Written by Julie Zaehringer and Andrew K. Carlson.

This blog post was written as part of a series of external contributions on topics related to telecoupling.

Telecoupling is a relatively new framework that helps to describe how human-environment systems across the globe are connected across through flows of goods, money, information, and so on. A team of researchers met during the US-IALE 2018 Annual Meeting in Chicago and identified an intriguing question in the literature on telecoupling: what methods do researchers use to identify the socioeconomic and environmental outcomes we observe in a particular place, and how does this link to distal places?

It is often difficult to understand the cause-effect relationships that determine the interactions between systems. As a hypothetical example, we can think of the loss of forest taking place in many Latin American countries. Should deforestation in Argentina be attributed to local land use practices, European demand for fodder, or Asian consumption of meat – or all/none of the above? Although causes are an integral part of the telecoupling framework, it is often unclear how researchers have considered causes in previous telecoupling publications. When included, such causes are often identified using methods that are not very rigorous. Understanding causality is necessary to create better conditions for sustainability. Therefore, in a recently published paper, we worked with a group of other telecoupling researchers to address this knowledge gap by reviewing how causality has been addressed in 89 studies that apply the telecoupling framework.

Our results showed that the large majority of the assessed papers only made descriptive (if any) statements regarding the cause-effect relationships and/or the processes through which causes create their final effects (see figure below). In addition, more than half of these descriptive studies were mainly based on secondary data, rather than empirical data. Only 2 out of 89 reviewed papers included rigorous causal analysis methods based on statistical analysis or modelling approaches. Moreover, to promote a more consistent and effective communication, we also provided a terminology of concepts addressing telecoupling causality. There are a number of methods available to improve practices for causal attribution including counterfactual analysis, process-tracing, root-cause analysis, and comparative case studies. One of the themes of the paper is to encourage future telecoupling researchers to embrace rigorous, mixed qualitative-quantitative causal analysis.

Overview of assessed publications in terms of the type of data used and the type of causal analysis conducted

The figure shows that among the papers included for review, a very small percentage of studies are rigorous in their evaluation of the causes of telecoupling, whereas most simply describe the (assumed) causes of the land-use changes they observe.

We also proposed a typology of telecoupling causes based on six different lenses for causal assessment: sector, system or origin, agent, distance, response time, and direction (or whether the effects are positive or negative). Often, a given cause or causal chain fits multiple typological categories depending on the lens through which it is viewed.

It is our hope that rigorous telecoupling causal attribution will enable researchers to better understand and manage telecoupled systems in a globalized world.

The full paper is available HERE (open access).


Carlson, Andrew K., Julie G. Zaehringer, Rachael D. Garrett, Ramon Felipe Bicudo Silva, Paul R. Furumo, Andrea N. Raya Rey, Aurora Torres, Min Gon Chung, Yingjie Li, and Jianguo Liu. 2018. ‘Toward Rigorous Telecoupling Causal Attribution: A Systematic Review and Typology’. Sustainability 10 (12): 4426. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10124426.

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