Earth system governance is a recently developed paradigm that builds on earlier notions of environmental policy and nature conservation, but puts these into the broader context of human-induced transformations of the entire earth system. It conceptualizes the system of formal and informal rules, rule-making mechanisms and actor-networks at all levels of human society (from local to global) that are set up to steer societies towards preventing, mitigating, and adapting to global and local environmental change and earth system transformation, within the normative context of sustainable development.
The notion of governance refers to forms of steering that are less hierarchical than traditional governmental policy-making (even though most modern governance arrangements will also include some degree of hierarchy), rather decentralized, open to self-organization, and inclusive of non-state actors that range from industry and non-governmental organizations to scientists, indigenous communities, city governments and international organizations.
The integrative new paradigm of earth system governance has evolved into an active research area that brings together a variety of social science disciplines including political science, sociology, economics, ecology, policy studies, geography, sustainability science, and law.
Major international conferences on ‘Earth System Governance’ have been held in Amsterdam (2007, 2009), Berlin (2008, 2010), Colorado (2011), Lund (2012, 2017), Tokyo (2013), Norwich (2014), Canberra (2015) and Nairobi (2016). In 2017, the 8th Annual Earth System Governance Conference took place in Lund, Sweden. This conference was co-hosted by Lund University during its 350 year celebration. In 2018 it is due to be held in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
On 16–19 May 2011, more than twenty Nobel Laureates, several leading policy-makers and some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and experts on global sustainability met for the Third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. The Nobel Laureate Symposium concluded with the Stockholm Memorandum, calling for “strengthening of Earth System Governance” as a priority for coherent global action. This memorandum has been submitted to the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability appointed by the UN Secretary General and fed into the preparations for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).
The new paradigm of earth system governance was originally developed in the Netherlands by Professor Frank Biermann in his inaugural lecture at the VU University Amsterdam, which was published later in 2007 Based on this pioneering contribution, Biermann was invited by the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change to develop a long-term comprehensive international programme in this field, which became in 2009 the global Earth System Governance Project.
Key researchers who have applied the earth system governance framework in their work include Michele Betsill, John Dryzek, Peter M. Haas, Norichika Kanie, Lennart Olsson, and Oran Young. In 2011, Lund University appointed Biermann as guest professor of Earth System Governance, making him the worldwide first chair holder in this rapidly developing field of research.
The Earth System Governance Project
The Earth System Governance Project is a long-term, interdisciplinary social science research programme originally developed under the auspices of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change. It started in January 2009.
The Earth System Governance Project currently consists of a network of ca. 300 active and about 2,300 indirectly involved scholars from all continents. The project has evolved into the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change. The Earth System Governance Project Office is hosted at Lund University, Sweden.
Research centres on ‘Earth System Governance’ have been set up or designated at VU University Amsterdam; the Australian National University; Chiang Mai University; Colorado State University; Lund University; University of East Anglia; University of Oldenburg; the Stockholm Resilience Centre; the University of Toronto; the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Yale University. In addition, strong networks on earth system governance research exist in China, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and Russia.
The Earth System Governance Project aims to contribute to science on the large, complex challenges of governance in an era of rapid and large-scale environmental change. The project seeks to create a better understanding of the role of institutions, organizations and governance mechanisms by which humans regulate their relationship with the natural environment. The Earth System Governance Project aims to integrate governance research at all levels. The project aims to examine problems of the ‘global commons’, but also local problems from air pollution to the preservation of waters, waste treatment or desertification and soil degradation. However, due to natural interdependencies local environmental pollution can be transformed into changes of the global system that affect other localities. Therefore, the Earth System Governance Project looks at institutions and governance processes both local and globally.
The Earth System Governance Project is a scientific effort, but also aims to assist policy responses to the pressing problems of earth system transformation
The Earth System Governance Project organizes its research according to a conceptual framework guided by five analytical problems. These are the problems of the overall architecture of earth system governance, of agency beyond the state and of the state, of the adaptiveness of governance mechanisms and processes, of their accountability and legitimacy and of modes of allocation and access in earth system governance.
The concept of Earth System Governance is defined as:
… the interrelated and increasingly integrated system of formal and informal rules, rule-making systems, and actor-networks at all levels of human society (from local to global) that are set up to steer societies towards preventing, mitigating, and adapting to global and local environmental change and, in particular, earth system transformation, within the normative context of sustainable development.
