Assessing knowledge cumulation in earth system governance research: An analysis of 100 published ESG papers

Activity: Talk or presentationConference PresentationsResearch

Michael Rose - Speaker

Jens Newig - Speaker

Research in earth system governance (ESG) aspires to be both academically sound and policy-relevant (Biermann et al. 2007, 2012; Burch et al. 2018). Arguably, both objectives require the production of reliable evidence by cumulating – refining, challenging, complementing and synthesizing – existing research (Nutley et al. 2019). In line with a growing focus on evidence cumulation in sustainabiltiy science (Pauliuk 2019), we ask how and to what extent ESG research contributes to evidence production and cumulation.
To this end, we first define what constitutes ESG research as all publications that emerged from the first seven ESG conferences (from Amsterdam 2007 up to Norwich 2014). To be precise, we define the body of ESG research as all journal articles published in or before 2021 which can be attributed unequivocally to an abstract accepted for an ESG conference. We identified 362 publications that match these criteria, of which we further analyse a random set of 100 publications. We show descriptive statistics and network graphs to characterise this body of research.
The resulting set of 100 journal papers were coded for their theoretical, conceptual, normative-prescriptive or empirical orientation. Empirical papers are coded for a qualitative, quantitative, interpretive or meta-analytical research approach, and whether they can generally be regarded as positivist or constructivist (Burch et al. 2018). We coded in what way papers add to, refine, challenge or synthesise existing research, and in what way they contribute to developing shared frameworks, definitions or datasets.
Overall we find that evidence cumulation is still poorly developed within the ESG community. Like the field of environmental policy and governance more generally, ESG research may be characterised as a “fragmented adhocracy” (Whitley 2006), explaining the widespread failure to produce robust and cumulative knowledge .
We close by suggesting a number of avenues for stronger production and cumulation of evidence in the ESG community. These include the development and use of more widely shared core terminology, e.g. through broadly accepted dictionaries and common research protocols, allowing to produce shared and compatible datasets, and meta studies that synthesise existing (case-based) research following shared frameworks. Hence contributing to a growing body of – cumulating – evidence on what “works” in ESG will, so we hope, more likely and more lastingly inform policy and governance.


2022 Toronto Conference on Earth System Governance


Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Event: Conference