The role of metrics in EU governance of the water-energy-food nexus

Thomas Völker and colleagues

In a recent publication by the MAGIC project, Völker and colleagues investigate the changes that are emerging in governance with regard to the nexus. Recognizing the interconnections between water, energy and food, means also acknowledging how water policies, energy policies and food policies interact with each other – sometimes by reinforcing each other, and sometimes by supporting contradictory goals. In order to make these synergies and trade-offs visible, policy makers in the European Union are relying more and more on indicators. The paper asks, are indicators a good means of raising awareness about complexity of governing for sustainability and challenging existing governance structures or are they a way of reducing the complexity to a technical problem, that can be measured and managed through existing institutional arrangements?

Quantification requires considerable work and relies on technical and administrative infrastructures that allow for data collection and processing. Once such “accounting machineries” are put in place, they become not only quite stable and “sticky”. The creation of new metrics on the nexus have, therefore, the potential of creating new paths of accountability. For example, nexus indicators can expand accountability of agricultural policies outside of the agricultural realm and including water governance, energy governance and other sustainability goals, such as climate and biodiversity. But indicator production may also suffer from the stickiness of the current “managerial” system of governance.

The analysis builds on 28 interviews with 32 actors from different European Commission DGs, members of European Parliament and its Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) as well as from the European Environment Agency (EEA). Our primary focus was on the views and experiences of the staff within the Commission. The Commission is the administration for the European Parliament and Council of Europe, and is responsible for making, implementing, evaluating and enforcing cross-European policies that are mandatory for the 28 member states in the current European Union. The Commission is organized into 33 Directorate-Generals (DGs -departments), each with a separate, specific and self-contained policy area, giving rise to the idea of “policy silos”.

Our data indicate that there are institutional logics and mechanisms that might hinder an implementation of nexus governance. Interviewees stressed that there is little room to think about what people are doing when one is busy and focused on immediate priorities. Metrics on the nexus are welcome as eye-opening evidence that may help overcome policy made in “silos” – within DGs, and without regard for how policies affect each other. New data may challenge taken for granted ways of thinking and doing things within European policy making. The water-energy-food nexus is framed as a problem of institutional arrangements and working culture. For challenging this status quo, however, our interviewees ask for novel forms of quantified knowledge and in doing so reinforce the mode of governance that relies on the “managerial” approach to metrics, which leads to a process of de-politicizing difficult political decisions about the trade-offs of sustainability through the notion of the nexus as measurable interconnections.



Völker, T., Blackstock, K., Kovacic, Z., Sindt, J., Strand, R. and Waylen, K. (2019). The role of metrics in the governance of the water-energy-food nexus within the European Commission. Journal of Rural Studies 

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