What is governance of global telecoupling?

By Jens Newig

Telecoupling challenges notions of environmental governance

Recently, a concept has been gaining ground in the academic discourse that is challenging our notions of environmental governance. This concept, which has emerged from global land systems research, is termed ‘telecoupling’ (see Friis et al. 2016). Roughly, telecoupling means that human-induced processes in one part of the globe impact in a certain way on a distant part (or parts) of the world. Another term for this is ‘global inter-regional connectedness’. What makes telecoupling a relevant concept is that it allows for the description of flows between globally distant places in a common language, and to problematise how these flows impact e.g. on the environment or local livelihoods. One example of telecoupling is that of commodity chains such as the soy chain between Brazil and Germany. Brazilian soy is fuelling German meat production, causing surplus nitrate accumulation in Germany, and tropical deforestation in Brazil (Lenschow et al. 2016). Other examples are the shipping of electronic waste from Europe to Africa, which contaminates local environments and jeopardises the health of communities. Or migrants from Nepal, working in the United Arab Emirates, who through remittances induce land-use change in Nepal (cited in Eakin et al. 2014). In principle, such global linkages have been described in the literature for quite a while. However, the new concept of telecoupling allows researchers to view these linkages through a common ‘systemic’ lens.

Why should telecoupling challenge our thinking on environmental governance? Well, currently scholars on environmental governance have been thinking either in terms of:

  • existing governance arrangements, such as global treaties – how they come about, and how they help to solve environmental problems; or
  • governance processes, such as participatory, networked or collaborative governance, and how this may benefit the environment; or
  • governance structures, such as multi-level or polycentric governance – and, again, how these my benefit the environment; or, finally,
  • particular classes of environmental problems, such as transboundary pollution, and how they can be tackled through bilateral or multilateral action.

From a slightly different angle, there is an established literature on global commodity chains. As commodity chains typically comprise private companies, there is also a literature on the private governance of such chains (Bernstein and Cashore 2012), as well as a critical literature on how individual consumers through their choices can help alleviate sustainability issues in distant places, or how generally transnational corporations should be more strongly regulated (Dauvergne and Lister 2010).

But what all these established literatures have seldom done is to address the particular sustainability problems caused by telecoupled linkages from a wider governance perspective. Only recently are we witnessing the emergence of a literature addressing the governance of telecoupling in particular (Challies et al. 2014; Eakin et al. 2017; Lenschow et al. 2016; Oberlack et al. 2018; Liu et al. 2018). Most contributions to this literature are developing from within the global land change research community.

Different understandings of governance

In two funded research projects (GOVERNECT and COUPLED), colleagues and I are working to apply a governance lens to telecoupled phenomena. Through this, we seek to link ‘established’ governance concepts with recent developments from within the land change community. Earlier this year I was at a highly inspiring workshop on “Governance in Telecoupled Land Systems” in Berne, Switzerland (mainly organized by Christoph Oberlack, as well as by Andrea Lenschow, Jonas Nielsen, Cecilie Friis, Julie Zähringer, and myself). Christoph did a brilliant job in bringing together researchers from several countries and research traditions in an effort to come to grips with the issues of governing global telecoupling. As is often the case when different research perspectives meet, understandings of what constitutes ‘governance’ in – or of – telecoupling, varied quite a bit, which is one of the outcomes of the Berne workshop.

Let’s take as an example the study by Hamilton-Hart (2015) on the governance of palm oil production.  Palm oil is a prime example of telecoupling because of the complex and long-distance commodity chain, the patterns of migrant workers involved, and the immense environmental and sustainability issues induced mainly in the producing region. The author observes that “[m]arket demand has driven the expansion of the palm oil industry in South-East Asia, but the industry could not have developed without a complex set of governance institutions and authoritative interventions. These institutions and interventions … involve both public and private actors. Together, they have developed a palm oil industry that is, in significant ways, regionalised. In contrast, regional cooperation to govern the negative externalities associated with palm oil production is at a very low level. The institutions that provide a degree of regulatory governance are largely transnational, often private, and very limited in their ability to constrain negative social, economic and environmental impacts. … [T]he failures of regulatory governance are rooted in the successes of the facilitating governance framework that has supported palm oil development.” (Hamilton-Hart 2015: 179, emphasis added).