Origin and history
In 2001, the four then active global change research programmes (DIVERSITAS, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, World Climate Research Programme, and International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change) agreed to intensify co-operation through setting up an overarching Earth System Science Partnership. The research communities represented in this Partnership contend in the 2001 Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change that the earth system now operates ‘well outside the normal state exhibited over the past 500,000 years’ and that ‘human activity is generating change that extends well beyond natural variability—in some cases, alarmingly so— and at rates that continue to accelerate.’ To cope with this challenge, the four global change research programmes have called ‘urgently’ for strategies for Earth System management’.
In March 2007, in response to the 2001 Amsterdam Declaration, the Scientific Committee of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), the overarching social science programme in the field, mandated the drafting of the Science Plan of the Earth System Governance Project by a newly appointed Scientific Planning Committee. The Earth System Governance Project builds on the results of an earlier long-term research programme, the IHDP core project Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (IDGEC). In 2008, the Earth System Governance Project was officially launched.
In 2009, the Science and Implementation Plan of the Earth System Governance Project was published. In the science and implementation plan, the conceptual problems, cross-cutting themes, flagship projects, and its policy relevance are outlined in detail. The Science Plan was written by an international, interdisciplinary Scientific Planning Committee chaired by Prof. Frank Biermann, which drew on a consultative process that started in 2004. Several working drafts of this Science Plan have been presented and discussed at a series of international events and conferences, and numerous scholars in the field, as well as practitioners, have offered suggestions, advice, and critique.
Since then, the project has evolved into a broader research alliance that builds on an international network of research centers, lead faculty and research fellows. After the termination of the IHDP in 2014, the activities of the Earth System Governance research alliance are supported by an international steering group of representatives of the main Earth System Governance Research Centres and the global group of lead faculty and research fellows.
Global research network
For its activities and implementation, the Earth System Governance Project relies on a global network of experts from different academic and cultural backgrounds. The research network consists of different groups of scientific experts. The Earth System Governance Project operates under the direction of a Scientific Steering Group chaired by Frank Biermann. The role of the Scientific Steering Committee is to guide the implementation of the Earth System Governance Science Plan. The Lead Faculty of the Earth System Governance Project is a group of individual scientists who take over (shared) responsibility for the development of research on particular analytical problems. Earth System Governance Fellows are scientists who link their own research projects with the broader themes and questions raised by the Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan.
An important element in the project organisation is the global alliance of research centres that brings together the VU University Amsterdam; the Australian National University; Chiang Mai University; Colorado State University; Lund University; University of East Anglia; University of Oldenburg; the Stockholm Resilience Centre; the University of Toronto; the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Yale University. In addition, strong networks on earth system governance research exist in China, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and Russia.
Since 2007, the Project has organized major scientific conferences addressing the topics of governance and global environmental change, including:
2007 Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. ‘Earth System Governance: Theories and Strategies for Sustainability’
2008 Berlin Conference on the Human Dimension of Global Environmental Change. ‘Long-Term Policies: Governing Social-Ecological Change’
2009 7th International Science Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. ‘Social Challenges of Global Change’
2009 Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. ‘Earth System Governance: People, Places, and the Planet’
2010 Berlin Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. ‘Social dimensions of environmental change and governance’
2011 Colorado Conference on Earth System Governance. ‘Crossing Boundaries and Building Bridges’
2012 Lund Conference on Earth System Governance. ‘Towards Just and Legitimate Earth System Governance’
2013 Tokyo Conference on Earth System Governance. ‘Complex Architectures, Multiple Agents’
2014 Norwich Conference on Earth System Governance. ‘Allocation and Access in the Anthropocene’
2015 Canberra Conference on Earth System Governance. ‘Democracy and Resilience in the Anthropocene’
The network of researchers affiliated with the Earth System Governance Project has brought out many reports and books, and has published in journals such as International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics; Ecological Economics; Global Environmental Change; Environmental Science & Policy Global Environmental Politics and Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability Recurring research topics of the Earth System Governance Project are water governance, climate governance and fragmentation of global environmental governance.
A related MIT Press Book series is designed to address the research challenge of earth system governance. Additionally, the Project publishes regular Working Papers, which are peer-reviewed online publications that broadly address questions raised by the Project’s Science and Implementation Plan.
Several special issues of topics related to earth system governance have been published in scientific journals over the last years.
