STS - conferences, IST2012

Font Size: 
Governance transitions: the emergence of a governance regime for sustainable biomass?
Mattijs Taanman

Last modified: 2012-03-22


This paper aims to describe and analyze the emergence and dynamics of global standards for sustainable biomass in relation to bio-energy by applying multi-level transition dynamics theory (De Haan & Rotmans, 2011). The goal of this paper is to better understand the mechanisms in this particular governance transition and to use these mechanisms to reflect on short- and medium-term developments that may result in a successful transition or, conversely, a backlash or early lock-in.

Starting point is the ’92 Rio Summit where the failure to reach international consensus on sustainable forestry policies led to the initiation of the Forest Stewardship Council, in which NGOs and companies created a voluntary ‘frontrunner’ standard. In response to FSC, companies created their own standards. This paper describes these developments in terms of an interaction between (1) ‘frontrunner standards’ as new niches that emerge and scale up, (2) voluntary private-lead standards and changing regulation representing processes of regime adaptation, and (3) new (inter-) national legislation as macro-level interventions.  These multi-level interactions can also be seen for other sustainable biomass standards surrounding bio-energy, palm oil, coffee, etc.

On the one hand, self-reinforcing interactions between these niche, regime and landscape level developments may ratchet up sustainability norms and promote wide-spread diffusion. On the other hand, these interactions can negatively influence each other, thereby actually hampering the emergence of an effective governance regime for sustainable biomass.

Using transition theory as an analytical framework this paper reinterprets existing empirical studies on sustainable biomass governance in forestry, coffee and bio-energy from the period 1992-2010 to make an inventory of these interaction patterns. These patterns include a competition for legitimacy, learning processes about (un)intended consequences of standards, and institutionalization. Based on this inventory and some 25 interviews with scientists, companies, and policymakers about the future of biomass governance conducted in 2011, we speculate about medium term developments in sustainable biomass governance. These speculations may be used to inform policy advice and/or to monitor the governance dynamics.

References: De Haan, J. and J. Rotmans (2011), “Patterns in transitions: Understanding complex chains of change”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 78, Issue 1, pp 90-102