What we can learn from this example is that two very different kinds of governance regimes are at work: One which has been facilitating the telecoupled system in the first place, and one which the author refers to as ‘regulatory governance’, aiming “to govern the negative externalities associated with palm oil production” (but which in this case is not delivering particularly well). Adding to this, governance which facilitates telecoupling may also be unintentional in this respect. For example, European Union Renewable Energy Directive, demanding a 10% share of biofuel in gasoline, has been driving unsustainable land use change in distant regions (Eakin et al. 2014).

To complicate matters, there is yet another kind of governance often mentioned in the literature describing telecoupled commodity chains or value chains (see, e.g. Gereffi et al. 2005; Challies 2008). This essentially refers to how chain actors (private companies, mostly) co-ordinate in order to maintain an effective functioning of a value chain – for example, whether and how chain relations are producer-driven, or co-ordinated in a network-like manner. In short, this kind of governance refers to how the telecoupled chain is maintained and organised from within.

Towards a typology of governance related to telecoupling

Taken together, we can hence distinguish three different types of governance related to telecoupling. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these ‘telecoupling governance’ types 1, 2, and 3.

  • In type 1, governance induces telecoupling. State-based or other governance interventions create the regulatory framework that enables a telecoupled phenomenon to develop. In the above-mentioned case, such governance interventions enabled the development of a palm-oil producing industry in SE-Asia, with all its negative externalities. Likewise, regional governance (e.g. EU biofuel policy) may show unsustainable sideffects in distant parts of the world. Type 1 telecoupling governance thus often creates unsustainability.
  • In type 2, governance co-ordinates telecoupled flows. Commodity or value chains are governed by (private) chain actors. Insofar as the telecoupled chain causes sustainability problems, governance of this type serves to maintain these problems. However, such within chain governance is increasingly paying attention to adverse sustainability effects, and how they might be alleviated by these very chain actors (Bush et al. 2015).
  • In type 3, finally, governance directs telecoupling towards sustainability. Or at least, it attempts to do so. Governance here seeks leverage points to ‘solve’ the sustainability problems created by telecoupling in either of the connected regions, or in spillover regions (Liu et al. 2018). This refers to state-based environmental governance, possibly including private and civic actors, as well as to non-state actor and multi-stakeholder initiatives (Lenschow et al. 2016).

These three types are ordered in a logical sequence of creating and facilitating telecoupling (type 1), maintaining and co-ordinating telecoupled chains (type 2), and alleviating the negative consequences of telecoupling (type 3). However, this order does not imply strict temporality. For example, chain governance (type 2) may have already started when state authorities consolidate an enabling regulatory framework (type 1).

From a sustainability governance perspective, type 3 may appear most relevant. Numerous forms of governance arrangements fall under this category. To name just a few, these include state policies such as financial aid, compensation payments, technological co-operation, trade barriers or mandatory product labelling; impact assessments and permitting procedures in producing regions; bi- or multilateral trade agreements, international conventions, as well as multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil. Having said that, governance of type 2 is gaining importance for sustainability as private actors increasingly recognize their responsibility in alleviating adverse effects of their economic activity. Accordingly, recent papers on the topic have addressed the problems and potentials of governing chains towards sustainability, for example regarding coffee (Donovan and Poole 2014) or rubber (Dwyer and Vongvisouk 2017).

Ultimately, type 1 governance may bear the greatest potential for sustainability improvements. Rather than going by a ‘cleaning up’ mechanism (as type 3 governance may suggest), adverse effects of telecoupling should ideally be considered in advance. However, the mere application of a pecautionary principle, as it is well established in many more regionally-based institutions of environmental governance, is certainly easier said than done for complex telecoupled settings. Systematically incoporating considerations on telecoupling effects in major impact assessment procedures could be a start.

I thank my colleagues in the GOVERNECT project – Andrea Lenschow, Ed Challies, Benedetta Cotta and Almut Schilling-Vacaflor – for valuable comments.


Cited literature

Bernstein, S. and B. Cashore (2012) ‘Complex global governance and domestic policies: Four pathways of influence.’ International Affairs 88 (3): 585-604.

Bush, S.R., P. Oosterveer, M. Bailey and A.P.J. Mol (2015) ‘Sustainability governance of chains and networks: a review and future outlook.’ Journal of Cleaner Production 107: 8-19.

Challies, E., J. Newig and A. Lenschow (2014) ‘What role for social–ecological systems research in governing global teleconnections?’ Global Environmental Change 27: 32-40.

