#ScholarSpotlight with Emma Lecavalier

Headshot%202.pngEmma Lecavalier is a Vanier CGS Doctoral Scholar in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral research focuses on cities and global climate and environmental governance. She is a Fellow at the Global Policy Institute at Durham University and a Research Assistant with the Environmental Governance Lab at the University of Toronto. Previously, Emma spent two years as a researcher with the Global Risk Governance Programme at the University of Cape Town where she researched sustainable energy transitions in China and India. Emma holds an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford and a BA (Hons) in Political Science and Global Development from Western University (Canada).

In this chat with Global Policy: Next Generation, Emma discusses her research on urban climate governance, how saying yes has shaped her research, and the value of collaborating with practitioners. 


Listen to our interview with Emma, and find more of our conversation in the written responses below:


What is the focus of your research? 

I’m interested in how urban climate and environmental issues have come to be viewed as problems for global governance. Over the last decade, we’ve seen an increase in the representation of urban sustainability issues on the global agenda. There is a Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to “sustainable cities and communities” (SDG 11), the Paris Climate Agreement emphasizes the key role of non-party stakeholders like cities in supporting ambitious climate action, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has a planned Special Report dedicated to climate change in cities, and outside of the hallowed halls of formal international organizations and bureaucracies, there have been a flurry of non-state initiatives focused on cities, including the expansion of the CDP’s (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) disclosure platform to include carbon disclosure and reporting by cities. All of these efforts highlight how urban climate and environmental issues have come under the remit of global governance—or in other words, that urban climate issues are now governable by not only local and national, but also global powers. 

My research considers this puzzle, exploring the various modes through which urban climate and environmental issues have come to be the concern of global actors and organizations, and the consequences of this development. 

Why is your research important to you? 

In 2019, UN Secretary General António Guterres poignantly stated that “cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost”, and I think this sentiment is what really drives my interest in this research. If we believe cities are to play a key role in confronting the crisis conditions of the Anthropocene, then we should be particularly interested in interrogating our understandings of the urban climate and environmental problematique.  

My research is driven by normative concerns about who gets to frame or define the issue of ‘urban climate change’ or ‘urban environmental degradation’, what issues in turn are emphasized and acted on versus which issues may end up neglected, and finally who reaps the benefits (or bears the burdens) of these particular framings or understandings. I’m motivated to understand how these global understandings of local climate and environmental issues shape action ‘on the ground’ and how, ultimately, they move us towards a particular vision of “sustainability”. 

To put a finer point on it: how we define the issue of urban climate change shapes how we respond to it, and how we respond to urban climate change is fundamentally about the kind of sustainable future we want. However, who the ‘we’ in this equation is remains a key and deeply political question that requires careful consideration. 

Which academics’ work has inspired some of your key thinking?

I’m very lucky to be working with several academics who have inspired and shaped my thinking on these issues: Matthew Hoffmann and his work on climate experimentation, Steven Bernstein and his thinking on sustainable development and more recently standard setting and best practice, and Harriet Bulkeley and her pioneering work on city networks and her critical approach to climate governance. David Gordon’s work has also been very influential for how I think about the various players in the global urban climate governance sphere. 

Beyond the world of cities and climate change, my thinking has also been shaped by constructivist and critical scholarship, including the work of John Ruggie and Martha Finnemore. I remember having a real “a-ha” moment when reading Finnermore’s work on the shifting logics of intervention, and it really set me off on my journey in thinking about how global ‘understandings’ of particular issues come to be developed. 

Finally, most recently, I’ve been swimming around in the works of Olaf Corry, Bentley Allan, and Ole Jacob Sending, and their research on object-oriented governance. This work is really challenging my understandings of what the ‘international system’ is and how it functions—crucial questions really for understanding contemporary global governance. 

What issues do you see your field being focused upon in the next several years?

My intuition—or really my hope—is that research on global climate governance and urban climate governance is going to start reckoning with issues of climate justice. Too often questions of justice are being researched in a standalone fashion—with the climate justice conversation remaining separate from other climate change governance research. What is needed, and where I think we’re going, is towards research that sees climate justice and equity issues as integral parts of, rather than co-benefits to, climate governance. This requires us to rethink the kinds of questions we are asking, and to widen our scope for analysis to consider the interlinkages between climate, social, economic, and political issues. 

We are starting to see this shift in both research and practitioner circles with the increased focus on “transformation”, which considers wholesale systemic and structural changes of which climate and environmental issues are a part. I also think conversations about post COVID-19 ‘green recovery’ and ‘Green New Deal’ type thinking will accelerate this shift in the conversation. 

How does your research link to or have an impact on global policy issues?

My work is very closely linked to global policy questions—in fact, at its core it asks how a particular issue comes to be a global policy issue. In terms of its impact on global policy issues, my hope is that by critically questioning global understandings and framings of urban climate and environmental issues, practitioners might be aware of alternative issues, pathways, or approaches to their work in this sphere. 

In a more concrete sense, I hope to take a more collaborative approach to my research so that it can have a more profound impact on global policy issues.  I’ve recently had the privilege of co-editing a special issue for Local Environment (forthcoming) that is transdisciplinary in its approach, pairing academics and practitioners together to reflect on the meaning of urban sustainable transformation. It has been a great exchange, and in addition to learning so much from our practitioner partners, it has highlighted to me the particular ways in which academic research can contribute to this space, including by using our comparative advantage—the time and space to consider the bigger and more abstract questions that practitioners rarely get the time to confront—to help facilitate and hold space for reflection. So beyond just hoping that our research can impact global policy, I think it’s incumbent upon us as scholars to consider alternative models of scholarship that can really bring academic research into closer contact with global policy circles. 

What is the one piece of advice you wish you had been given when starting your academic career?

While I know we are often coached about the need to “say no” and to protect our time for our dissertation, I have often found that advice to be only partially helpful. In fact, much of my research has emerged from saying “yes” to everything and anything that interested me. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to build connections and attend events that have really shaped my thinking on the issues that I’m researching, and had I followed the “say no” advice I fear I may have missed out on many new and interesting directions in my work. I think better advice would be “remember you can always say no”—do not feel obligated to take on work simply because it has been asked of you, but also don’t feel guilty or afraid of pursuing things that are not immediately instrumental to your dissertation.   

What is one must-read book/ article for scholars not in your field?

Harriet Bulkeley and Peter Newell’s Governing Climate Change (2010, 2nd ed) is an excellent book for helping one understand both climate governance in particular and global governance more broadly. It’s a short, effective book that can be useful not only to first year students new to the concepts of IR and global governance but also to those in the field hoping to refresh their understandings of the basics.