August 2010: Special Issue on: Transparency in Global Environmental Governance, Global Environmental Politics
November 2011: Special issue on Earth System Governance, International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics
February 2011: Special Issue: Agency in Earth System Governance, International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics
September 2011: Special Issue on Accountability in Earth System Governance., Ecological Economics
February 2012: Transforming governance and institutions of global sustainability: key insights from the Earth System Governance Project, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability
March 2012: Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance, Science
March 2013: Sustainable development goals for people and planet, Nature
March 2014: Special issue: Sustainable Development in a Globalized World, The Journal of Environment and Development
May 2014: Earth System Challenges and a Multi-layered Approach for the Sustainable Development Goals Post2015/UNU-IAS Policy Brief. Nr. 1
May 2014: Linking Education and Water in the Sustainable Development Goals Post2015/UNU-IAS Policy Brief. Nr.2
May 2014: Integrating Governance into the Sustainable Development Goals Post2015/UNU-IAS Policy Brief. Nr. 3
Earth system governance as a research object is quickly emerging, and as a consequence, the number of education programmes on bachelor, master and doctoral level related to earth system governance steadily increases. A number of institutes and universities currently collaborate in a Global Alliance of Earth System Governance Research Centres, including:
Ecosystems, Resilience and Governance, University of Stockholm and Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden
Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science, LUMES, International Master’s Programme, Lund University, Sweden
Environment and Resource Management, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Global Environmental Governance, Specialization track in MSc Political Science, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Lund University Centre of Excellence for Integration of Social and Natural Dimensions of Sustainability, LUCID, Research School, Lund University, Sweden
Sustainability Economics and Management, MSc Programme, University of Oldenburg, Germany
Environmental Governance related Programmes, MA, MSc, and PhD Programmes, Colorado State University, United States of America
Environment and Development Programmes, MSc, MRes, and MBA Programmes, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom
A substantial number of the workshops and other events of the project are capacity-building activities. The project also organizes, endorses and provides teaching to summer schools and capacity building events and programs. In addition, members of the Scientific Steering Group and staff of the International Project Office give guest lectures around the world.
The Earth System Governance Project organizes Task Forces, international networks of senior and early career scholars with a series of working groups focused on particular ideas or idea clusters. There are currently two active Task Forces:
Task Force on Conceptual Foundations of Earth System Governance
This Task Force aims to explore key concepts with regard to Earth System Governance, such as planetary boundaries, green economy, resilience and the Anthropocene. It aims to critically examine and further refine these novel governance ideas.
Task Force on Methodology for Earth System Governance Research
This Task Force seeks aims to advance quantitative earth system governance research by promoting new international research collaborations, fostering interaction and dialogue among existing research projects, and developing architectures to promote the building and sharing of datasets.
In 2011, the Earth System Governance Project launched an initiative on International Environmental Governance. This initiative aims to provide a forum for discussion of current and ongoing research on international environmental governance and the institutional framework for sustainable development, in the period leading up to the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, also known as ‘Rio + 20’. In addition, the initiative aims to target decision-makers and to contribute not just to a better understanding but also to actual improvements in international environmental governance towards an institutional framework that enables sustainable development.
There is widespread support for the Earth System Governance Project in the scientific community, which is reflected in the size of the research network and in various publications by experts. However, criticisms of the Earth System Governance Project have also been made.
In an internal report of the International Human Dimensions Programme it is stated that the steering group of the Earth System Governance Project is too much dominated by experts from OECD countries. Since then, the Earth System Governance Project has actively sought ways to involve experts from different regions of the world.
The idea of earth system governance has also been criticized for being too top-down, for placing too much emphasis on global governance structures. According to Mike Hulme, earth system governance represents an attempt to ‘geopolitically engineer’ our way out of the climate crisis. He questions whether the climate is governable and argues that it is way too optimistic and even hubristic to attempt to control the global climate by universal governance regimes. This interpretation of the novel concept, however, has been rejected by other scholars as being too narrow and misleading
MIT Press launched in 2009 a new book series on Earth System Governance. Recent papers drawing on the paradigm of integrated earth system governance research have analysed issues as diverse as river basin management in Hungary, deforestation policies in the Amazon, and climate change adaptation in Australia.
The Earth System Governance Project builds on a conceptual framework that is organized into five analytical problems. The five analytical problems identified in the Science and Implementation Plan of the Earth System Governance Project are:
The overall architecture of earth system governance
Agency beyond the state and of the state
The adaptiveness of governance mechanisms
The accountability and legitimacy of governance mechanisms
The modes of allocation and access in earth system governance
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