Dauvergne, P. and J. Lister (2010) ‘The Power of Big Box Retail in Global Environmental Governance: Bringing Commodity Chains Back into IR.’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39 (1): 145-60.

Donovan, J., and N. Poole (2014). Changing asset endowments and smallholder participation in higher value markets: evidence from certified coffee producers in Nicaragua. Food Policy, 44, 1-13.

Dwyer, M., and T. Vongvisouk (2017). The long land grab: market-assisted enclosure on the China-Lao rubber frontier. Territory, Politics, Governance, 1-19.

Eakin, H., R. DeFries, S. Kerr, E.F. Lambin, J. Liu, P.J. Marcotullio, P. Messerli, A. Reenberg, X. Rueda, S.R. Swaffield, B. Wicke and K. Zimmerer (2014) Significance of Telecoupling for Exploration of Land-Use Change, in Rethinking Global Land Use in an Urban Era, eds. K.C. Seto and A. Reenberg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 141-61.

Eakin, H., X. Rueda and A. Mahanti (2017) ‘Transforming governance in telecoupled food systems.’ Ecology and Society 22 (4): 32.

Friis, C., J.Ø. Nielsen, I. Otero, H. Haberl, J. Niewöhner and P. Hostert (2016) ‘From teleconnection to telecoupling: taking stock of an emerging framework in land system science.’ Journal of Land Use Science 11 (2): 131-53.

Gereffi, G., J. Humphrey and T. Sturgeon (2005). The governance of global value chains. Review of International Political Economy, 12(1), 78-104.

Hamilton-Hart, N. (2015) ‘Multilevel (mis)governance of palm oil production.’ Australian Journal of International Affairs 69: 164-84.

Lenschow, A., J. Newig and E. Challies (2016) ‘Globalization’s limits to the environmental state? Integrating telecoupling into global environmental governance.’ Environmental Politics 25 (1): 136-59.

Liu, J., Y. Dou, M. Batistella, E. Challies, T. Connor, C. Friis, J.D.A. Millington, E. Parish, C.L. Romulo, R.F.B. Silva, H. Triezenberg, H. Yang, Z. Zhao, K.S. Zimmerer, F. Huettmann, M.L. Treglia, Z. Basher, M.G. Chung, A. Herzberger, A. Lenschow, A. Mechiche-Alami, J. Newig, J. Roche and J. Sun (2018) ‘Spillover systems in a telecoupled Anthropocene: typology, methods, and governance for global sustainability.’ Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 33: 58-69.

Oberlack, C., S. Boillat, S. Brönnimann, J.-D. Gerber, A. Heinimann, C. Ifejika Speranza, P. Messerli, S. Rist and U. Wiesmann (2018) ‘Polycentric governance in telecoupled resource systems.’ Ecology and Society 23 (1): 16.

New project: Governance of global telecoupling – and two open post-doc positions

By Jens Newig

In recent years, more and more research has been pointing to the importance of distant connections of natural and social processes for issues of global unsustainability. Land-use scientist have labelled this phenomenon, which might entail global commodity chains, migration, or the spread of diseases, “telecoupling”. While there have been substantive advances in describing the flows and the associated implications for environmental sustainability, we know little about how to govern such telecoupled global linkages.

Our new project, which is jointly led by Andrea Lenschow from Osnabrück University, Edward Challies and myself, will investigate how state, private and non-governmental actors have sought to govern the (un)sustainability implications of telecoupling in the past; what (polycentric) policy-networks have emerged in doing so; and, together with key state and non-state actors we will map out scenarios for more effectivley governing global telecoupling for environmental sustainability.

We’ve already published two papers on this (see below), which seek to contribute to a conceptual framework.

For deepening conceptual work and conducting empirical case studies, we will be employing two full-time post-docs for three years. The job ad can be downloaded here.

Funding: German Research Foundation.

> More information on the project GOVERNECT.


Challies, E., Newig, J., & Lenschow, A. (2014). What role for social-ecological systems research in governing global teleconnections?. Global Environmental Change : Human and Policy Dimensions, 27, 32-40. 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.04.015

Lenschow, A., Newig, J., & Challies, E. (2016). Globalization’s limits to the environmental state? Integrating telecoupling into global environmental governance. Environmental Politics, 25(1), 136-159. doi:10.1080/09644016.2015.1074384. [Free Open Access Content]