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Gendering the European Parliament

Governance at a Distance: Conceptualising the Political Drivers of Telecoupling

Environmental Policy
Johanna Coenen
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Johanna Coenen
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Jens Newig
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg

Interactions and interdependencies between distant places are increasing in a globalising world. Today, many local ecological or social problems cannot be understood without considering distant drivers. Human impacts on the environment no longer have only local – or, at most regional – reach, but they are stretching across national borders, affecting distal regions and global scale processes. In particular land- and natural resource-based production systems are affected by many extra-local connections due to trade, knowledge, capital and labour flows between distant places, as well as wider institutional structures within which these systems are embedded. This phenomenon is referred to as ‘telecoupling’.

The increasing speed and intensity of global interconnectedness poses a considerable challenge for governance as the causes and effects of socioeconomic and environmental changes are beyond the control of single jurisdictions or actors. While research on global environmental governance focuses on how public, private and hybrid governance arrangements can respond to contemporary and future environmental challenges of global scale, little is known about how governance facilitates the development of unsustainable interactions between human and biophysical systems across large geographic distances.

In this article, we examine the political drivers of telecoupling and thereby make a conceptual contribution to the emerging research field on the environmental governance of inter-regional connectedness. We demonstrate that governance is not only a problem-solving, but also a problem-inducing process. Public policy changes in one country may have direct and indirect social, environmental and economic consequences in distant places, also referred to as policy spillovers. Changes in public policies can induce fast changes in telecoupled flows because they can respond relatively quickly to socioeconomic and environmental pressures within the governance system. In contrast, slowly evolving policy paradigms and international institutions can create stable and favourable conditions for telecouplings to develop. Moreover, political factors also determine the susceptibility of countries to become involved in telecoupled production and consumption patterns.

We use the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as an example to demonstrate how important political and economic drivers of sustainability issues are geographically remote from the local impacts. The BRI is expected to create win-win outcomes by helping China to deal with its industrial overcapacity and rising demand for energy and natural resources, while also fostering economic development in the countries along the BRI. However, the initiative has been criticized for creating new environmental risks across the entire Eurasian continent, especially in countries with high environmental vulnerabilities and limited governance capacities. The BRI creates or intensifies telecoupled flows of finance, knowledge, labour, technology and natural resources between China and its BRI partner countries.

A better understanding of the political drivers of telecoupling will help to anticipate cross-border and cross-sector impacts of governance changes, and allow to pro-actively govern potential negative impacts of telecoupling.
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