Category Archives: Sustainable Development

New publication: Promises and Risks of Non-state Action

The More Engagement the Better?  – Risks of Non-State Action in Sustainability and Climate governance

Article full text link (open access):

Although sustainable development and climate change are governed through separate international processes, they converge on two key assumptions. First, governments fall far short of the goals they set. Second, wide gaps between political commitments and governmental action can be narrowed through efforts by non-state actors, such as businesses, investors, civil society organizations, cities and regions. Encouraged by prominent leaders such as US President Barack Obama and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Christiana Figueres, international organizations and governments are leading large-scale efforts to promote and mobilize non-state actions. These efforts are based on recurring optimistic arguments, such as: the more action, the better; everybody wins from non-state action; every actor can do its part in implementation; and, action by one will inspire others to take action.

Optimistic arguments about non-state engagement, however, may not be matched in practice due to governance risks. The current emphasis focus on quantifiable impacts may lead to the under-appreciation of social, economic, and environmental impacts that are less easy to measure. Claims that everybody stands to benefit may easily be contradicted by outcomes that are not in line with priorities and needs of developing countries. Despite the broad acceptance of the role of non-state actors in implementation, their actions may still lead to controversial outcomes. Finally, non-state climate action may not be self-reinforcing, but heavily depend on policies by international organizations and governments. Governments and international organizations should consider governance risk-reduction strategies to maximize the potential contributions of non-state actors in sustainable and climate-resilient development. First, they should create enabling environment that provide incentives to engage, for instance through improving access to knowledge, high-level recognition, material and immaterial support, and by conveying that climate and sustainability action is possible and doable. Second, non-state action needs to be grounded in national and regional contexts; particular attention should be given to strengthening capabilities of, and fostering participation by, developing country-based actors. Third, far-reaching transformations cannot be achieved without critical masses of engagement, therefore the challenge is to stimulate action beyond ‘champions’ and frontrunners. Especially governments need to bring to focus the ramifications of the sustainable and climate-resilient futures they have committed to and give non-state actors a fair chance to adapt.

How the relation between non-state action and more traditional governance will evolve remains to be seen. This relation may develop differently across sustainable development and climate governance. However, maximizing non-state potential will take supportive environments which reduce risks and bolster momentum for transformative actions.

How radical is the Green Economy?

In 2012 the UN Conference on Sustainable Development presented the Green Economy is a strategic development concept and vehicle for realizing sustainability and for eradicating poverty. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) defines the green economy as an economy that results in ‘improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities’ (UNEP 2011, p. 2) .  For scholars the Green Economy concept poses multiple challenges. With researchers from different backgrounds taking part in the discussion, interdisciplinary communication and collaboration, for instance between social and natural scientists, becomes key. Morover, the Green Economy poses a trans-disiciplinary challenge for science policy-interactions as it needs to be operationalized bot in academia and in society.
In our latest publication in Environmental Values, we engaged young researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds in a deliberative space to better understand the predominant framings and interpretations of the Green Economy among young scholars. The research question is: How do young scholars percieved the Green Economy, the need for societal change, the potential for the Green Economy to realize such change, and the role of research in promoting this change.
Using a qualitative and participatory research approach, We identified a bottom line of crucial values that are generally shared by the respondents, including a common recognition of the need to address interlinked ecological and social problems, and the need for research to be independent, provide options, guidance and solutions to policy-making. We observed disparate and divergent opinions concerning the Green Economy and its potential to genuinely further sustainable development. We also identified a broad spectrum of opinions regarding the degree and nature of needed societal change and the role of research in the field of Green Economy. We captured these dimensions in a four-quadrant model that includes four different ideological positions of researchers: Radical evolutionist, Pragmatic evolutionist, Radical revolutionary and Pragmatic revolutionary. The Green Economy is not perceived as a particularly revolutionary concept, rather it is understood to incrementally improve the current economic and institutional system. Most of the participants, however, were positioned in the pragmatic revolutionist quadrant; they aspire to a more fundamental systemic change through adopting pragmatic approaches.

The recorded exercise in this study can prove useful in visualising the theoretical landscape across which researchers in the field of the Green Economy move. This article is meant as a moment of self-reflection on the meaning of research itself, and its role in contributing to deliver visions, strategies and instruments towards a more environmentally-committed, just and equitable society – for which the Green Economy appears to be only a partial solution.

D’Amato, D., Droste, N., Chan, S.,  Hofer, A. (2017) “Green economy researchers: between revolution and pragmatism.” Environmental Values. Vol. 26 (4): 413–435. doi: 10.3197/096327117X14976900137331
For a full .pdf of our latest publication, please do not hesitate to contact me.