Regional agreements in international environmental politics

  • Jörg Balsiger
  • Miriam Prys
Original Paper


Global agreements to mitigate climate change, conserve biodiversity, or combat desertification typically take center stage in scholarly discussions about international environmental politics. Even though the United Nations Environment Programme reported 10 years ago that regional agreements make up two-thirds of all international treaties, regional cooperation has by comparison either received scant attention or been conceptually and empirically lumped together with global treaties. This lack of knowledge about the historical and current scope of regional governance is a serious obstacle to understanding the architecture of global environmental governance and to overcoming current bottlenecks in international environmental cooperation. In response, we report on the outcome of a descriptive analysis that complements the most comprehensive database on international environmental agreements ( with variables for analysis at the regional level. We introduce a multidimensional typology of regional agreements based on contiguous/noncontiguous agreement membership, contiguous/noncontiguous spatial ambit, and whether membership and ambit are adjoining and/or coextensive. We discuss the theoretical and empirical relevance of the different types of agreements and the nature and prevalence of special cases. Given the previous lack of research in this area, our primary purpose is to present a systematic account of regional environmental governance, leaving causal analysis to our own and others’ future research. Our analysis, nevertheless, helps us to identify a number of knowledge gaps and analytical directions in the conclusion.


Regional cooperation Environmental politics Typology of international cooperation Membership Spatial ambit Contiguity Coextension 



The authors would like to thank Ron Mitchell for providing support with the underlying data for the present analysis, and Ron Mitchell, Stacy VanDeveer, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on the manuscript. Special thanks go to Niko Steinhoff and Elisa Wege, research assistants at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), for assisting with coding and validating the data. The authors further thank GIGA for its support for this initiative and the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation for its financial support to the COST Action IS 0802 project “Ecoregional Territorialization: Rescaling Environmental Governance.”


