Published 30 October 2020
Gemma Viney: You are one of the researchers on the Sydney Environment Institute’s Unsettling Resources project, which is hoping to challenge the conventional understandings of resource extraction, renewables, and the concept of a green transition. Can you speak to your previous research and the perspectives that you’re bringing to this research project?
Katherine Owens: My research focuses on the development and reform of institutions and regulatory frameworks that manage climate change, energy transitions, environmental water, climate finance and the risks of mining. We face broad coordination challenges in these areas to combat climate change and drive green transformation, and my research develops new forms of governance that can coordinate a variety of public and private actors, across a range of sectors, to rapidly develop and propagate solutions. I focus on how governance frameworks can connect effective public institutions, such as independent agencies, with ground-breaking private sector actors and enable these entities to work in a collaborative and effective manner within the boundaries of the law. A large part of this is developing frameworks that can incorporate different types of knowledge, coordinate information exchange, make new connections between a variety of entities and rapidly coordinate technical and financial resources to generate solutions.
“We face broad coordination challenges in these areas to combat climate change and drive green transformation, and my research develops new forms of governance that can coordinate a variety of public and private actors, across a range of sectors, to rapidly develop and propagate solutions.”
Your work has looked at systems of environmental governance for collaborations between public and private actors, and in your book, Environmental Water Markets and Regulation: A Comparative Legal Approach, you examine this in the context of river systems. Can you explain a little bit about the particularities of water management, and river systems more specifically, that make them such an interesting case study for environmental governance research?
River systems around the world are degraded and being used unsustainably. Governance failure is a key cause of these outcomes, but at the same time, water governance involves very difficult trade-offs between human and ecological needs, and sometimes intractable complexities in relation to water-dependent ecosystems, social systems and water infrastructure. I investigate how these dilemmas necessitate a new understanding of the role of law and regulation in the sense that legal frameworks do not and cannot provide an overarching, prescriptive and ‘final’ solution to the issues at stake. Instead, law and regulation need to establish and maintain limits within which all concerned can have access, operate, collaborate and innovate. Properly enforced legal mechanisms, including transactional and funding tools, can empower the full range of public and private entities, including environmental NGOs and trusts, to overcome the variety of roadblocks encountered in achieving environmental objectives.
And lastly, with your work from a legal background already speaking across the social sciences, how do you anticipate your involvement with an interdisciplinary institute, such as the Sydney Environment Institute might influence your research moving forwards?
SEI, and the Unsettling Resources research team, have provided me with a unique opportunity to work in supportive and multi-disciplinary collaborations on some of the most complex and important challenges for green transformation. As a member of SEI I’ve joined an extensive community of academics, policy makers, regulators, NGOs, citizens and students committed to low-carbon transformation. I’ll have the opportunity to work with this community and leading researchers from a variety of disciplines to develop broader, evidence-based, studies of what actually works in accelerating transitions to lower emissions, and how decision makers can improve the ambition of, among other matters, their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement. These studies can, in turn, provide proof of concept and contribute to larger-scale transformation processes.
Katherine Owens is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney Law School. Her research focuses on how law and governance can enable innovation and ecologically sustainable transformation, particularly in the context of climate and water governance, and her monograph, Environmental Water Markets and Regulation: A Comparative Legal Approach (Routledge/Earthscan), was published in 2017. Before joining the University of Sydney in 2015, Katherine practised for a number of years in State Government and leading commercial firms in Australia and New Zealand, specialising in environmental and planning law. Katherine was awarded her PhD from Sydney Law School in 2015 and also holds a Master of Laws in Energy and Environmental Law Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium (summa cum laude with the congratulations of the Board of Examiners), and a Bachelor of Laws (First Class Honours) and Bachelor of Arts from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.