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Research Profile

Environmental Leadership and Policy Diffusion

It is a common understanding in contemporary political and academic debates that globalization reduces the autonomy and influence of the state. Yet, many comparative studies on national and international environmental governance contradict this assumption. This very contradiction is at the center of the research conducted at the FFU on environmental pioneer states and policy diffusion. In many cases the increasing international mobility of capital, goods, and services as well as the activities of a rising number of international and transnational, governmental and non-governmental institutions, organizations, and actors do not impair but even expand the state’s autonomy and influence in environmental governance.

Most comparative studies of national environmental governance have found little empirical evidence for the “race-to-the-bottom” theory that stems from debates about globalization and posits that international regulatory competition results in a systematic lowering of environmental policies and the emergence of “pollution havens.” In contrast, despite increasing international competition, there is evidence for a “race-to-the-top,” a continuing and systematic tightening of environmental policy measures. The reason is the influence of environmental pioneer states that pursue national and international environmental policy approaches that go well beyond the efforts of other states.  Indeed, political globalization appears to facilitate international processes of emulation and learning. The voluntary adoption of environmental policies from pioneer states—at times due to the interventions and communications of international and transnational institutions and actors—increasingly shapes the evolution of public environmental governance. Policy diffusion, in other words, contributes significantly to the emergence of international regulatory patterns even in the absence of legally binding international agreements.

The initial emphasis of FFU research in this area was on identifying conditions for the development within states of successful environmental policy programs. This was followed by research into questions related to the capacities of states to protect the environment, which in turn focused our attention on states that act as pioneers. The FFU has examined questions pertaining to the factors that allow some states to take on a pioneering role. The methodologies used for this research have included both qualitative, comparative case studies and quantitative statistical modelling and regression analysis.

The following questions constitute the current focus of this research area:

  • What explains the pioneering behaviour of the state in national and international environmental governance in an era of political and economic globalization?
  • Can statistical models help in understanding pioneering behaviour of the state in national and international environmental governance and, if yes, on the basis of which theoretical assumptions and concepts in political science?
  • What is the role and influence of policy transfer and policy diffusion in the evolution of domestic and international environmental governance as well as in the emergence of international regulatory patterns in the absence of any legally binding international agreements?
  • To what extent and how can international imitation, emulation, and learning be successfully exploited as a complementary governance mechanism in international or global environmental policy?

The research is thus at the intersection of national, international and global environmental governance. It is also at the intersection of Comparative Politics and International Relations as it involves cross-national policy analyses in an era of political and economic globalization. Insights that may arise from this research will contribute to the ongoing academic debates about the impacts of economic and political globalization on the autonomy and influence of the state in national, international, and global governance or the role of policy diffusion in the international system. The research findings will also be used to advise policy makers about how to improve national capacities for protecting the environment and exploit policy diffusion as a mechanism in international environmental governance.