Environmental Governance

Hands holding Globe

The Environmental Governance group is a vibrant international team of about 50 researchers at Utrecht University. The group forms one of the four departments of the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, one of the world’s leading research institutes in sustainability science.

Our research programme contributes to both sustainability science and policy development by offering novel and policy-relevant insights into the functioning of governance arrangements at local, regional, national and global levels. The programme revolves around a matrix structure that links three analytical themes with six focus areas. The three analytical themes cut across the six focus areas, covering (a) institutional design and effectiveness, (b) normative evaluation, and (c) transformative change. The six focus areas form the core of our empirical research, and are an integral part of our policy engagement and education activities. In all our activities, we seek to combine theoretical advancement and empirical-analytical research designs with normative critique and prescriptive, policy design-oriented recommendations.


Analytical Themes

Modes of Governance: Institutional Design and Effectiveness

Our first analytical theme, cutting through all our work, is the inquiry into different institutional designs and modes of governance, and the resulting variation in governance performance. In short, this theme addresses our long-standing theoretical and empirical concern of “what works where, when, and why”.

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Sustainability policies are pursued through a multitude of different modes of governance. Such modes vary between traditional top-down steering to self-regulation of business organizations. Some modes are more and others are less successful in fulfilling their policy objectives. In the mainstream literature it is often claimed that progress towards sustainable development calls for collaborative and deliberative governance arrangements, which should rely for instance on stakeholder participation and innovative partnerships among multiple actors and across policy levels. Such arrangements are seen as necessary to deal with the complex, multi-scale, cross-sectoral and long-term dimensions of sustainable development – especially if compared with more hierarchical arrangements. However, our research has revealed that in some sectors and in some instances there is still a central role for hierarchical or centralized approaches, for instance in situations of urgency or extreme events or concerning the protection of vulnerable actors or important societal values. What is needed seems to be rather a context-specific mixture of centralized governance, decentralized governance, public-private governance, interactive governance, and self-governance. Yet what works when and why, is still a pivotal question that motivates all our research efforts.

Given our interest in different modes of governance that range from centralized state-led governance to private-sector self-governance, we include in our research designs a wide spectrum of political actors. For example, we are engaged in research projects that study the interface of science and policy, from the analysis of global research institutions to the study of science-policy interaction around the Wadden Sea. We are also interested in the comparative analysis of private, public-private and public modes of governance, for example in the study of the governance of international trade and corporate sustainability practices, and the analysis of the effectiveness of private-sector stewardship councils, voluntary sustainability standards and roundtables of civil society actors. Moreover, our research covers novel governance arrangements at the local level, especially with a view to modern urban governance. Our research agenda extends also to the global level, with a number of projects that investigate the effectiveness of international treaty regimes, the emergence and performance of the UN-led Sustainable Development Goals, various institutions in global climate governance, and the reform of the entire system of global governance and the United Nations.

Within this extensive research focus that ranges from local to global, we also seek to explore key crosscutting processes of modern governance. For example, we investigate the relevance of legalization in global governance, and compare the effects of legal versus non-legal approaches in sustainability policies. We are also interested in analysing scaling policies, for instance regarding how low-carbon urban practices can be scaled up and mainstreamed. Moreover, we have a long-standing interest in studying environmental policy integration, and lead a global research network in this field. Last but not least, we are interested in the analysis of framing processes in sustainability governance.

The Normative Foundations of Governance: Social Justice and Democratic Legitimacy

Our second analytical theme, again cutting across all our activities, is the investigation of the normative foundations of sustainability governance. This research line analyses various normative questions, especially concerning social justice and democratic legitimacy, both theoretically (e.g., what is just under certain theoretical presumptions?) and empirically (what do actors see as just under certain circumstances?).

