CDE is part of a new European Training Network on telecoupling

Foreign investors are engaged in large-scale production of maize, soy, and geranium on the Ihorombe Plateau in Madagascar. Photo: Julie Zähringer, CDE

Human consumption of food and agricultural products has a significant impact on the environment and societies in the regions where agricultural goods are produced. Consumers, businesses, and politicians in Europe and elsewhere are increasingly demanding that land use must become more environmentally and socially sustainable. In response to this demand, scientists from eight European universities – including the University of Bern – and a number of international partner organizations from business and civil society have developed a joint graduate school in order to better integrate research, innovation, and social responsibility.

The European Training Network COUPLED

The team has now been awarded funding for a European Training Network within Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. The project, entitled “Operationalising Telecoupling for Solving Sustainability Challenges for Land Use – COUPLED” will run from 2018 to 2022. The grant of approximately EUR 3.7 million will enable training of 15 outstanding PhD students in the context of excellent research projects. Collaboration with institutions from outside academia is a key component of the training programme. Besides the doctoral projects, activities within the COUPLED network will also include intersectoral secondments, internships, training courses, and summer schools.

Foreign companies investing in Kenya produce luxury goods such as long-stemmed roses, destined for wealthy industrialized countries. Photo: Markus Giger, CDE

Operationalizing the concept of telecoupling

The recently established concept of telecoupling, which combines geographic research, network analysis, and systems theory, helps to explain the drivers and outcomes of land use change by investigating the interrelationship between different actors, drivers, and feedbacks over long distances. The concept makes it possible to establish links between the impact of agricultural production in one region of the world with consumption elsewhere. Knowledge about these interlinkages can help to avoid negative effects and increase land use efficiency, for example through strategic governance of international trade.

COUPLED aims to put this research approach into practice and to train a new generation of young scientists in trans- and interdisciplinary concepts and methodologies. PhD students will learn (1) to understand processes and actors that influence land use in an increasingly interconnected world, (2) to consider distant, unexpected feedbacks and spillovers and to account for their social and environmental impact, and (3) to foster new and enhanced governance measures that can shape land use telecouplings in such a way that land use decisions deliver more sustainable outcomes.

The PhD students will collaborate closely with partners from outside academia, such as businesses, NGOs, international organizations, and administrative bodies, thereby learning to bridge science and practice. These skills will qualify them for successful careers in research, consulting, industry, or governance.

The project consortium

The University of Bern is a full member of the project consortium. Andreas Heinimann and Peter Messerli of the Institute of Geography and CDE will lead the project’s synthesis work package, among other things. The overall lead of the project is with the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human–Environment Systems (IRI THESys) and the Geography Department of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

The direct beneficiaries of the project grant are: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany; University of Bern, Switzerland; Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain; University of Copenhagen, Denmark; Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Austria; Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany; Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium; The Forest Trust; and Unilever. Further partners are the European Landowners’ Organization, the Stockholm Environment Institute, Fairphone, Fairtrade International, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nestlé, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, The World Bank, and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.


Overall project coordination

Jonas Østergaard Nielsen
Humboldt University of Berlin

At the University of Bern

Andreas Heinimann and Peter Messerli
Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and Institute of Geography, University of Bern