Operationalising Telecouplings for Solving Sustainability Challenges for Land Use

With increasing globalisation, actions in one part of the world can affect human and/or natural processes in other parts of the world. Local environmental change may no longer be the result of local activities only, but driven by changing policies, consumption patterns, or sourcing practices in distant locations. For example, the products we consume are often directly or indirectly connected to far away land-use changes such as deforestation in tropical regions. Scholars in the field of land systems science have started analysing such global connections through the concept of telecoupling. The telecoupling idea encourages a consideration of how specific environmental changes in one world region are linked to seemingly unconnected regions elsewhere through long-distance flows of raw materials and products, but also people, information, policies and capital.

Coupled logoCOUPLED aims to put the research approach of telecoupling into action for addressing sustainability challenges for land use. COUPLED is a European research and training network, comprising 15 doctoral students, their supervisors and several partner organizations from the public and private sector. COUPLED receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (2018-2021). The objective is to identify actors and processes that impact land use over long distances, as well as potential governance interventions to respond to interregionally-connected sustainability challenges.

In our research at Leuphana University, we focus on governance institutions for sustainability in globally telecoupled systems. We aim to identify key institutions, networks of actors and instruments deployed to govern for sustainability in an increasingly interconnected world, using the case of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is an ambitious effort to increase trans-continental connectivity and cooperation mainly through infrastructure investments and trade. This globally unprecedented initiative will facilitate telecoupled interactions as it accelerates flows of capital, labour, energy, materials, and economic activities across long distances.

The BRI creates complex new challenges and opportunities for environmental governance. First, new actor constellations emerge in BRI host countries to implement BRI projects, which may restructure the roles and responsibilities for environmental governance among local and foreign actors. Second, new international and transnational sustainability institutions have been established as part of China’s vision to build a “green Belt and Road”. Yet, it remains unknown to what extent the newly emerging institutions actually affect the sustainability of BRI projects on the ground. Third, increasing economic and political interactions may strengthen or weaken environmental standards and regulations in BRI countries competing for trade and investments (race to the top vs. race to the bottom). Additionally, policy changes in one BRI country may create new and unforeseen environmental challenges at distant locations due to growing interdependencies between BRI countries. For example, so-called policy-driven displacement effects or policy leakages may arise if tightening environmental regulations in one country (e.g. logging bans in China) lead to increasing resource extraction elsewhere (e.g. logging in Russia).

We conduct interviews and documentary research to chart networks of key actors and emerging environmental governance structures associated with the BRI. Our findings will likely contribute to a better understanding of effective governance interventions for increased sustainability in telecoupled systems.

Team at Leuphana University: Jens Newig, Edward Challies, Johanna Coenen

For details see


Cotta, B., Coenen, J., Challies, E., Newig J., Lenschow, A. & Schilling-Vacaflor, A. (2022 – in press). Environmental governance in globally telecoupled systems: Mapping the terrain towards an integrated research agenda. Earth System Governance. 13, 100142.

Coenen, J., Newig, J., & Meyfroidt, P. (2022 – in press). Environmental governance of a Belt and Road project in Montenegro – National agency and external influences. Land Use Policy119, 106136.  

Coenen, J., Bager, S., Meyfroidt, P., Newig, J., & Challies, E. (2021). Environmental Governance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Environmental Policy and Governance, 31(1), 3-17.