So speaking of global environmental governance, how should we reform it? So we know we’re facing fragmentation, we know we’re facing complexity, we know we’re facing gridlock.
And of course there’s no clear, simple answer to that. And I would say there are different schools and different approaches to address that issue. So I’m just going to present a couple of these different approaches.
One of them, and I would say the most popular one in my community, I would call deep institutional reform. And deep institutional reform builds on the idea that if you manage to reform critical pillars of global environmental governance then you would create an architecture that’s better able to deal with these challenges. So there are different ways to look at that reform and there are some very tangible reform proposals in that.
So for example, one would be that you need to reform the United Nations Environmental Programme. So you would reform and upgrade the UNEP, as it’s called, and give it a bigger mandate, better resources, and better capacities to coordinate the fragmented setting up of international institutions.
Another idea or another very tangible proposal would be that you would look into economic institutions at the international level and put a much stronger sustainability focus into these. You would design and put into place mechanisms that would guide economic development at the international level, taking sustainability into consideration.
Another reform proposal that has been discussed is to modify the voting rules in international bodies. You would move from decision making that’s unanimous into where you just need majority, or a qualified majority. And the idea would be that if you change the voting rules in these bodies then you would get faster decision making and it would become more ambitious.
So that’s just a few examples of that way of thinking, that the way to reform the environmental governance is through deep institutional reform.
Another school of thought or another stream within this community would be to focus less on institutional reform but more to strengthen networks. And that mode of thinking I would call network revolution.
So essentially you would say no, it’s impossible to move ahead with institutional reform, it’s very difficult to get all these countries to agree on something tangible, so let’s focus on strengthening partnerships that exist between states, or between public and private actors. Let’s invest more in building global partnerships and networks across state and non-state actors. Let’s focus on allowing fewer number of countries to create more ambitious goals, for example within climate policy, and have them create benefits for themselves and then hoping that that club will expand over time. So that’s the club approach.
Another way to look at this is to talk about polycentricity. So polycentricity essentially means that you have several independent bodies of decision making that collaborate and create rules through that collaboration. And the idea is that these modes of more network polycentric governance are more flexible, they’re more apt to changing circumstances, they’re better able to cope with complexity, and they can expand over time essentially.
So that second approach focused on networks where it’s less about institutions but more about creating a network revolution at the international level.
There’s a third stream that I find interesting that focuses more on law. And that stream I would call legal transformation. And the idea there would be that you would create different interpretations of existing law in ways that would push us towards sustainability, essentially redefining international human rights law, for example, or creating some sort of planetary boundaries declaration. That’s one example, so you would create a planetary boundaries declaration between nation-states. And that sort of development would trigger changes in international law to better address sustainability.
And one interesting observation within this community is that these sort of norms, for example, to protect the environment, or a norm around stay within planetary boundaries, can evolve nonlinearly, meaning that you will have actors lobbying for that sort of change for a long time but nothing happens, but then suddenly you see a nonlinear change, so suddenly it becomes from something being discussed just amongst a small group of people to something that suddenly becomes a global institutional norm. So that has more focus on legal issues.
And then the fourth stream in this focuses more on citizen and participation, global democracy, cosmopolitan democracy. And the idea here, and the assumption here is that we’re getting into these processes of gridlock, we’re not able to agree at the international level, because people are not being part of decision making. Decision making is happening behind the scenes, in small groups, in small clubs, with limited insights from citizens. And the idea would be here to reform international organizations in a way that allowed for wider participation from citizens, civil societies, and NGOs. And the idea would be that these sort of reforms would open up decision making and create more ambitious environmental decision making at the international level.
So those would be four different streams in the debate that I would pick out, so:
- deep institutional reform,
- network revolution,
- legal transformation,
- and global citizenship.
One thing to keep in mind though, and I think that’s one of the interesting things, is that these are ideas that might start out as something different, but that actually start to become recombined. So you see interesting combinations of these ideas out there emerging; combining legal transformations with network revolution, or combining deep institutional reforms with global citizenship. And this nice visualization by one of my colleagues, Diego, shows how actors or authors start referencing to each other over time and start to combine these ideas into different proposals on how to reform global environmental governance.
So how are these related to planetary boundaries? I think that’s a critical issue. I think what we’re interested in is not only dealing with incremental global change, or separated problems by themselves, not just only climate change, biodiversity and ocean acidification in parallel. We need to start to look at: how do these reforms try to address very complex interactions between these problems? How do these proposed reforms in institutions, how well are they able to address the nonlinear properties of these problems? Do we need additional institutions to, for example, pick up early warnings and respond to early warnings that we’re moving towards bad tipping points in the Earth system or in regional ecosystems, how do we look at that? So it’s also a matter of function in these governance structures.
So just to summarize the key message in this very complex issue, I would say the takeaway message is there are multiple approaches to governance. There’s no simple, quick fix solution through reformed governmental governance, there are different traditions, there are different streams, they all have different flavors in a sense.
But there are also interesting combinations emerging between these different streams. And we also need to take a step back and look at these proposals, and look at the dimensions. What are the distributional implications of these proposals in terms of risks, or resources, or power? And how well do they function, not only to deal with incremental environmental stresses, but also very complex interactions between global environmental problems, some of which might be linear and some of which might be nonlinear and lead to rapid unexpected shifts?