proposals for new future-oriented institutions (F-Institutions). These include the representation of future generations in parliament, ombudspersons for the future, regulatory impact assessments, advisory councils, deliberative mini-publics as well as the enfranchisement of the young, the disenfranchisement of the elderly and many more.

Despite the growing range of proposals for F-Institutions, questions regarding their justification and legitimacy, design, and implementation deserve further discussion. Intergenerational equity, democratic legitimacy, and generational sovereignty all exert their normative pull on the democratic system and consequently on the design of F-Institutions. For example, the ability of each generation to govern itself collectively seems incompatible with the idea of institutionally binding the currently living to ensure that they meet their obligations of intergenerational justice. Further, honouring obligations of intergenerational justice may suggest installing F-Institutions with extensive influence on the political decision-making process, while a concern for democratic legitimacy might foreclose many proposals for F-Institutions.

In sum, this workshop aims to bring together moral, political, and legal theorists and practitioners interested in democracy, intergenerational justice, long-term decision-making and short-termism to discuss the various tensions associated with these concepts on both the theoretical and empirical levels.

Building a green Belt and Road Initiative? First steps on a long road ahead.

By Johanna Coenen and Simon Bager

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a young, yet fast developing framework of activities aimed at improving regional and trans-continental cooperation and connectivity through investments, trade, and infrastructure projects. In fall 2013, President Xi Jinping announced the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which has become known as BRI. The global initiative takes its name from the ancient “Silk Road”, which connected Asian and European cities through trade in goods, mainly silk and spices. The newly announced BRI goes along and beyond the route of the historic Silk Road. More than 130 countries have joined the initiative so far (figure 1). Road, rail, maritime and energy infrastructure projects form a key part of the BRI, which will likely facilitate increased trade and economic development along the route. Apart from advancing geopolitical and economic objectives, the initiative is also projected to increase cultural and scientific exchanges across the countries engaged in the BRI.

IMG2

Figure 1. As of January 2020, 138 countries have signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with China.

The BRI poses both opportunities and risks for sustainable development. By promoting investments in renewable energy and green technology, it can contribute towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. At the same time, concerns about its actual and potential negative environmental impacts are rising. For example, China continues to invest in fossil fuel energy projects abroad. Infrastructure projects may cut across biodiversity hotspots and expose ecologically sensitive areas to development pressures.

In the last few years, several Chinese ministries collectively issued policies on the “green Belt and Road”. China’s endeavor to build hard infrastructure (e.g. rail, road, power plants, seaports) across the world is increasingly accompanied by efforts to develop the necessary soft infrastructure (e.g. policies, guidelines, cooperation platforms), to provide governance structures to coordinate and implement BRI activities. Since the BRI is still expanding and an official registry of BRI projects does not exist, it remains challenging to pinpoint the geographical scope and full number of BRI projects.

Due to the size and complexity of the BRI, scholars and civil society organizations have begun to analyze the potential impacts of the project across various dimensions. To date, most literature on the BRI has focused either on its geopolitical implications or the economic impacts. Yet, literature on the BRI with reference to environmental or sustainability issues is also slowly growing (Figure 2). In our recent study that is a result of the COUPLED project, we outline the key actors, policies and initiatives involved in developing the “green BRI”. Our analysis is based on a review of official government documents, published peer-reviewed literature, media articles, reports, and working papers. We do not only look at formal policies and guidelines, but also at newly established international and transnational cooperation initiatives, and the role of governance institutions in BRI host countries. Our insights contribute to telecoupling research by illustrating how growing interdependencies between distant places provide both challenges and opportunities for environmental outcomes. Effective environmental governance is needed to address the environmental implications of long-distance flows of capital, labour, energy and materials and economic activities that will likely expand and intensify under the BRI.

