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PROBLEMSHIFTING: a research programme on the complex dynamics of problem-shifting in global environmental governance


Every month, governments around the world gather to make important decisions to solve global environmental problems. However, their decisions often lead to new, and sometimes even more chronic and severe, environmental problems – what is known as global ‘environmental problem-shifting’. With over a thousand international environmental treaties in force, the scale and complexity of environmental problem-shifting is severe and expected to increase. PROBLEMSHIFTING explains why problem-shifting occurs between international environmental treaties and examines the systemic effects of problem-shifting in global environmental governance. Building on these findings, we offer innovative governance solutions that help ensure our global environmental efforts add up to a net positive impact.


Problem-Shifting between International Environmental Treaty Regimes: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions

Context: International environmental treaties are designed to solve specific environmental problems. Yet their potentially negative impact on environmental issues other than their own is rarely studied. Until now global governance theories have assumed that environmental treaties are inherently ‘green’, and hence, any adverse consequences are conveniently set aside as unintended or inevitable. But is that true?

Questions: In this project, we question, do environmental treaties ever pursue their objectives by merely shifting problems to others? If so, when and why? Does such buck-passing create any systemic risk beyond those directly affected? And what might be appropriate responses to ensure our efforts add up to a net positive impact? Environmental problem-shifting, or protecting one part of the environment by damaging another, is a major dilemma arising in global governance. Yet the issue remains under-investigated, requiring an urgent scientific inquiry.

Objectives: PROBLEMSHIFTING examines the causes and consequences of, and provide solutions to, environmental problem-shifting between international environmental treaty regimes. By drawing on our interdisciplinary and multi-method expertise in ‘earth system’ law and governance, we (1) identify and explain the conditions under which problem-shifting occurs; (2) assess and predict the systemic effects of problem-shifting; and (3) offer solutions for optimizing the currently fragmented governance system. We aim to advance the theoretical debate on the architecture of global governance and its overall effectiveness. Building on the theoretical and empirical foundations, we will offer unique insights and valuable advice to markedly improve global governance decisions.

Methods: We employ both small-n qualitative ‘within-case’ and ‘cross-case’ analyses (process tracing and Qualitative Comparative Analysis) and large-n quantitative analyses (network analysis and system dynamics modelling) to understand the causes and consequences of problem-shifting, respectively. In addition, participatory workshops will be organized to co-explore possible governance solutions with stakeholders.

Connection to Earth System Governance Research: With the analytical focus on the complex structure and dynamics of global environmental governance through the lens of ‘problem shifting’, the project draws on and contributes to the literature on the architecture of earth system governance.



PROBLEMSHIFTING is directed by Dr. Rakhyun E. Kim and hosted at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University in the Netherlands. The programme is funded for five years (2021-2026) through a ‘Starting Grant’ awarded by the European Research Council (Grant agreement No. 949252). For more information, visit and follow @PROBLEMSHIFTING on Twitter for latest updates.

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