Regional Environmental Governance

Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Theoretical Issues, Comparative Designs


Geneva, June 16-18, 2010

Background and Rationale

The REGov workshop is designed to foster constructive encounters and fruitful exchange between scientists and practitioners with an active interest in the environmental dimensions of regional governance.

The idea behind the workshop arises from two concerns. The practical concern stems from growing unease with mounting transaction costs of global regimes and creeping "global convention fatigue" that are producing a shift in the locus, impetus, implementation, and innovation to regional levels. The theoretical concern stems from the observation that studies of regional politics are currently expanding beyond traditional preoccupations with economic integration and security cooperation.

At the interface between these two concerns, important theoretical and practical questions emerge with respect to the emergence and manifestation of regions from the perspective of the environment; the evolution, desirability, effectiveness, and efficiency of regional environmental governance; relationships within, among, and beyond regions in multi-level arrangements; and the repercussions of regional environmental governance for democratic legitimacy, accountability, and transparency.

Workshop Format

The workshop is organized around six themes brought together by three cross-cutting issues. The themes and cross-cutting issues will be addressed in thematic plenary sessions on the one hand, and four open panels in two parallel sessions on the other.

Contributions to thematic plenary sessions will be made by invited participants. A call for papers to be presented on the open panels runs until February 15.

These workshop elements are further complemented by an inaugural public lecture and a concluding roundtable discussion.

Thematic plenary sessions
  1. What is a region?
  2. Regions in multi-level governance
  3. Regional economic dynamics and the environment
  4. Regional security and the environment
  5. New environmental regionalism
  6. Environmental regionalization, democracy, and civil society
Cross-cutting issues
  1. Power and the politics of scale
  2. Effectiveness and efficiency
  3. Democracy, Justice, and Ethics

Invited participants will be asked to prepare a twenty-minute presentation that consists of a set of reflections on the panel theme (drawing on practical and scientific experiences and, ideally, including a regional comparison) and thoughts on the corresponding relevance and implications of the three cross-cutting issues. This format emphasizes the interactive purpose of the workshop; maximizes systematic contemplation on the current state and future of regional environmental governance; and integrates interdisciplinary and practitioner perspectives.

Theme 1: What is a region?

The objective of this conceptual theme is to generate contributions that problematize the term “region” from different disciplines. Whereas the traditional regionalist literature has uncritically assumed regions to be collections of states (mainly in international relations) or transnational areas promoted by sub-national entities (mainly in political geography), a new generation of scholars, many of them inspired by Anderson's concept of “imagined communities” (1991), has begun to examine the social processes and technologies through which “regions” come into existence, obtain political, socio-economic, and cultural-symbolic salience, and thereby assume agency and identity of their own. This trend has been most pronounced among students of international environmental politics and political geography, two fields that have long been familiar with border-transcending processes and critical of state-centered spatial logics (O'Neill et al. 2004), and constructivist security scholars. VanDeveer (2004), for instance, has compared the role of different regional scientific assessments in the stabilization of regional meanings for policy making, while Hemmer and Katzenstein (2002) have analyzed the role of regional identity in the emergence of security regimes in Europe and Asia. Furthermore, both political scientists and political geographers have shown a keen theoretical and empirical interest in the ways different actors combine spatial information with new technologies (such as geographic information systems) for the purpose of region-building. These and other contributions have shown that regions are always a product of social processes and as such do not always coincide with traditional political-administrative boundaries. Such disjunctures in turn raises important crosscutting issues concerning subnational sovereignty and transboundary democratic legitimacy.