  1. Acharya, A., & Johnston, A. I. (2007). Crafting cooperation: Regional integration institutions in comparative perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Agarwal, A., & Narain, S. (1995). Global warming in an unequal world: A case of environmental colonialism. In K. Conca, M. Alberty, & G. D. Dabelko (Eds.), Green planet blues: Environmental politics from Stockholm to Rio (pp. 150–154). Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  3. Allen, J., & Cochrane, A. (2007). Beyond the territorial fix: Regional assemblages, politics and power. Regional Studies, 41(9), 1161–1175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Asheim, G. B., Froyn, C. B., Hovi, J., & Menz, F. C. (2006). Regional versus global cooperation for climate control. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 51(1), 93–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ayoob, M. (1999). from regional system to regional society: Exploring key variables in the construction of regional order. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 53(3), 247–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Balsiger, J., & Debarbieux, B. (Eds.) (2011). Regional environmental governance: Interdisciplinary perspectives, theoretical issues, comparative designs. In Procediasocial and behavioral sciences, Vol. 14, pp. 1–8. Google Scholar
  7. Balsiger, J., & VanDeveer, S. D. (2010). Regional governance and environmental problems. In R. Denemark, et al. (Eds.), The International Studies Compendium Project (pp. 6179–6200). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  8. Balsiger, J., & VanDeveer, S. D. (2012). Navigating regional environmental governance. Global Environmental Politics, 12(3), 1–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Biermann, F., Pattberg, P., van Asselt, H., & Zelli, F. (2009). The fragmentation of global governance architectures: A framework for analysis. Global Environmental Politics, 9(4), 14–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bodansky, D. (2010). The art and craft of international environmental law. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Breitmeier, H., Young, O., & Zürn, M. (2006). Analyzing international environmental regimes: From case study to database. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  12. Breslin, S., & Elliott, L. (Eds.). (2011). Comparative environmental regionalism. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Breslin, S., Hughes, C. W., Phillips, N., & Rosamund, B. (Eds.). (2002). New regionalisms in the global political economy. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Brinks, D., & Coppedge, M. (2006). Diffusion is no illusion: Neighbor emulation in the third wave of democracy. Comparative Political Studies, 39(4), 463–489.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Buzan, B., & Waever, O. (2003). Regions and powers: The structure of international security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cantori, L. J., & Spiegel, S. L. (1970). The international politics of regions. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  17. Chester, C. C. (2006). Conservation across borders: Biodiversity in an interdependent world. Washington, DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
  18. Conca, K. (2006). Governing water: Contentious transnational politics and global institution building. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  19. Conca, K. (2012). The rise of the region in global environmental politics. Global Environmental Politics, 12(3), 127–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. De Lombaerde, P., Söderbaum, F., Van Langenhove, L., & Baert, F. (2010). The problem of comparison in comparative regionalism. Review of International Studies, 36, 731–753.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Deutsch, K. W. (1954). Political community at the international level. Problems of definition and measurement. New York: Archon Books.Google Scholar
  22. Esty, D. C. (1999). Toward Optimal Environmental Governance, Faculty Scholarship Series, Paper 440. Accessed 22 May 2013.
  23. Fawn, R. (2009). “Regions” and their study: Where from, what for and whereto? Review of International Studies, 35, 5–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Haas, P. M. (1990). Saving the Mediterranean: The politics of international environmental cooperation. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Halle, M. (2012). Life After Rio: A Commentary by Mark Halle, IISD. Accessed 22 May 2013.
  26. Hettne, B., & Söderbaum, F. (2002). Theorising the rise of regionness. In S. Breslin, C. W. Hughes, N. Phillips, & B. Rosamund (Eds.), New regionalisms in the global political economy (pp. 33–47). London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hurrell, A. (1995). Regionalism in theoretical perspective. In L. Fawcett & A. Hurrell (Eds.), Regionalism in world politics: Regional organizations and international order (pp. 37–73). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Hurrell, A. (2005). The regional dimension in international relations theory. In M. Farell, B. Hettne, & L. Van Langenhove (Eds.), Global politics of regionalism: Theory and practice (pp. 38–53). London/Ann Arbor: Pluto Press.Google Scholar
  29. Hurrell, A. (2007). One world? Many worlds? The place of regions in the study of international society. International Affairs, 83(1), 127–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lipschutz, R. (1999). Bioregionalism, civil society and global environmental governance. In M. V. McGinnis (Ed.), Bioregionalism (pp. 101–120). London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  31. Mitchell, R. B. (2002–2013). International Environmental Agreements Database Project (Version 2010.3).
  32. Mitchell, R. B. (2010). International politics and the environment. London and Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  33. Murphy, A. B. (1991). Regions as social constructs: The gap between theory and practice. Progress in Human Geography, 15(1), 22–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Neumann, I. B. (1994). A region-building approach to Northern Europe. Review of International Studies, 20(1), 53–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Neumann, I. B. (1999). Uses of the other: “The East” in European identity formation. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Nye, J. S. (1968). Comparative regional integration: Concept and measurement. International Organization, 22(4), 855–880.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. O’Neill, K. (2009). The environment and international relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Oberthür, S., & Gehring, T. (2006). Institutional interaction in global environmental governance. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  39. Ostrom, E. (2012). Polycentric systems for coping with collective action and global environmental change. Global Environmental Change, 20(4), 550–557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Prys, M. (2010). Hegemony, domination, detachment: Differences in regional powerhood. International Studies Review, 12(4), 479–504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Söderbaum, F. (2005). Exploring the links between micro-regionalism and macro-regionalism. In M. Farell, B. Hettne, & L. Van Langenhove (Eds.), Global politics of regionalism: Theory and practice (pp. 87–103). London/Ann Arbor: Pluto Press.Google Scholar
  42. UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) (2001). International environmental governance: Multilateral environmental agreements. Report of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Group of Ministers or their Representatives on International Environmental Governance. New York: United Nations.Google Scholar
  43. van Asselt, H. (2007). Dealing with the fragmentation of global climate governance. Legal and political approaches in interplay management. Global Governance Working Paper No. 30. Amsterdam: The Global Governance Project.Google Scholar
  44. Warleigh-Lack, A. (2008). Studying regionalisation comparatively: A conceptual framework. In A. Cooper, C. Hughes, & P. de Lombaerde (Eds.), Regionalisation and global governance (pp. 43–60). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Young, O. R. (1980). International regimes: Problems of concept formation. World Politics, 32(3), 331–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geography and EnvironmentUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland
  2. 2.Institute for Environmental SciencesUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland
  3. 3.German Institute of Global and Area StudiesHamburgGermany

Personalised recommendations