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Envipolcon - Environmental Governance in Europe: The Impact of International Institutions and Trade on Policy Convergence


It is commonly accepted among social scientists that over time, policy ideas, concepts and instruments tend to converge across national borders and political systems. In the context of environmental policy, striking similarities in the development of national, European and international mechanisms of protection of the environment are observed.

Examples of such similarities can be found in the creation of government agencies for environmental protection and the recent introduction of energy taxes.

The objective of Envipolcon was to investigate the degree of environmental policy convergence across 24 countries and to identify the drivers of such processes. More specifically, the project team studied the economic and institutional factors influencing environmental governance in Europe.

Work undertaken

The five project partners collaborating in Envipolcon focused their research efforts on 21 European countries, Japan, Mexico and the United States. In all, 40 environmental policies were analysed, at four points in time: 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000. The study was not restricted to the extent and the direction of policy convergence, but also explained the driving factors behind policy harmonisation.

The project team analysed three mechanisms, broadly corresponding to the three theories of policy convergence prediction. These theories are based on the assumption that national governments are the main actors of policy change:

  • international harmonisation, linked to the theories of international cooperation;
  • transnational communication, associated to theories of crossnational policy learning;
  • regulatory competition, linked to the homonymous theory.

The convergence measurement process applied by Envipolcon was divided into two stages. The first step was dedicated to the collection of data relating to the adoption, instruments used and values relating to environmental policies. This step enabled researchers to identify the similarities of policies among the various countries. The second methodology stage was devoted to the development of two innovative concepts of measurement: the ‘pair approach’ and the ‘gap approach’.

According to Envipolcon partners, ‘traditional’ measurements can only assess four types of convergence:

  • sigma-convergence — analysing growing similarities among countries, and measured as decreased variation of domestic policies;
  • beta-convergence — assessed on the basis of the relative changes in countries’ policies at different points in time;
  • gamma-convergence — comparing country rankings over time;
  • delta-convergence — assessing the policy distance of each country towards an exemplary model.

The innovative pair approach was used to measure the degree of convergence on the basis of a comparison of country pairs for each policy, and allowed for the inclusion of nominal data such as the existence of policy instruments. As for the gap approach, it was used for comparing the evolution of the distance between each country and the benchmark country with the best environmental policy record. The gap measurement assessed the direction of the convergence in relation to a reference country. The combination of these two approaches enabled the Envipolcon team to accurately identify the degree and direction of environmental policy convergence in Europe.

Key outcomes / conclusions

Envipolcon reached two important conclusions. On the one hand — and despite some variations in time, policy characteristics, instruments and country groups — environmental policies have tended to converge and harmonise in the studied country group, over the last 30 years. On the other hand, project partners also found an upward shift in the level of environmental protection standards, thus dismissing some researchers’ fears of a ‘race to the bottom’.

It appeared from the project results that convergence owed more to international harmonisation and transnational communication than to regulatory competition. Mechanisms such as cooperation and binding international rules are equally important in the process of convergence and surpass economic competition in explaining the development and alignment of environmental policies.

The most important conclusion of the Envipolcon project is that globalisation is the main driver of environmental protection. Globalisation leads to reinforced and stricter environmental standards and not to the weakening of protection policies. Communication between countries also facilitates cross-national policy learning, as each country looks at others and at their practices, to learn from successful policy developments and to avoid falling behind. The exchange of perceptions and solutions with regards to environmental problems triggers better protection mechanisms.

In this context of information exchange, the project team found that ‘environmental leaders’ have the ability to pull along the countries with the least developed environment protection policies and tools. Such effect is obtained simply via communication and exchanges, rather than legally binding agreements, although these agreements also imply an adjustment and alignment of policies ‘from the top’.

However, Envipolcon points that although countries with least developed policies have a strong interest in enhancing their international environmental reputation, they are sometimes tempted to relinquish the control over the implementation of the new standards. The project team suggests this pitfall can be avoided by the creation of international control structures but points out that domestic environmental pressure groups can act as watchdogs and push for the effective implementation of such standards.

The innovative approach taken by the Envipolcon consortium to study environmental policy convergence in Europe has identified trends and issues and suggested solutions, which can not only be applied to environment protection policies but also to other areas where convergence can be observed.


The dissemination of Envipolcon project results was achieved via a wide range of methods. The project website ( Verwiss/knill/projekte/envipolcon/project-team.php) was created from the outset and served as a gateway to information on goals, activities and project findings. Additionally, it contained project summaries and reports.

In order to reach the widest possible audience, Envipolcon established contacts with experts in environmental fields, involved in the quantitative study undertaken by the project team. The network of contacts was further enhanced through discussions with advisory networks, such as the German Council for Environmental Advisors. Towards the final stages of the project, representatives of NGOs, the EU and national governments, as well as selected academic researchers, were invited to a conference for the dissemination and discussion of project findings.