Theme 2: Regions in multi-level governance

Governance structures for the environment can be found on a multiplicity of levels - global, regional, national and local regimes, norms, and regulatory mechanisms are linked into a complex institutional architecture. An important debate in global environmental politics has therefore arisen with regard to the advantages and disadvantages of an increasing fragmentation of environmental governance structures (Biermann & Bauer 2005; Vogel 1997). This second workshop theme will contribute to ongoing research by forging a better understanding of the role of regions in vertically and horizontally linking different governance levels. Theoretically relevant in this regard is the link between regime effectiveness and the ‘fit’ and ‘scale’ of environmental regimes as suggested by Oran Young (2002). Another perspective has been offered by game-theoretic and economic analyses that assess the effectiveness of different “climate coalitions” working as complementary building blocs to the global climate change regime (Eycksman & Finus 2007; Sugiyama & Sinton 2005). Analogies could further be drawn from discussions about security and economic integration at the regional level, where regions have been perceived as either “stumbling blocks” or “building blocks” to global free trade and world peace. Scholars from different disciplines will thus be asked to contribute to a comparative discussion of the implications of fragmentation and multi-level approaches for global environmental governance.

Theme 3: Regional economic dynamics and the environment

This conceptual theme seeks to redress the neglect of environmental dimensions in the academic literature on regions, which has been dominated by studies of economic integration (and security, see Theme 4). This omission is partly surprising, since scholars of the European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and international cooperation more generally have long addressed the linkages, contradictions, and complementarities between economic and environmental regimes (e.g. Neumayer 2004, Winham 2003), albeit through single case studies rather than from a comparative perspective. While new regionalist manifestos pay lip service to the environment (e.g. Väyrynen 2003), the academic literature on regions has largely failed to incorporate relevant conceptual and empirical cues, a lacuna illustrated by the narrow topical scope of recent reviews of regionalism in Geopolitics (2007) and Review of International Studies (2009). The objective of this workshop theme is thus to revisit key premises in the IR literature on regions from the perspective of environmental governance and examine new regional economic instruments for environmental governance. A second and equally important objective is to explore new topics, including how economic dynamics related to commodity production cycles generates new regions, such as for oil or coffee. These two objectives give rise to three types of comparative studies. The first type compares actors, institutions, processes, and implications with regard to environmental considerations of regional economic integration initiatives. The second type compares regionally tailored economic arrangements explicitly designed to support environmental governance, especially regional carbon trading systems such as the European Union Emission Trading Scheme. The third type considers new economic regionalism in the form of commodity regions.

Theme 4: Regional security and the environment

Alongside regional economic integration, security cooperation has been the central theme of most regionalist IR literature. What has been conspicuously absent is a link to the literature on ‘environmental security’ in general (Homer-Dixon 1999), as well as recent variants such as environmental peace-making (Conca & Dabelko 2002). This is despite the fact that across disciplines and arenas (both academic and political) increased attention has been paid to the link between threats to environmental sustainability and questions of security throughout the past decade (Diehl & Gleditsch 2000; Deudney 1990). In response to this gap, this research theme will parallel Theme 3 and revisit key premises of the regional security literature from the perspective of environmental concerns and compare the environment-security nexus across different regions and/or specific issues. In identifying authors and soliciting contributions, particular emphasis will be paid to representation of the different sides in current debates, for instance between those who focus on the regional (and global) conflict potential of accelerating environmental problems such as drought and sea water rise, and those who see environmental degradation as an opportunity for enhanced cooperation and conflict prevention and management. A third type of perspectives will compare how established and new collective regional security arrangements (e.g. Southern Africa) cope with the effects of the regional ecological interdependencies with regard to water-sharing, biodiversity loss, or land degradation.

Theme 5: New environmental regionalism

Increasing awareness of the spatial variability of global environmental change is highlighting new commonalities of established regions such as the European Alps or the Antarctic, and creating the potential for the emergence of new environmental regions such as coastal deltas and island systems. Many scholars have suggested that such ‘ecoregions’ are essential for understanding the barriers to - and the means to facilitate – environmental governance because they constitute the areas within which the causes of global change are generated and where the most serious impacts of this change are actually felt (Feldman & Wilt 1999). The focus of this research theme is on instances of what may be referred to as “new environmental regionalism,” that is the institutionalization of environmental governance at the ecoregional scale. Several such initiatives have been in existence for some time, including the European Union Water Framework Directive's river basin emphasis, the Alpine Convention, and regional maritime agreements such as for the Baltic Sea, yet many have either received very little scholarly attention or have been addressed solely as single case studies. The types of contributions to be solicited for this theme will consider the emergence, dynamics, achievements, and links to local and global environmental agreements from a comparative perspective.

