Dr. Karen Siegel

Nachwuchsgruppenleiterin “Transformation and Sustainability Governance in South American Bioeconomies”
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Nachwuchsgruppenleiterin “Transformation and Sustainability Governance in South American Bioeconomies”
Institut für Politikwissenschaft
Raum 322
Scharnhorststraße 100
D-48151 Münster
T: +49 251 83-25380
  • Biography

    Dr Karen Siegel is head of the research group “Transformation and Sustainability Governance in South American Bioeconomies”. She holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Glasgow, an MSc in Economic and Social Studies from Aberystwyth University and an MA (Honours) in French and Politics from the University of Edinburgh. Before moving to the University of Münster she was a Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Fellow at the University of Glasgow. Other previous work experience includes lecturing at Edinburgh Napier University where she led courses on global environmental politics, qualitative research methods and British politics in Edinburgh and Hong Kong in cooperation with Hong Kong University School of Professional and Continuing Education as well as two years in Brussels working with the European Commission and the consultancy Bernard Brunhes International and a year in Quito, Ecuador where she worked as an English teacher at the Centro de Educación Continua de la Escuela Politécnica Nacional.

  • Research interests and projects

    • Politics of sustainable development and sustainability transitions
    • Natural resource governance in the global political economy
    • Bioeconomy governance
    • Regionalism
    • Latin America

    Research project “SABio -Transformation and Sustainability Governance in South American Bioeconomies"

    Head of Research Group in Political Science: Dr Karen Siegel

    The broad concept of bioeconomy is increasingly being promoted as a potential strategy to foster sustainability transitions and address climate change. Key elements are the replacement of fossil-based raw materials with bio-based alternatives, fostering more efficient use of biomass, or developing bio-based materials, increasing the economic value of forestry and agriculture and promoting innovation in biotechnology. Yet, sustainability benefits are by no means automatic and without appropriate safeguards and sustainability strategies bioeconomy development may also carry significant risks and trade-offs. Promoting environmentally responsible and equitable bioeconomic change therefore remains a major governance challenge. Funded by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) the interdisciplinary SABio project focuses on the emergence and sustainability performance of the bioeconomies of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay and aims to analyse bio-based initiatives from a political sciences (Principal Investigator Prof. Thomas Dietz, University of Münster) and agricultural economics (Principal Investigator Prof. Jan Börner, University of Bonn)  perspective.

    Dr Karen Siegel leads the research group in Political Science at the University of Münster. During the first project phase the group has two PhD students and a postdoc from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay respectively. Dr Melisa Deciancio analyses actors and interests in the Argentinean bioeconomy as part of her postdoctoral project. Guilherme de Queiroz Stein examines the concept of socio-biodiversity as a new approach to bioeconomy in Brazil for his PhD whereas the PhD thesis of Daniel Kefeli focusses on environmental policy integration in the Uruguayan forestry sector. Results from the first project phase have shown that there are also important differences between countries within the same region. The constellation of actors that drive bioeconomy visions differs and so does the scope of issues covered. Such differences are important become they demonstrate variations in inclusiveness. Inclusive bioeconomies require strong civil society participation in governance, well-designed production systems and greater attention to cross-border effects as outlined in the ZEF Policy Brief No. 37 comparing Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. In Argentina governments on both sides of the political spectrum have continuously supported the country’s key bioeconomy sectors, notably biofuels and biotechnology. In Uruguay there has been continuous political support for the forestry sector. But while actors generally agree that environmental concerns need to be taken into account, views diverge over what this should mean in practice. In addition to their work on the politics and policies of bioeconomy development in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, the research group also engages in regular interdisciplinary discussions with the research group in agricultural economics led by Dr Jorge Sellare at the University of Bonn.

    Through events with different stakeholders, multi-lingual policy briefs and collaboration with scientific partners in the region, the SABio project seeks to inform governmental and non-governmental decision-makers in South America and beyond about entry points for action towards promoting sustainable bio-based innovation processes that safeguard rural employment and the equitable distribution of the benefits and costs of bio-based transformation.

    International Collaboration “Politics of sustainability: A comparison of Southeast Asia and South America”

    Dr Karen Siegel andDr Helena Varkkey (Associate Professor at the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the Universiti Malaya, Malaysia and Associate Member of the Inter-Asia Engagements Cluster at the National University of Singapore)

    Soybean and palm oil are two of the world's most important agricultural commodities. In South America and Southeast Asia their production has expanded exponentially over the last decades, often with serious social and environmental consequences. This has led to increasing demands from European countries importing these commodities to take sustainability concerns into account. Yet, such demands are mostly driven by the concerns of consumers in industrialised countries whereas the socio-environmental concerns of communities in rural areas in South America or Southeast Asia where the production takes place, are often sidelined. This collaborative research programme therefore seeks to understand the politics of sustainability in the producing regions through a comparison of soybean production in South America and palm oil production in Southeast Asia.

    The collaboration was initially supported by the Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility programme between the Universiti Malaya and the University of Glasgow, UK where Dr Siegel worked previously. In 2022 Dr Varkkey visited Münster funded by a WWU Fellowship of the University’s Internationalisation Fund.

    International Collaborations “The Sustainable Development Goals and Inclusiveness”

    A central aim of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to ensure that “no one will be left behind”. Inclusiveness is therefore a key norm that is reflected in several SDGs. However, to what extent the SDGs are actually successful in fostering inclusiveness is an empirical question.

