This special issue brings together six selected papers presented at the 9th International Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE) that took place in Istanbul, Turkey, between 14 and 17 June 2011. The theme of ESEE 2011 was ‘Advancing Ecological Economics: Theory and Practice’ and the conference aimed to investigate how ecological economics might broaden the available range of methods and tools for policy support. At the same time, the conference aimed at increasing the relevance of ecological economics research in the time of a triple crisis – ecological, social and economic – that is well documented in many of the official and unofficial reports published around the Rio + 20 Earth Summit held in June 2012. Today, the urgent need to shift the focus of research and policy discussions from analysing problems to providing possible solutions is abundantly clear.

This, of course, necessitates not only strong political will and determination, but also a kind of research that assesses concrete alternative policy measures and develops indicators, and that seeks to ascertain models of economic development and governance structures incorporating both ecosystem integrity and social justice concerns. In the transition to sustainable development, there is also an urgent need to highlight and report on promising initiatives and good practices from different countries and regions, so that these may contribute to bridging theory and practice and accelerate the overall process.

The conference attracted over 350 participants from 41 countries around the globe and offered 320 papers accepted from more than 500 submissions in a standard peer-review process. The papers were presented in 82 sessions organized around the following eight broad themes: Conceptual Foundations, Methods, Indicators, Policy Analysis, Instruments, Socio-economic Transitions, Civil Society and Governance, and Education.

Presentations in the plenaries were all very inspiring as well. In the opening plenary, Arild Vatn challenged the dominant responses to our economic and ecological crisis and argued that ‘green economics’ and ‘green growth’ may not hold their promises for a better future. In the system dynamics plenary, Yaman Barlas draw our attention to the strong links between the fields of system dynamics and ecological economics and Erling Moxnes introduced a unifying theory of local and global overshoots and discussed how to protect against them.

In the political economy plenary, Martin O'Connor brought together contemporary ecological economics notions of limits to substitutability of natural capital and environmental services with classical notions of class conflict, unequal exchange and corresponding theory of value. Susan Paulson then gave us some insights from selected Latin American contexts and conversations about historical relations between economies and ecosystems.

The morning plenary in the last day of the conference was about sustainability transitions. Frank Geels underlined the need for an analytical shift in the unit of analysis from the economy as a whole to more specific socio-technical systems and presented the multi-level perspective as a way forward. Then, Nicholas Ashford touched upon the importance of law and strong government in transforming the industrial state and called for both a strategic approach that ‘opens up the problem space’ to include mutually supportive social goals and a political/legal approach to ‘open up the participatory space’. John O'Neill was our closing plenary speaker and made a thought-provoking speech on happiness, good life and sustainability.

In fact, many of the conference papers presented in Istanbul were markedly far-sighted and directly linked to policy-making and showed well that ecological economists are eager to make distinct and positive contributions to these lines of research. In this context, we selected in a peer-review process six papers from ESEE 2011 for this special issue, from both theory and practice. These papers illustrate the range of topics of the conference, as they deal with alternative ways to organize the economy, sustainable development indicators, understanding trade-offs and synergies between different development trends, multi-level analysis of socio-economic systems metabolism, and analysis of environmental policy in a real-world situation. As expected, one starting premise of the articles in this issue is recognizing the interconnections and interdependence of the economic, biophysical and social worlds, and understanding human economy as both a social system and a system embodied in the biophysical universe.

The issue opens with an article by Ahmet Atıl Aşıcı and Zeynep Bünül that considers the green new deal approach from a theoretical perspective and underlines the points at which green new deal supporters and ecosocialists converge and diverge; it critically assesses the transformative capacity of different green new deal proposals as well. By contrast, Eva Frankova and Nadia Johanisova investigate the concept of economic localization by suggesting a working definition of the term and outlining its possible interpretations and operationalizations.

With regard to sustainable development indicators, Per Arild Garnåsjordet, Iulie Aslaksen, Mario Giampietro, Silvio Funtowicz and Torgeir Ericson note that the task of compiling indicators for environmental change and sustainability comprises more than a technical selection of facts, as the choices involved are conditioned by societal interests and implicit values embedded in the data-generating processes. They argue that sustainable development sets should be evaluated according to how they contribute to deliberations on sustainability in learning processes that involve participants beyond the science–policy interface. Focusing on the analytical side of assessments, Jyrki Luukkanen, Jarmo Vehmas, Juha Panula-Ontto, Francesca Allievi, Jari Kaivo-oja, Tytti Pasanen, Burkhard Auffermann present a new assessment tool for the analysis of synergies and trade-offs between selected development trends, in particular for different dimensions of sustainable development, and illustrate its use with several examples from European Union member states.

The last two articles of this special issue focus on particular cases. Giuseppina Siciliano, Alessandro Crociatab, Margherita Turvani utilise the multi-scale integrated analysis of societal metabolism (MuSIASEM) approach to investigate imbalanced development and energy consumption in two regions in Italy – Veneto in the north and Abruzzo in the south. They show that different structural changes are needed to meet energy efficiency at regional levels and that there are potential local barriers to achieving regional competitiveness and sustainability. Finally, Géraldine Froger and Philippe Méral's look at the ‘diverging’ trajectories of environmental policy in Madagascar during the 20th and 21st centuries by using ideas from historical institutionalism about path dependence. Their findings indicate that several historical and institutional events, at the national and international levels, have been critical junctures in shifting Malagasy environmental policy onto different paths, reflecting the hybridization of environmental policy. Environmental policy in Madagascar has retained a marked-based tendency towards conservation, whilst continuing to apply arguments in favour of integration and participation.

This special issue also marks a shift of responsibility in the relation between ESEE and the Journal of Environmental Policy and Governance: Felix Rauschmayer who has been in charge of this relation, being the ESEE-editor of this journal, hands over this task to Begüm Özkaynak. The third guest editor of this special issue, Irene Ring, is responsible for the ESEE conferences within the ESEE board.