Theme 6: Environmental regionalization, democracy, and civil society

Although the emergence, institutionalization, and evolution of environmental regions draw heavily on ecological dynamics and technical knowledge, environmental regionalization is inextricably tied to cultural developments and political processes (Fall 2005). Environmental regions such as mountain ranges or river basins have to become part of public imagination and debate, which involves the use of symbolic, material, and organizational tools and techniques. For this reason, the degree of legitimacy attached to environmental regionalization is linked to its unfolding through democratic institutions. This presents special challenges in transboundary regions, where the sovereign reach of democratic governance usually stops at a country’s borders, even in relatively integrated polities such as the European Union. In many such places, civil society organizations have been successful in bridging political frontiers and promoting environmental goals (Debarbieux & Rudaz 2008), yet often at the expense of democratic accountability and legitimacy (Allen & Cochrane 2007). The contributions to this workshop panel address the thorny theoretical and practical issues that arise from these tensions, as well as cases that illustrate how civil society actors have negotiated them.

Cross-cutting issue 1: Power and the politics of scale

Power in all its varied forms is a central aspect of cooperation, competition, and negotiation surrounding environmental politics. Since regions always exist at the interface of the more global and the more local, regional advocates are perennially entangled in the politics of scale. Although regional dynamics are often analyzed in terms of networks, rather than traditional hierarchies, asymmetries in access to knowledge, resources, and decision making arenas play a significant role in determining what constitutes an environmental problem, at what scale it should be addressed, what actors have regional standing, and what solutions can be proposed.

Cross-cutting issue 2: Effectiveness and Efficiency

The effectiveness and efficiency of cooperation within environmental regimes has been one of the most important themes in environmental research across the social sciences (Bernauer 1995; O'Neill et al. 2004). Questions should hence be asked in each of the empirical studies about the effectiveness of institutions for regional environmental governance as such but also about their role in bringing about effective and efficient outcomes with regard to global environmental challenges. This cross-cutting issue is specifically, though not exclusively addressed to regional environmental governance practitioners.

Cross-cutting issue 3: Democracy, Justice and Ethics

The third cross-cutting theme of the workshop concerns questions of democracy, justice and ethics. Researchers in global environmental governance have frequently discussed these issues with a view to the distribution of responsibilities for bringing about solutions to environmental challenges. Within the global climate change regime, but also in other areas, the norm of “shared but differentiated responsibilities,” for instance, has become an important benchmark. Moreover, with the inclusion of actors beyond the (democratic) state into institutions of environmental governance, questions about democratic accountability, transparency and legitimacy have been raised. With this in mind, participants are encouraged to discuss what (and whose) definition of environmental justice and accountability can be applied at the regional level, whether or not the regional level is suited to provide for equitable solutions to environmental challenges, and what implications for democratic legitimacy regional approaches entail. Special attention will also be paid to the involvement (and the representativeness) of local people, non-governmental organizations, and other actors for whom regions are the locus of collective action and whose motives include the development of regional and environmental identities.

Panel discussion "Scale in Multilevel Governance"

On the afternoon of the June 16, Working Group 2 on “Multilevel Governance” of the COST Action IS0802 “The Transformation of Global Environmental Governance” (TGEG) will sponsor a panel discussion on the topic of "Scale in Multilevel Governance" (see program).

The meeting is intended as a collective brainstorming exercise on the meaning, importance, and usefulness of the concept of scale to better understand global environmental governance today. Speakers and participants will confront different disciplinary approaches to scale and discuss the potential added value of this concept in the context of multilevel environmental governance. The discussion seeks to address:

  1. the respective relevance of ‘scale’ and ‘level’ in multilevel governance;
  2. the relation of scale and other spatial categories (place/space, local/global);
  3. the spatial dimensions of the transformations of statehood;
  4. the social (political) construction of scale and the (re-)scaling of multilevel environmental governance; and
  5. the benefits of scale for the global environmental governance scientific discourse.

For further information, contact Prof. Daniel Compagnon (d.compagnon at


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