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Editor's note: The following piece by Dr. Jens Newig, Professor of Governance and Sustainability at Leuphana University Lüneburg, first appeared on the Sustainability Governance blog.
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:
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.
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.
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