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.


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.


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)?


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. 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.


Communicating research results: A science Comic about the EU Water Framework Directive

By Nadine Schröder

In times of Covid-19, we may sit down even more often to read research papers for engaging in traditional scientific exchange of ideas through the written word. However, under time constraints and with the interest in fostering exchange between science and practice, other formats than traditional papers are helpful in opening a lively discussion. Here I want to share my experience in creating a science comic with you. I developed a science comic discussion paper titled “Trapped between barriers OR Flowing despite barriers?”. The comic visualizes the existing local barriers for the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive in six German states.

Comic_extract Blog Beitrag

After a workshop at IRI THESys in January 2019, I was interested in trying to create a scientific comic based on my Ph.D. research. What started as an experiment with an open-end, became an enriching experience. I worked together with the artist Nikhil Chaudhary, who I met nine times to discuss the scientific background of the story, develop the storyline, and gather ideas for the visualization. During these meetings we used rapid prototyping for visualizations. While I drafted the texts, Nikhil drafted the drawings. At the very end, Nikhil created the final artwork. The final steps towards the publication of the comic paper resembled the usual process of paper production.

The final drawing steps coincided with my plans to participate in a forum organized by nature conservationists on the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive. The idea of creating a German version of the comic to be presented as a poster to practitioners taking part in the forum was quickly realized. The comic fully unfolded its potential as a communication instrument. People could quickly read and grasp the content of my research, which provided a good basis for spontaneous discussions.

Creating this format transformed also my thinking regarding several of my findings. It highlighted the emotional aspects of the topic. In a traditional paper, these aspects would be shadowed by charts and tables, probably leading to a different weighting of the same facts. Yet, this visualization process may be an additional method for exploring data and gathering additional insights.
Anyway, a science comic, whether being a learning process, an analytical tool or a communication instrument, is a worthwhile format for science!

I hope, I sparkled your curiosity. The Coronavirus shutdown delayed the official publication by Humboldt University. However, you can already find the English and the German version of the comic, as well as the slides on the creation process presented at an IRI THESys lunch talk in January 2020, below and on my profile.

I would like to thank IRI THESys at Humboldt University, which provided the funding for the artistic work. And a big thanks to Nikhil, for this enriching cooperation!

comic_titlepage für Blog Beitrag

Schröder, N. J. S., Chaudhary, N. (2020). Trapped between barriers OR Flowing despite barriers? THESys Discussion Paper No. 2020-2. Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. Pp. 1-13.

Schröder, N. J. S., Chaudhary, N. (2020). WRRL-Umsetzungshürden: Unpassierbar oder durchgängig für Maßnahmenträger? THESys Discussion Paper No. 2020-1. Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. S. 1-13.

Lunch Talk presentation on creating a science comic on local barriers for WFD implementation in Germany 17.01.2020 at IRI THESys Humboldt University


Fully-funded PhD position on comparative water governance

We are now seeking to fill a 100% PhD position on “Assessing the sustainability of water governance systems in global comparison” within the Marie-Skłodowska-Curie ETN Graduate School ‘NEWAVE – New Water Governance’, starting between 1 May and 1 September 2020, for a duration of 36 months.

Deadline for applications (which originally was April 5) has been extended due to COVID-19 related delays to 24 May 2020!

Further information here, or visit the NEWAVE website.


Macro-Level Datasets for Sustainability Governance

By Michael Rose

Comparative politics scholars love macro data. To comparatively analyze all kinds of nation states and institutions, they build datasets on their characteristics. For example, there are several datasets and indices that help to assess and eventually measure democracies and autocracies worldwide, such as the Freedom House Index, Varieties of Democracy, The Economist’s Democracy Index, or the Polity Project. But data are systematically collected and made available to the research community far beyond democracy indices (see below).

In sustainability governance research, though, these kinds of databases are rarely used or developed. This is a pity, as comparative (macro) data could help to conduct mid- and large-n studies, account for important parts of context variance in comparative case studies, and thereby facilitate relating and cumulating knowledge.

The following list offers a selection of open access datasets used in political science that can be of great benefit for sustainability governance scholars. Feel free to post additional datasets in the comment section!

The Comparative Constitutions Project codes the world’s constitutions, including variables on the states’ polity (branches of government, formal institutions, election rules, federalism) and the constitutions’ issue areas, e.g. if and how the constitution refers to the environment and natural resources. Constitutional changes are tracked on a yearly basis (Elkins et al. 2019).

Polity IV accounts for democratic and authoritative regimes, including variables such as the central state authority, executive constraints, political participation, and transitions (Center for Systemic Peace 2019).

ParlGov provides data on parties, elections and cabinets for 37 western democracies (Döring and Manow 2019).

The Party Manifesto Project codes, inter alia, the party family of ecological parties and statements regarding environmental protection and sustainability in party manifestos (electoral programs) (Volkens et al. 2019).