    Dr Karen Siegel and Dr Mairon Bastos Lima (Stockholm Environment Institute) examined this question through a comparative qualitative analysis of Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay published in World Development in 2020. The findings show that the ability of the SDGs to strengthen inclusiveness is heavily shaped by domestic politics, pre-existing institutions and power relations. Moreover, the capacity, resources and international networks of civil society organisations affect the way they engage with the SDGs and this can have very different impacts on inclusiveness. In some contexts, with little civil society engagement and weak state institutions, there is also a risk that the SDGs may in fact entrench existing patterns of marginalisation rather than promoting inclusiveness.

    At a larger scale the question was also examined in the SDG Impact Assessment, the first social scientific meta-analysis of the political impact of the SDGs since their adoption in 2015. Dr Siegel was part of the team of 61 researchers from around the world contributing to the assessment. The findings were published in an open access book with Cambridge University Press edited by Prof. Frank Biermann, Dr Thomas Hickmann and Dr Carole-Anne Sénit in July 2022. With respect to inclusiveness the book shows that the SDGs so far have not had a significant impact in fostering the inclusion of vulnerable groups at the national level, or of the least developed countries in global governance.

    These findings are all the more concerning as many industrialised countries are increasingly pushing for decarbonisation, circular economies and energy transitions and in this process the SDGs are supposed to reconcile economic, environmental and social aims and ensure inclusiveness, equality, peace, justice, and accountability. This also has implications for example for Latin America as examined in a special section edited by Dr Karen Siegel and Dr Mairon Bastos Lima published in the Bulletin of Latin American Research in September 2022. Renewable energy and the bioeconomy, for instance, have been presented as two key elements for such transitions away from fossil fuels. The articles of the special section show that in some cases the SDGs may have provided civil society actors with tools to hold governments to account, a common language for accessing international funding, and in some cases the institutional space for discussing what sustainability means to different people. Yet, the current global sustainability agenda has sometimes also condoned malpractices and aggravated socio-environmental risks in Latin America. The current institutional setting thus is not in itself conducive to transformation.


  • Publications

    For a complete list of publications, please see: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4495-1580

    Selected Key Publications

    Siegel, K.M., Deciancio, M., Kefeli, D., de Queiroz-Stein, G., Dietz, T. (2022) “Fostering transitions towards sustainability? The politics of bioeconomy development in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil”, Bulletin of Latin American Research, doi.org/10.1111/blar.13353 

    Kefeli, D., Siegel, K.M., Pittaluga, L., Dietz, T. (2022) “Environmental policy integration in a newly established natural resource-based sector: the role of advocacy coalitions and contrasting conceptions of sustainability”, Policy Sciences, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-022-09485-z  

    Siegel, K.M. (2021) “Pulp friction in the La Plata basin: The importance of natural resource governance for South American regionalism”, Journal of Environment and Development, 30(2): 172-190, doi.org/10.1177/1070496521998734

    Siegel, K.M. and M.G. Bastos Lima (2020) „When international sustainability frameworks encounter domestic politics: The Sustainable Development Goals and agri-food governance in South America”, World Development, 135, doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105053

    Siegel, K.M. (2017) Regional environmental cooperation in South America: Processes, Drivers and Constraints, Palgrave Macmillan, International Political Economy series

    Siegel, K.M. (2016) “Fulfilling promises of more substantive democracy? Post-neoliberalism and natural resource governance in South America” Development and Change, 47(3): 495-516; https://doi.org/10.1111/dech.12234, republished in virtual special issue Facing the Future: The Legacies of Post-Neoliberalism in Latin America edited by Jean Grugel and Pia Riggirozzi, April 2019

    Edited collection

    Siegel, K.M. and Bastos Lima, M.G. (2022), guest editors of Special section “Quo Vadis, Latin America? Human Rights, Environmental Governance and the Sustainable Development Goals” in Bulletin of Latin American Research, September 2022

  • International Appointments and Collaboration

    • Member of the Center for Interdisciplinary Sustainability Research (ZIN), University of Münster
    • Member of the Brazil Centre, University of Münster
    • Senior Research Fellow of the Earth System Governance Research Alliance
    • Contributing Author of 2022 SDG Mid-term Assessment, Global Goals – Research for Sustainability Project, Utrecht University, led by Frank Biermann and funded by the European Research Council
    • Steering Committee Member of the ECPR Standing Group on Environmental Politics

    • Elected Committee Member of the Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS) (2016-2020) and co-organiser of the SLAS 2017 Annual Conference 
    • Academic partner for staff exchange with Helena Varkkey in Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility programme “International cooperation in a changing global order: the challenges of fostering sustainable development” between the University of Malaya, Malaysia and Glasgow University, 2018-2020
    • Co-Investigator on Global Challenges Research Fund project “Markets, Constitutions, and Inequality” led by Anna Chadwick (School of Law, Glasgow University), 2018-19
    • Principal Investigator, Research Incentive Grant, Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, “Mapping political inequality in natural resource governance: the case of agricultural land use in Uruguay”, 2017-18
    • Visiting Researcher at the University of Amsterdam, Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA) (June-July 2018)
    • Principal Investigator, Research Excellence Grant, Edinburgh Napier University, “Understanding the politics of transboundary environmental problems in the Southern Cone region”, 2015-16
    • Visiting Researcher at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) Argentina, Buenos Aires (March-June 2011)
    • Associate Fellow of The Higher Education Academy and Fellowship of Recognising Excellence in Teaching


  • Invited Presentations and Public Engagement