IMG3

Figure 2. Number of publications on the BRI in general (blue; 1799 documents in total) and with reference to environmental or sustainability issues (red, 449 documents in total) between 2013 and 2019. [1]

What did we find?
In the few years since the inception of the BRI in 2013, the environmental governance architecture of the “green BRI” has developed into a fragmented patchwork of national, regional, transnational, and international institutions of various forms—initiatives, guidelines, agreements, and programs. China builds its “green BRI” upon existing international and transnational institutions, while also establishing new ones. The flagship organization of the “green BRI” is the newly established BRI International Green Development Coalition.

Overall, the development of the institutional landscape for the “green BRI” mirrors major trends in global environmental governance toward increasing reliance on transnational multi-actor governance and the use of soft law. The Chinese government plays a key role in initiating voluntary and cooperative programs and networks of public, private, and civil society actors and institutions for the environmental governance of the BRI. Numerous Chinese policies strongly urge Chinese companies to adhere to host countries’ environmental laws and regulations. This means that the legislative framework in the host countries become important determinants of the environmental outcome of BRI projects. For example, if the BRI partner country does not have legal requirements – or very lax requirements – for environmental impact assessments, this is reflected in the potential environmental risks and mitigation efforts of the project.

Thus, the environmental sustainability of the BRI not only hinges on the environmental governance efforts of Chinese actors, but largely on the effective implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations in BRI host countries. Increasing trade and investment flows between BRI countries may affect public and private environmental standards in multiple ways (figure 3). An important task for future research is to empirically investigate whether and how China’s “green BRI” influences environmental governance in BRI countries. Will the BRI drive a “race to the bottom” among partner countries in search of investment or will China actually become an exporter of stricter environmental regulations and norms? Will exporters apply lower or higher environmental and social standards if they shift to markets with lower or higher standards (Shanghai or California effect)?

IMG4

Figure 3. Potential effects of investments (left) and trade (right) on public and private environmental standards (see publication for more details and examples).

In short, the BRI is a multifaceted long-term development strategy in the fields of infrastructure connectivity, economic and trade cooperation, industrial development, resource development, financial cooperation, cultural exchanges, maritime cooperation and environmental protection. According to Chinese decision makers, the initiative aims at advancing “win-win cooperation” among BRI countries. Yet, the relative gains of the initiative may not be distributed equally among participants – both within and between the involved countries. If not governed effectively, economic development projects can come at a high social, financial or environmental cost. For instance, building coal-fired power plants may advance social and economic development objectives in the short and middle-term, but compromise our chances to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C. China has made many high-level political commitments to ensure the BRI’s orientation towards sustainability, yet translating these commitments to actions on the ground will be another challenging task on the long (belt and) road ahead.

Read the publication

Coenen J, Bager S, Meyfroidt P, Newig J, Challies E. Environmental Governance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Env Pol Gov. 2020;1–15. https://doi.org/ 10.1002/eet.1901

[1] Scopus search conducted on June 29, 2020. Search string for blue line: TITLE-ABS-KEY ( “belt and road” OR “one belt one road” OR “new silk road” ). Search string for red line: TITLE-ABS-KEY ( “belt and road” OR “one belt one road” OR “new silk road” AND “environment*” OR “sustainab*” OR “ecologic*” ).

Originally posted at the COUPLED blog on August 5, 2020.

Critical scholars, transformationists, and cumulators – How the environmental governance research community engages the issue of policy relevance, and why we argue for a stronger role of knowledge cumulation

By Jens Newig & Michael Rose

Environmental governance research seems to struggle with its own position towards the science-society interface. For example, the issue of policy-relevance was intensively discussed during a panel at the Earth System Governance Conference in November 2018 on “How can the Earth System Governance community effectively contribute to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals?” At the panel, one group of participants – let’s call them the ‘critical scholars’ – suggested that in our diverse community, scholars may reject an instrumental view of science helping to “implement” the SDGs. In contrast, a second group – let’s call them the ‘transformationists’ – supported an activist view in which researchers should become agents of change towards sustainability (which is what has occasionally been termed transformative sustainability science).

