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.

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