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We are interested here in three main areas of normative inquiry. First, we study the legitimacy, accountability, transparency, and hence democratic quality of governance arrangements. We analyse such questions at the local and national level, for instance with a view to assessing the normative foundations of Dutch flood risk management. Yet we are also interested in the exploration of global democracy, for example in our research on the democratization of international institutions and organizations. Second, we are researching problems of inequality in sustainability policies at local, national, and global levels, with a focus both on normative theories of justice and on empirical assessments of inequalities and of processes that lead to such inequalities (and here with a special concern for the global poor). Thirdly, our normative research addresses the status of environmental values as such, especially when it comes to questions of ecological integrity, the precautionary principle, and possible norm hierarchies that may be needed to give prime of place to considerations of planetary well-being and stability.

The Transformation of Governance and the Governance of Societal Transformations

The two analytical themes of institutional design and modes of governance, on the one hand, and normative considerations of social justice and democratic legitimacy, on the other, lead to an overarching concern – and hence our third analytical theme – of global transformation. Our analytical concern for transformation is twofold: it covers both the governance of societal transformations towards a more sustainable world and the transformation of governance that is needed to achieve this far-reaching aim. This analytical theme hence bundles our long-standing interest in governance transformation, and at the same time draws on our strong interest in future studies.

Overall, the sustainability challenges of the 21st century cannot be addressed by the theoretical frameworks of the 20th century. Yet what novel theoretical framework can provide conceptual meaning and scholarly guidance for the fundamental problems of our time? To address these questions, our group is continuously engaged in theoretical debates, with leading contributions to conceptual innovations such as “earth system governance”, “Anthropocene”, “transformation science”, and “sustainability science”. In all these conceptual debates at global level in which we participate, our contributions combine insights from our three analytical themes of the modes of governance and institutional performance, the normative foundations of governance, and the eventual transformation of governance arrangements and societal development trajectories.

Focus Areas

To analyse these three analytical themes, we have structured our research in six focus areas that concentrate on different levels and empirical domains of governance. Three of the six areas address particular scales of governance, namely global governance, urban governance, and regional governance. The three other areas address sectors of governance, namely climate mitigation and adaptation governance, water governance, and the governance of transitions towards sustainable economies.

These areas are all complementary, and are well integrated into our overall strategy and the three broader analytical themes that run through all our research activities. Interlinkages among the focus areas – for example between water and urban governance, or between global and regional governance – are a central part of our research agenda as well. To increase overall integration, we review and discuss all areas in plenary twice a year. The focus areas also help our work to be societally highly relevant by contributing to the key policy debates of our time. Moreover, all focus areas are closely embedded into global and national funding contexts, and motivate parts of our teaching programmes as well, for instance concerning the theoretical and empirical clustering of graduate student work. All faculty members are involved in co-leading one or several areas, and all doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers are part of at least one area.

Global Sustainability Governance

This focus area addresses the global level of governance, from intergovernmental institutions and organizations to transnational arrangements initiated by corporations and civil society organizations. We examine options for a reform of the United Nations and multilateral institutions, global adaptation governance, the emergence and implementation of the UN-led Sustainable Development Goals, the science-policy interface at the global level, global justice, and conceptual innovations such as the notion of the Anthropocene. One prominent recent activity is the Planetary Justice initiative that brings together researchers around normative concerns of inequality, disempowerment and dispossession. The focus area is co-directed by Professor Frank Biermann, Dr Agni Kalfagianni, and Dr Rakhyun Kim.

Sustainable Urban Development

Every second person lives today in cities. This global urbanization entails numerous sustainability challenges: air pollution, mobility, social and environmental inequality, and increased risks of flooding. Yet it also offers unique possibilities for solutions. The density of the city makes it a perfect location for low carbon mobility, innovative energy solutions, compact urban development, and the promotion of sustainable lifestyles. At the same time, the “urban footprint” on the countryside enlarges as well. Our work on sustainable urban development thus specializes in governance arrangements that enable urban places and their hinterland to develop more sustainably; to use smart decision support tools; to implement new and existing solutions; to balance the urban-rural natural resource nexus; and to adapt to the challenges of the future. The focus area is co-led by Professor Peter Driessen, Professor Hens Runhaar, and Dr Bettina Blümling.

