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Some publicly available data sets aim to help chart the diffusion of environmental policies, particularly related to climate change and, more specifically, to renewable energy policy. The London School of Economics’ Climate Change Laws of the World Database (Nachmany et al. 2017), for example, compiles information on national-level climate policies ranging from adaptation to mitigation to transport. Similarly, REN21’s Global Status Report charts the use of renewable energy policies across a large sample of national and subnational jurisdictions. International organizations, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), also collect information on renewable energy-related policies in use across a large sample of jurisdictions. The quality of all these data sets, though, varies, as does the method of collection, categorization of policies and the level of detailed policy information included. This problem relates to what has been coined the “dependent variable problem in the study of policy change” (Howlett and Cashore 2009)—i.e. the underlying challenge of how to assess policy output systematically across cases. While efforts have been made to develop a common methodology for measuring policy output in a comparable way (e.g. Knill, Schulze and Tosun 2012; Schaffrin, Sewerin and Seubert 2015), these approaches are only slowly being taken up, and most policy dynamics analysis continues to apply diverse or ad hoc concepts and measurements of policy output. Thus, despite prolonged interest in the topic and efforts to provide systematic policy information, knowledge of the spatial diffusion of environmental policies, especially outside the specific policy field of renewable energy, remains limited.


11.2.2 Temporal dynamics: policy change over time


If and how policies change over time and what factors drive these changes are important topics in the academic literature. The different approaches for understanding policy change can be categorized, on the one hand, in path-dependency literature, which stresses that early policy decisions lock in policy choices and that most policies only change incrementally after they are implemented (Pierson 2000). The main reason for such stability is thought to be positive feedback, through for example, policy learning that creates and sustains self-reinforcing processes around a policy. On the other hand, the punctuated equilibrium approach seeks to explain how otherwise stable policies can unravel in a sudden burst of abrupt, non-incremental change (Baumgartner and Jones 2009; Colgan, Keohane and Van de Graaf 2012). The main driver of these punctuations is thought to be external shocks that tilt the otherwise stable balance of positive and negative feedbacks towards a new equilibrium. One example of such a shock could be a legal case that challenges the legitimacy of the environmental policy. A punctuation could also create opportunities for environmental policies; for example, the Fukushima disaster in Japan may have led to Germany’s policies to phase out nuclear energy (Wittneben 2012).


Both approaches have been applied in the analysis of environmental policy change (e.g. Daugbjerg 2003; Repetto 2006), although the applications have mostly concentrated on large programmes in particular policy areas, such as agriculture. Recent literature has argued that focusing exclusively on positive feedback or on the catalytic effect of external shocks is not very helpful for intentionally designing policies that can both create positive feedback and withstand sustained negative feedback and external shocks (Jordan and Matt 2014).


The complexity of environmental problems can also increase the risk of ‘policy under-reaction’ by decision-makers, since it is difficult for policymakers to accurately estimate risks (Maor 2014). To avoid risks from taking decisions with unwanted side effects, policymakers tend to delay decisive action as long as possible and, confronted with external shocks, choose symbolic action rather than effective policymaking (Howlett 2014). There are a number of suggestions for strengthening the importance of the environment within States to overcome such shortcomings (Kloepfer 1989; Calliess 2001; Eckersley 2005; Jänicke 2007); however, this has not happened so far: the importance of the environment is not institutionalized as a priority but competes with other goals of governments.


Against this background, research is increasingly turning to policy design (Howlett and Lejano 2013) and seeks to understand how policy design choices can create policy change—i.e. how steps of incremental policy change can, over time, build up to create transformational change. Policies that are ‘sticky’ (i.e. persistent) but not ‘stuck’ (i.e. unresponsive to changing conditions) and that create positive feedbacks are seen as a potential way to increase the effectiveness of environmental policies (Jordan and Matt 2014). The Paris Agreement on climate change and its ratcheting-up mechanism is a prominent example of this concept (Falkner 2016). The need for such a forward-looking approach to policy design can be seen in policy fields that are troubled with complexity, as is the case for most environmental problems (Levin et al. 2013). The design of international regimes heavily influences their effectiveness—even more importantly than the type of underlying problem. In other words: an easy problem is not solved if an international regime is poorly designed (Young 2011). Given the context dependency of policies and regimes, a careful diagnosis of the appropriateness of their design is essential (Young 2011).


Policy innovation can be regarded as a mix of invention (new or novel approaches), diffusion (transfer and adoption) and monitoring of their effects (outcomes, impacts and possibly disruption) (Jordan and Huitema 2014b). The literature on polycentric governance suggests that multiple innovative policies should be implemented as a form of quasi-experiment, with best practices emerging from the monitored effects. It has been argued that governance at the lowest possible level minimizes free-riding as a motivation, and that monitoring is easier in smaller entities, e.g. communities (Marshall 2009). However, on a global scale, polycentric governance could lead to free-riding by governments, for example in the absence of a global regime, governments could be tempted to avoid actions while benefiting from mitigation efforts by others (Ostrom 2010). However, the role of policy entrepreneurship, and the contribution of civil society, in motivating policy shifts should not be underestimated.


Policy innovation, however, is not necessarily the most effective pathway to policy packaging, as tried and true command and control and economic incentive policies may deliver most of the impact (Hildén, Jordan and Rayner 2014; Jordan and Huitema 2014a). Greater focus on policy coherence, successful implementation and compliance may prove that traditional policy approaches still work effectively. Innovative policies may bring new implementation and compliance challenges which existing institutions are not well equipped to handle.


Policy Theory and Practice 287


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