A third group – let’s call them the ‘cumulators’ – argued that it is mainly through providing robust evidence on “what works where and how” that social-science research can support change towards sustainability. According to this view, environmental governance scholars should hold up their high (inner-)scientific standards but at the same time build knowledge that can inform policymaking and thereby facilitate sustainability. Some in the room voiced their frustration that policymakers hardly listen to environmental governance research, but rather to natural science research – even though the latter might be less policy-relevant. It was found that while policymakers are looking for evidence, social scientists are often either reluctant to even speak of evidence, or unable to produce it.

The panel in Utrecht seemed like a microcosm of environmental social-science research, with critical researchers, transformationists and cumulators voicing reasonable and legitimate positions and arguments. While we acknowledge and appreciate the community’s diversity of approaches and methods, we also see the fragmentation and incoherence of the field being a barrier when it comes to producing cumulative knowledge. Any scientific field that shows ‘progress’ in the sense of becoming better and better at understanding and explaining natural or social dynamics needs to be cumulative: new theories and empirical findings need to build on existing ones – either by challenging (‘falsifying’) existing research, by confirming it, or by adding nuances. By and large, environmental governance research appears to be hardly cumulating. And therefore, it seems to produce little reliable and knowledge on how and why what forms of governance help to achieve environmental sustainability.

And indeed, quite recently in the broader community of sustainability research, there appears a renewed, growing interest into how science and scholarship can produce cumulative knowledge (Pauliuk 2020); how research results – including qualitative data – can be synthesized to contribute to sustainability policy (Alexander et al. 2020); and how cumulative knowledge production in the field of environmental governance can be fostered through common research protocols (Cox et al. 2020).

In a new paper, we join these voices and venture to suggest a research reform agenda for environmental governance research (Newig and Rose 2020, open access). We discuss what knowledge cumulation means for environmental governance research, and what challenges it faces. We propose three concrete areas for reform:

  • First, we make a case for an agreed canon of concepts and definitions shared within the community, while being open to reinterpretations and novel concepts. This could ideally be realized, among others, through wiki-supported common dictionaries.
  • Second, we advocate the stronger use of comparative research approaches and meta-analytical methods such as the case survey methodology, or systematic reviews, to cumulate (published) case-based evidence – drawing on both ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ cases.
  • Third, we argue for a systematic recognition of the institutional, political, and social context of governance interventions. This becomes increasingly important to the extent that meta-analyses reveal general patterns and trends that nonetheless vary with context. Here, we elaborate on what constitutes a ‘case’ of a governance intervention as opposed to its ‘context’, and discuss challenges and opportunities of integrating published case-based insights with knowledge on the respective context (which is currently seldom done).

However, this seems only the beginning of what could be a decade-long journey which may take many different paths. We would therefore love to see a broad discussion on the ideas put forward here. Whether from critical scholars, transformationists, cumulators or any other colleagues in the field – any comments, critique and ideas on how to move forward are more than appreciated!

Cited literature

New European research network on sustainable water governance

*** Deadline for applications to PhD positions has been extended to May 24 ***

By Jens Newig

Ensuring access to clean water and the protection of healthy water ecosystems remain among the greatest challenges humankind is facing. The United Nation’s (2006) dictum that “the world water crisis is a crisis of governance – not one of scarcity” has become a modern proverb. Countless paradigms and approaches to water governance have been developed and (more or less fully) implemented across the globe (Huitema et al. 2009; Biswas and Tortajada 2010; Newig and Challies 2014). But have “Adaptive Water Governance”, “Integrated Water Resources Management” (IWRM) or “River Basin Governance” in fact been instrumental in furthering sustainable water management? Will we need new paradigms or merely better implementation of those existing ones? Or will water governance approaches just have to be better tailored to their respective biogeophysical, cultural and institutional contexts?