World Values Survey and European Values Study include aggregatable information on the interviewee’s membership in environmental organizations, attitudes towards environmental care, participation in demonstrations for the environment, donating behavior towards ecological organizations, confidence in the environmental protection movement, and satisfaction with issues such as air quality, public transport, or water quality (Inglehart et al. 2019; European Value System Study Group et al. 2019).

The Sustainable Governance Indicators analyze the policy performance and governance capacities in EU and OECD countries. This includes environmental policies and outcomes (such as waste and GHG emissions), the participation in multilateral environmental agreements and evidence-based instruments such as sustainability checks (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2018; Schraad-Tischler et al. 2018).

The Environmental Performance Index analyses 24 performance indicators for 180 countries (Wendling et al. 2018).

And, of course, the statistics departments of international organizations such as the World Bank and the OECD provide many additional time-series data on key economic, social, environmental, government and development indicators (World Bank 2019; OECD 2019).

Moreover, in their Sustainable Development Report, the Bertelsmann Foundation and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network jointly track the SDG achievements of most of the world’s nations statistically (Sachs et al. 2019).

Cited literature

Bertelsmann Stiftung (2018): Sustainable Governance Indicators. Gütersloh. Available online at

Center for Systemic Peace (2019): Polity IV Project. Vienna (Virginia). Available online at, checked on 8/14/2019.

Döring, Holger; Manow, Philip (2019): Parliaments and governments database (ParlGov). Information on parties, elections and cabinets in modern democracies. Available online at, checked on 8/13/2019.

Elkins, Zachary; Ginsburg, Tom; Melton, James (2019): Comparative Constitutions Project. Informing constitutional design. Available online at

European Value System Study Group; Tilburg University; GESIS (2019): European Values Study. Tilburg, Mannheim. Available online at, checked on 8/13/2019.

Inglehart, R.; Haerpfer, C.; Moreno, A.; Welzel, C.; Kizilova, K.; Diez-Medrano, J. et al. (2019): World Values Survey. Edited by JD Systems Institute. Madrid. Available online at, checked on 8/13/2019.

OECD (2019): OECD.Stat. Paris. Available online at

Sachs, J.; Schmidt-Traub, G.; Kroll, C.; Lafortune, G.; Fuller, G. (2019): Sustainable Development Report 2019. Transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Edited by Bertelsmann Stiftung, Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). New York. Available online at

Schraad-Tischler, Daniel; Schiller, Christof; Hellmann, Thorsten; Lopes, Elisabeth Faria (2018): Policy Performance and Governance Capacities in the OECD and EU. Sustainable Governance Indicators 2018. Edited by Bertelsmann Stiftung. Gütersloh. Available online at, checked on 8/2/2019.

Volkens, Andrea; Krause, Werner; Lehmann, Pola; Matthieß, Theres; Merz, Nicolas; Regel, Sven; Weßels, Bernhard (2019): The Manifesto Data Collection. Manifesto Project (MRG/CMP/MARPOR). Edited by Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB). Berlin. Available online at, checked on 8/13/2019.

Wendling, Z. A.; Emerson, J. W.; Esty, D. C.; Levy, M. A.; Sherbinin, A. de; et al. (2018): 2018 Environmental Performance Index. Edited by Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. New Haven. Available online at

World Bank (2019): World Bank Open Data. Free and open access to global development data. Available online at

10 tips for future PhD students: What I have learned in my first year

By Johanna Coenen

A full year has passed since I started my PhD. Now it’s time to reflect on some experiences and lessons learned. Here are 10 practical tips, I would have liked to know from day one of my PhD journey. They can be useful for anybody currently doing a PhD or planning to do so.

1. Use a reference manager.
It’s obvious that doing a PhD requires a lot of reading. Yet, we easily lose track of what we have read in the past, or what we are planning to read in the future. Using a reference management software can support you in maintaining an overview of your literature. Personally, I use Mendeley. It forms the backbone of all my work. But many other reference management tools are available, such as Zotero, Citavi, or Endnote. The choice is yours.
A reference manager allows you to quickly add references to Word documents, but more importantly, you can save, group, tag, and annotate your literature. You can also share literature folders with colleagues. A particularly useful function is “watch folder”, which is an easy way to import new articles into your personal library.

2. Take notes.
This tip seems simple and self-evident. However, when searching the literature for particular information, we regularly come across concepts or definitions that we didn’t look for in the first place, but might find relevant for future work. For example, some articles provide a very good and precise overview of a certain field of literature. Other articles describe difficult concepts or methodologies very well. Or you find comprehensive figures or graphs. To remember valuable articles or text passages, set up a note-taking system that allows you to save these insights for later. Even though you might only use a fraction of all your notes, it can save valuable time when searching for relevant descriptions of theories, methods and cases. For this purpose, I started using Evernote, which works like a flashcard system or glossary. A simple notebook or other programs like OneNote might also do the job.
For example, I collected a multitude of different definitions of telecoupling or governance over time. Now I can always select the most appropriate one for presentations or texts. Taking notes simply protects you from the false assumption that “I will remember this argument or article later on”. If you’re like me and don’t have an extraordinary memory, make sure that you take notes on the wide variety of relevant concepts, theories, and ideas that you will discover during your PhD.

