Innovations in International Environmental Policy: A study of international organisations and policy change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Politics


Despite more than two decades of sustainable development policy, many indicators of environmental quality continue to decline. The purpose of this project is to understand how international sustainability policies are changing in response to these conditions.

With the aim of reconciling economic development and environmental sustainability, some policy actors have adopted new concepts and strategies such as ‘green growth’ and ‘green economy’. But there are other competing and overlapping understandings of the environment-economy nexus captured in such terms as inclusive wealth, de-growth, steady-state economy, and buen vivir. This project will assess innovations in international environmental policy in terms of:

  • how they are informed by these multiple understandings

  • the degree to which these innovations have brought policy into line with the conditions necessary to prevent further environmental degradation.


International organisations frequently take a leadership role in advancing new sustainability concepts and strategies; therefore, these organisations are the focus of this study. Methodologically, this is an interpretivist, case study-based project informed by three methods:

  • Q methodology

  • document analysis

  • semi-structured interviews with international civil servants and stakeholders.





Planned Impact

The project is intended to benefit those who are actively engaged in formulating, promoting, and influencing policies for reconciling economic development and environmental sustainability. This includes both policy-makers (national and international) and civil society. The Pathways to Impact outlines my strategies for ensuring that these actors have opportunities to benefit from the research. Specific policy-oriented beneficiaries will include:

The case study organisations: Global Green Growth Institute; United Nations Environment Programme; United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific; and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Each of these organisations is promoting green growth and green economy initiatives.

European Union, which is presently implementing its ten-year growth strategy, Europe 2020, in which 'sustainable growth' is a core pillar. The 'green economy' is also a concept that the EU has made considerable effort to advance in the international arena, though with mixed success as witnessed at Rio+20.

The UK Government, which, having committed to being the greenest ever, has released a roadmap for a transition to a green economy ('Enabling the Transition to a Green Economy: government and business working together').

UN intergovernmental group on Sustainable Development Goals, which will be established by late 2012 to begin developing and negotiating the SDGs.

Potential civil society beneficiaries are widely dispersed and often organised into loose networks of social movements and activist groups. There are groups at local, national, and global scales that aim to influence international environmental policy and maximise its ecological integrity. These range from highly professionalised and well-resourced organisations, such as WWF and Greenpeace, to decentralised grassroots movements, such as the de-growth movement and La Via Campesina. The Pathways to Impact details strategies for engaging with these actors in the forums in which they frequent converge for debate and coordination.

The desired impact is conceptual and instrumental. Greater clarity of the multiple ways in which the environment-economy nexus is understood will enable more fruitful public and policy debate, including between decision-makers and civil society. There has been resistance to fixing the meaning of concepts such as 'green economy', but if the international community is to maintain flexibility in operationalising such concepts then it is important to have a clear idea of the meanings that are attached to the concepts. The discourse analysis part of this project will advance conceptual clarity. The project has also been designed for instrumental impact. Ample evidence exists to suggest that decision-making among like-minded individuals negatively affects the quality of decisions. Illustrative are the findings of the IMF's Independent Evaluation Office study of the IMF's failure to anticipate the global financial crisis. A high degree of 'groupthink' was a key factor, hence the recommendation to 'create an environment that encourages candour and considers dissenting views' (IEO 2011). Given the high stakes of reconciling economic development and environmental sustainability, international organisations should learn from these mistakes. Enhanced clarity on the range and character of different interpretations of the environment-economy nexus would enable greater inclusivity in discussion and decision-making. Organisations would further be able to avoid 'groupthink' by understanding their internal discursive constitution, i,e., the range of perspectives represented within the organisation.

Instrumental impact is also desired among civil society beneficiaries, whose practices would be strengthened by a greater understanding of how normative critique is received and which forms of critical engagement are considered most effective and appropriate.


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Description 1. Through a combination of interpretive and statistical analysis, I identified the main points of agreement and disagreement in international debates about pursuing economic development under conditions of environmental degradation. This was a bilingual study of English and Spanish material, which I published as a research paper in Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning. The findings also informed the design of a workshop for diverse members of academia, civil society, and governmental institutions to move beyond their 'informational cocoons'/"echo chambers" and engage with those who understand the problem differently.

2. This project has opened up a research agenda on the importance of epistemic diversity in international policy-making. It became apparent that the theoretical basis of the research required significant work to underpin my own empirical work, and to stimulate further research on epistemic diversity in international policy-making. The theoretical component of the project became much more significant than initially anticipated, and led to the publication of a theoretical paper (12,500 words) in International Studies Quarterly, one of the most prestigious generalist journals in the discipline of International Relations. This article develops a solid account of why including diverse perspectives in international policy-making has instrumental merit (i.e., it leads to better outcomes). Until now the literature has focused on the moral reasons for inclusion and diversity. Empirically, I focused my analysis on the World Bank to develop insights into how political institutions deal with epistemic diversity when revising sustainability strategies. Based on extensive document analysis and over 40 semi-structured interviews with current and former Bank staff I developed an understanding of the factors that shape the Bank's 'reflexive capacity', which I define as the capacity to listen to diverse voices and realign practices and policies with new knowledge and insights.

3. This research catalysed an international research collaboration, comprising eight researchers in the UK, Canada, and Australia, to more deeply examine how diverse and contested ideas of valuing nature affect environmental policy-making. I am leading this collaboration with a grant from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (€800,000). This project was directly influenced by my ESRC-funded research. My bilingual study (above) revealed that questions about whether and how to value nature constitute a significant axis of contention in debates about sustainability. Also, it became apparent that developing deeper insights into how political institutions deal with and learn from contested understandings of sustainability would require a team of researchers focusing on one aspect of sustainability debates.

4. I wrote a 300-page textbook on global environmental politics, focusing on diverse conceptualisations of environmental problems; and how these conceptualisations provide different lenses through which to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of political responses to environmental degradation. The manuscript has received strong reviews at various stages of production, and will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.
Exploitation Route In my judgment, the research findings and agenda that have emerged from this project have primarily an academic interest. During the final year of my project I held a workshop bringing together members of academia, civil society, and political institutions. The participants held different understandings of how to pursue development under conditions of continuing environmental degradation. This workshop, combined with my empirical research, confirmed the immense challenges of maximising epistemic diversity in policy-making. There is very strong theoretical support for doing so, but it remains unclear how this can be achieved in practice. I hope that further research will develop new insights on this problem.
Sectors Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other