Regional Socio-ecological Systems

This focus area studies socio-ecological systems at the regional level. It is often believed that collectively governing common pool resources – such as forests, groundwater basins or fisheries – is problematic. In practice, however, there are many cases of resource users self-organizing in managing their common-pool resource sustainably, and we study the circumstances under which this can occur and the implications that this has for policy design. Our work on regional governance includes detailed attention to specific countries, in particular China and African countries, the latter in particular with regards to food security. This focus area is co-led by Dr Frank van Laerhoven, Dr Bettina Blümling, Dr Ariella Helfgott, Dr Joost Vervoort, Professor Frank Biermann, and Professor Hens Runhaar.

Climate Governance

This focus area investigates to what extent the policy field of climate adaptation and mitigation requires new, alternative modes of governance, and how the responsibilities are then divided between public and private actors. We analyse and evaluate emerging climate-related governance arrangements for numerous crucial concerns and sectors, such as low carbon development, the integration of climate adaptation and mitigation into urban planning, and climate-change impacts on water safety and storage. We also develop a new research line that critically assesses emerging discourses on “climate engineering”. The focus area is co-led by Professor Hens Runhaar, Professor Peter Driessen, Professor Frank Biermann, Dr Dries Hegger, and Dr Frank van Laerhoven.

Water Governance

Growing and changing patterns in human consumption, agricultural expansion and industrialization challenge the availability and quality of our water resources. At the same time, climate change is expected to increase the risks of droughts and major floods. These multilevel, multi-sector and multi-actor challenges are studied in our research on water governance in an integrated manner that includes aspects of resilience, adaptability and transformability of social-ecological systems. Empirically, we focus on the implementation of the EU Water Framework and Flood Directives and the European Innovation Partnership on Water, and also contribute to the OECD Water Governance Programme. Concrete research topics include the ways in which water managers deal with uncertainties or the role of the science-policy interface in governing scarce water resources in urbanized deltas (such as in Bangladesh and Vietnam). The focus area is co-led by Professor Peter Driessen, Professor Kees van Leeuwen, Dr Carel Dieperink, and Dr Dries Hegger.

Governance of Sustainable Economies

During the last decades, progress towards eco-efficiency, renewable energy deployment, zero-emission systems, and radical technological transitions has proven to be both feasible and economically viable. Yet society-wide implementation of such strategies in various world regions is still lacking. Our research studies here effective corporate sustainability strategies for businesses, sustainable entrepreneurship of new start-up’s, and small-scale sustainable energy initiatives and analyses what forms of self-governance are applied, what impacts they have, and what the optimal roles are for industry, civil society and government. This focus area intensely cooperates with the Innovation Studies group of the Copernicus Institute, and is co-directed by Professor Peter Driessen, Dr Walter Vermeulen, Dr Carel Dieperink, and Dr Joost Vervoort.

Leading International Networks

The Environmental Governance group is closely embedded in international research networks, often in a leading function. Among others, Professor Biermann is the founding chair of the Earth System Governance Project, the world’s largest research network in the field of sustainability governance to date. Three assistant professors of our group – Drs Kalfagianni, Kim and Vervoort – have been elected to the “New Directions” group of the Earth System Governance Project, which is now developing the new science programme for the next decade. Furthermore, Dr Vermeulen has been serving for long as president of the International Sustainable Development Research Society, a global network of scholars in this domain. Our group also plays an active role in the International Association for the Study of the Commons, and in many other professional networks. At European level, our group is also well represented, notably with Professor Driessen’s prominent role in the Governing Board of JPI Climate, where he co-chaired the working group “Societal Transformations and Governance”, and with many EU-funded programmes led by our team members, for instance the STAR-FLOOD project chaired by Driessen. The international outlook and global embeddedness of our group is reflected in staff composition, owing to our competitive international recruitment strategies, with team members hailing from Australia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Indonesia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, and Vietnam.

Yet despite our strong international leadership position, we are also intensely integrated in national debates and research contexts, as evidenced for instance by Professor Driessen’s role as scientific director of the internationally acclaimed Dutch research programme “Knowledge for Climate”, and Professor Biermann’s former long-standing service as director-general of the Netherlands Research School for Socio-economic and Natural Sciences of the Environment (SENSE), a nation-wide network of over 600 affiliated PhD students.