Such questions, among others, are at the heart of the European research network ‘NEWAVE (Next Water Governance)’ that has been launched early this year. NEWAVE is funded as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network (ITN) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research programme and brings together around a dozen European research groups plus international partners, together hosting 15 PhD projects that are to start later this year. The NEWAVE project, which is co-ordinated by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Prof. Jampel Dell’Angelo and Prof. Dave Huitema) “aims to point the way forward in the global debate about water governance. It does so by developing research and training for a new generation of future water governance leaders, and by equipping them with the transdisciplinary skills to better tackle water challenges” (NEWAVE website).

While the project will address a variety of different perspectives on water governance – such as water scarcity, the management of urban water demand, European water policy, participatory water governance, or the role of consultancy firms – it introduces a common heuristic framework, following the “3 Ps” logic of problématiques, paradigms and patterns of governance.

Problématiques: Rather than starting out with what governance does (or doesn’t), NEWAVE pursues a problem-oriented logic and begins by diagnosing and assessing the nature of existing and emerging water-related problems. This serves “to develop an understanding of the socio-hydrological conditions in which paradigms are diffused and governance approaches are tried out” (NEWAVE website). Water-related problématiques range from unresolved local pollution to globalized and “telecoupled” issues (which we address in the project GOVERNECT) such as virtual water trade. Here, governance has to cope with spatially and socially distant causes of local problems, for which there are often no governance approaches, let alone concrete rules and measures, available.

Paradigms: Given the current and emerging water-related problématiques, NEWAVE will study the grand discourses on how water governance should be designed, as manifested in certain water governance paradigms. This “allows to engage with the ideational underpinnings of water governance, making it possible to understand why proponents of certain approaches have come to accept and embrace them, why they propagate them, and how the global circulation of ideas about governance works” (NEWAVE website). The project will assess whether and to what extent paradigms (such as the ones listed above) have shaped concrete water governance arrangements, or whether they have remained largely symbolic.

Patterns of water governance: Ultimately, it is the governance arrangements, the concrete institutionalization of governance in its instruments and measures that is expected to yield more sustainable water management outcomes, addressing lurking, acute and imminent problems of scarcity and health of ecosystems. NEWAVE studies such patterns of governance to understand how they emerge and whether and how they deliver in terms of social and ecological sustainability. Which modes of governance have proven most effective in what contexts?

Through this common framework, NEWAVE aims at cumulative knowledge development. “NEWAVE will consistently advance state of the art procedures, produce actionable water governance science for sustainable development, and contribute to scientific excellence.” (NEWAVE website).

One PhD researcher (“ESR = early-stage researcher”) will be hosted by our research group at Leuphana University (see the job description here). She or he will contribute to generating both conceptual advances and robust empirical evidence on which approaches work in which contexts towards achieving sustainable water governance. To this end, the project will first review the literature on existing empirical studies on ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of water governance approaches (objective 1). Building on this, the project will seek to analytically dissect existing water governance institutions into ‘building blocks’ (objective 2). Ideally, all water governance institutions can be split up into a finite number of such building blocks. The further empirical analysis (objective 3) will then assess the performance of water governance institutions in selected countries by drawing on existing academic literature, document analysis and key expert interviews. Governance institutions will be analysed according to the building blocks they consist of, allowing to assess which combination of building blocks leads to sustainable outcomes (or not). Results will be discussed with leading experts and practitioners in the field in order to enhance usability and robustness of the research (objective 4).

Cited literature

Biswas, A.K. and C. Tortajada (2010) ‘Future Water Governance: Problems and Perspectives.’ International Journal of Water Resources Development 26 (2): 129-39.

Huitema, D., E. Mostert, W. Egas, S. Moellenkamp, C. Pahl-Wostl and R. Yalcin (2009) ‘Adaptive water governance: Assessing the institutional prescriptions of adaptive (co-)management from a governance perspective and defining a research agenda.’ Ecology and Society 14 (1).

Newig, J. and E. Challies (2014) Water, rivers and wetlands, in Routledge Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, ed. P.G. Harris. London, New York: Routledge: 439-52.