3. Use networks to get a general overview of the literature.
As a newcomer to the world of research, it is challenging to acquire a good overview of different streams of literature. Sometimes we search for influential scholars in a given field of research, and at other times, we try to understand how various research areas are connected.
A practical approach to addressing some of these questions can be the use of bibliometric analyses. Recently, I learned about a free and easy to use software that allows you to quickly construct bibliometric networks based on a Scopus search. You simply need to conduct a Scopus search with keywords of your choice, download the results in a CSV-file and import the file to the software called VosViewer. Examples from my research can be seen in two figures below. Within 15 minutes you will be able to better explore your field of research using network graphs.


Co-occurrence of keywords in telecoupling literature (based on 108 publications that use the term “telecoupling” in their title, abstract or keywords according to Scopus search conducted on October 2, 2019; minimum number of occurrences of a keyword is 3).TC_co-authorship_408
Co-authorship in telecoupling literature (based on 108 publications that use the term “telecoupling” in their title, abstract or keywords according to Scopus search conducted on October 2, 2019)

4. Set up email alerts for newly published literature.
How to keep track of articles published in your area of interest? One way is to make use of email alert services which will inform you about the publication of new literature on a regular basis. For example, you can set up email notifications in Google Scholar or Scopus for particular keywords, such as “telecoupling”, “sustainability”, or whatever topic or theory is of interest to you. This way, you ensure that you stay up do date about scholarly discussions and trends.

5. Ask your colleagues for newsletter recommendations.
We not only want to stay informed about newly published literature, we are also interested in staying up-to-date about the announcement of special issues, conferences, and workshops. In later phases of our PhD, we might be interested in jobs and funding opportunities. Since there are useful newsletters on these issues in any field of work, I recommend browsing the web or asking colleagues for recommendations regarding valuable newsletter subscriptions.

6. Make sure other people can find out what you are working on.
As PhDs, we usually sit quietly in our office and conduct research. In comparison to our supervisors and senior colleagues, we don’t have a well-established network and are not widely recognized for our work. Thus, it is very important that you create some visibility of your research activities to the world that lies outside your office door. You can either use the website of your research institution, ResearchGate, LinkedIn or any other channel to ensure that other people can get a glimpse of your research interests and can potentially connect with you, while Twitter is the preferred communication and announcement platform of many academics.

7. Keep track of how much you work.
It’s not a secret that many PhD students work (too) much. Sometimes I ask myself where all the time has gone. At other times, I leave the office with a bad conscience if I have not managed to finish my tasks as planned – either because I procrastinated, assumed ever new tasks, encountered unexpected difficulties, chatted too much with colleagues, or was trapped in long meetings. In order to keep track of time, I write down how many hours I work every day, and I summarize what I did that day in 3-4 keywords. It only takes a few minutes and the primary goal is not excessive self-maximization or self-control. Instead, it’s a simple way to help you recognize when your work-life balance is seriously upset. It also allows you to shut down your computer on a Friday evening without asking yourself all weekend long whether you should maybe finish some more tasks and duties.

8. Engage in peer-reviews and writing retreats.
I think one of the greatest learning resources are not dusty books or lengthy publications, but our peers and colleagues. They can provide highly valuable feedback. Exchanging manuscript drafts with other PhD students, who work on related topics, and commenting on each other’s work can be a very fruitful and inspiring exercise. Besides making use of peer-reviews, you can also draw on peer pressure to keep you focused and motivated during a writing retreat. Find a quiet location, close your email program, and immerse yourself in some productive hours of writing.

9. Attend PhD defenses.
At some point in time, we will hopefully all defend our dissertations. One way to prepare for that day is to attend other PhD defenses. These occasions provide a precious opportunity to learn how to structure and compose a coherent dissertation. In addition, you get to know what kind of questions are posed by the jury. After attending several defenses, you may realize that in your field, certain types of questions are posed at almost every defense.

10. Check these miscellaneous websites

  • We often try to visualize our data for presentations and publications, but don’t know which type of visualization works best for our particular purpose. On this website, you can explore examples of a wide range of different visualizations.
  • If you want to print a website without useless ads and junk, or save it as a PDF file, you can use Printfriendly.
  • ResearchGate is a widely used social network for researchers, which allows you to connect with other scientists, follow their activities and projects, and access publications.
  • If you’re not a native English speaker, you will probably find yourself constantly searching for correct formulations, and the right use of prepositions and adverbs. If you want to check how certain words or phrases are generally used, you can visit the website Linguee, which provides you not only with bilingual translations, but also with a list of examples how the word or phrase has been used in other (con-)texts.

Originally published at on 18 October 2019.

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 ( 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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