International organisations and the governance of deep transitions: The case of a transition towards a circular economy

This paper contributes to a recent strand of work within the field of sustainability transitions that combines the multi-level perspective on socio-technical transitions with techno-economic paradigm thinking. Schot and Kanger (2018) and Kanger and Schot (2018) developed a framework which aims to explain the emergence, acceleration, stabilization and directionality of deep transitions. They define a deep transition as “a series of connected and sustained fundamental transformations of a wide range of socio-technical systems in a similar direction” (Schot and Kanger 2018: 1045). This promising framework has hardly been tested empirically so far. Given its large scope, our paper specifically focusses on proposition 5 of Schot and Kanger (2018: 1954) which claims that it is international and transnational organisations that contribute to the circulation of rules beyond individual socio-technical systems and national boundaries and play an important part in the frenzy phase. The aim of this paper is to theoretically further develop and empirically test this proposition to obtain a better understanding of the role of international organisations in deep transitions. This addresses a gap in the existing transitions literature more generally, which has paid scant attention to the role of such organisations. Conceptually, we are drawing on the international relations literature focussing on the role of international expert networks and international organisations in creating shared rules.

On that basis we develop a framework which aims to explain why and how international organisations absorb new ideas and rules and through which channels they contribute to their diffusion internationally. The framework is applied to a case study of the emerging meta-regime ‘circular economy’ which is hoped to globally re-define systems of production and consumption in line with sustainability concerns. Our analysis focusses specifically on the role the European Union (EU) has been playing in promoting this norm internationally as it is seen as a frontrunner and promoter of the concept of circular economy. The paper concludes with lessons from the specific case study but also wider considerations about how to better conceptualise the role of international organisations in deep transitions.

Document Type:
Working paper