Envipolcon participants compiled project results in a manual for practitioners with a special emphasis on policy recommendations. The manual was distributed among national and EU policy-makers, international organisations and businesses. Finally, the publishing activities of the consortium included articles in scientific journals and the presentation of papers at international conferences.

Publications ’ list

  • Busch, P.O., Jörgens, H. and Tews, K., ‘The Global Diffusion of Regulatory Instruments: The Making of a New International Environmental Regime’, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 598, 2005, pp. 146-167.
  • Heichel, S., Pape, J. and Sommerer, T., ‘Is there Convergence in Convergence Research? An Overview of Empirical Studies on Policy Convergence’, Journal of Public Policy 12, 2005, pp. 817-840.
  • Holzinger, K., ‘Methodological Pitfalls of Convergence Analysis’, European Union Politics 7, 2006, pp. 271-287.
  • Holzinger, K., Knill, C. and Schäfer, A., ‘Rhetoric or Reality? ‘‘New Governance’’ in EU Environmental Policy’, European Law Journal 12, 2006, pp. 403-420.
  • Holzinger, K., Jörgens, H. and Knill, C. (eds), ‘Transfer, Diffusion und Konvergenz von Politiken’, Politische Vierteljahresschrift, Sonderheft 39, VS-Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2007.
  • Holzinger, K., Knill, C. and Sommerer, T., ‘The Impact of International Institutions and Trade on Environmental Policy Convergence’, Centre for Globalisation and Governance (CGG), Preprint No 3, University of Hamburg, 2006.
  • Knill, C. (ed.), Cross-National Policy Convergence: Causes, Concepts and Empirical Findings, Routledge, London, 2006.
  • Knill, C. and Liefferink, D., Environmental Politics in the European Union: Policy-making, Implementation and Patterns of Multilevel Governance, Manchester UP, Manchester, 2007.
  • Lenschow, A., ‘Environmental Policy: Contending Dynamics of Policy Change’, in: Wallace, H., Wallace, W. and Pollack, M. A. (eds), Policy Making in the European Union. Fifth Edition, Oxford UP, Oxford, 2005, pp. 305-327.
  • Lenschow, A., ‘Patterns and Key Issues of Environmental Governance: What’s New?’, in: Scheer, D. and Rubik, F. (eds), Governance of Integrated Product Policy, Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield, 2006, pp. 25-43.
  • Lenschow, A., Liefferink, D. and Veenman, S., ‘When the Birds Sing: A Framework for Analysing Domestic Factors behind Policy Convergence’, Journal of European Public Policy 12, 2005, pp. 797-816.
  • Liefferink, D. and Jordan, A., ‘An ‘‘Ever Closer Union’’ of National Policy? The Convergence of National Environmental Policy in the European Union’, European Environment 15, 2005, pp. 102-113.
  • Pesendorfer, D., ‘EU Environmental Policy under Pressure: Chemicals Policy Change between Antagonistic Goals?’, Environmental Politics 15, 2006, pp. 97-116.
  • Veenman, S. and Liefferink, D., ‘Different Countries, Different Strategies: ‘‘Green’’ Member States Influencing EU Climate Policy’, in: Wijen, F., Zoeteman, B. C. J. and Pieters, J. (eds), A Handbook of Globalization and Environmental Policy: National Government Interventions in a Global Arena, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 2005.

For the complete list of publications, please see the final report.

Full titleEnvironmental Governance in Europe: The Impact of International Institutions and Trade on Policy Convergence
Project AcronymEnvipolcon
Contract numberHPSE-CT-2002-00103
THEMES ADDRESSEDCitizenship, governance and the dynamics of European integration and enlargement
KeywordsPolicy convergence, environmental policy, national level, governance, multi-level governance, international institutions, trade, trade liberalisation, competition, policy learning, policy process, economy, institutions, indicators, data, quantitative analysis
Main contractorUniversity of Konstanz
P.O. Box D 91
D-78457 Konstanz
Scientific Coor.Prof. Christoph Knill
Website projekte/envipolcon/project-team.php
Partners' List
  • Katharina Holzinger,
    Thomas Sommerer, University of Hamburg,
  • Helge Jörgens,
    Per-Olof Busch,
    Free University of Berlin,
  • Andrea Lenschow,
    Dieter Pesendorfer, University of Salzburg,
  • Bas Arts,
    Duncan Liefferink,
    Sietske Veenman,
    Radboud University Nijmegen,
Start Date2003-01-01
End Date2006-06-30
EC Contribution€948 420