Fundamental overhaul of global environmental governance needed, argue experts

More than 30 leading governance experts argue in Science for fundamental reforms of global environmental governance and a 'constitutional moment' in world politics.

March 16, 2012

Reducing the risk of potential global environmental disaster requires a "constitutional moment" comparable in scale and importance to the reform of international governance that followed World War II, say 32 leading experts in an article in the journal Science, published on March 16, 2012.

Stark increases in natural disasters, food and water security problems and biodiversity loss are just part of the evidence that humanity may be crossing planetary boundaries and approaching dangerous tipping points, say the experts, which include CHANS-Net Advisory Board member Carl Folke, director of the Beijer Institute at Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and science director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. A more effective environmental governance system needs to be instituted soon, according to the article.

In particular, the group argues for the creation of a United Nations Sustainable Development Council to better integrate sustainable development concerns across the UN system, with a strong role for the 20 largest economies (G20).

The article also suggests upgrading of the U.N. Environment Programme to a full-fledged U.N. agency – a step that would give it greater authority, more secure funding, and facilitate the creation and enforcement of international regulations and standards.

In addition, the article calls for stronger consultative rights for representatives of civil society in global governance, based on mechanisms that balance differences in influence and resources among civil society representatives.

In order to improve the speed of decision-making in international negotiations, the article calls for stronger reliance on qualified majority-voting in international decision-making.

The scientists also argue for increased financial support for poorer nations, including through novel financial mechanisms such as air transportation levies.

Says Frank Biermann, professor at VU University Amsterdam, lead author of the article and director of the Earth System Governance research alliance, "Societies must change course to steer away from critical tipping points in the Earth system that could lead to rapid and irreversible change. Incremental change is no longer sufficient to bring about societal change at the level and with the speed needed to stop earth system transformation. Structural change in global governance is needed, both inside and outside the U.N. system and involving both public and private actors."

All 32 authors of this article are affiliated with the Earth System Governance Project, a global research alliance of hundreds of researchers and leading research institutions, specializing in the scientific study of international and national environmental governance. The Earth System Governance Project is part of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change.

The assessment underlying this article has been mandated by the organizers of the huge science conference "Planet under Pressure," to be held March 26-29, 2012, in London, with several thousand scientists participating. Several CHANS-Net members will be presenting at Planet Under Pressure, including Elinor Ostrom, who is giving the  opening plenary presentation on the state of the planet and member Eric Lambin, who is leading the session entitled "Telecoupling and land change in emerging economies: Trade and the rise of eco-consumerism."