This talk will be about global governance and structures to deal with complex global environmental problems.
Normally when we think about the Earth system and planetary boundaries we start to think about: so how do we cope with these problems at the global level? And normally people would assume that you would need a world government, which is I believe an incorrect assumption for what governance is.
We talk about governance in terms of different set of partnerships, international agreements, the way state and non-state actors interact with each other, the involvement of scientific communities, NGOs, etc., etc. So essentially governance in this setting is a much more messy and complex interaction between state and non-state actors at the global level. And it’s not about creating a one static body on decision making in a world government.
I think that’s one very critical, important thing to keep in mind when we talk about these sort of issues. What are some critical developments in global environmental governance? I would say there are several trends that we look at.
I mean, this is a simplification that one thing that we normally discuss in this community is the rapid increase of international environmental agreements. So normally people would think that one of the key challenges at the global level is that we don’t have proper international environmental agreements, but in fact if you look over time there’s been quite a rapid increase of the number of agreements.
So in 1857, there was one multilateral environmental agreement and in 2012, the last count that I have, we had 747. So it’s quite a rapid increase of international environmental agreements, and that’s one important trend to keep in mind.
Another thing that we also know in global environmental governance is that it’s not only do we have more international agreements, we also have more actors involved. There are more nation-states that have ratified agreements of this sort over time, and there are also more non-state actors getting involved in these arenas where global environmental issues are being discussed. So more international environmental agreements and more actors, those are two critical trends.
One of the biggest debates within my community is what the impacts of these trends are. And one general conclusion from my community is that this sort of increased density of agreements and actors have created fragmentation and segmentation.
So essentially you get different layers of decision making that become practically decoupled from each other; you lack coordination, and you lack a system’s overview to tackle the sort of challenges we’re facing. So that’s another important trend. So more agreements, more actors, fragmentation, and segmentation.
There’s an interesting development though over time if you look at it. And you can see that in this short video by Rak Kim is that you also see increasing inter-linkages between international environmental agreements.
So that short video shows the number of international environmental agreements, and how they start to link to each other by referencing. So it starts in the end of the 1800 and then moves rapidly into today. And you see that massive increase of inter-linkages and notes linking to each other, so it also implies complexity, it’s becoming more complex, the landscape of institutions at the international level.
This creates something that people also explore called gridlock. And gridlock is a phenomena where you have an increasing number of global challenges but where nation-states are not able to agree on something tangible to address these stresses.
So essentially you get more actors involved in more roles, but each of these actors also have veto power, so essentially they are not able to get to a point where they manage to create effective institutions to address critical challenges. So the transaction costs to get to collective action increase over time, because of more actors, more complexity.
So here’s an example that we’ve been working on for the last years dealing with ocean acidification, and marine biodiversity, and climate change. And these are three so-called planetary boundaries. The interesting thing with these three phenomena is that these are not separate global problems they interact in different ways. So climate change contributes to ocean acidification; ocean acidification affects marine biodiversity at the same time as these two changes modify the carbon uptake capacity of oceans, hence contributing to climate change. So these are three interacting processes.
The question we asked in our research is: who’s responsible to cope with not only the isolated problems but their interactions? And again if you look into the institutional landscape, if you look at what are the relevant international rules that affect these three interacting areas, you’ll see a long list of different international agreements. You see Agenda 21; the CBD, which is the Conventional Biological Diversity; the Millennium Development Goals; the UNFCCC, which is the international climate agreement, etc., etc. So it’s a long list of international rules that somehow are related to this problem complex.
And again if you look, what are the relevant international organizations somehow partly being responsible to address this issue? It’s also a big – essentially a big soup of acronyms moving around and trying to one or the other address this issue. So you have the World Bank, UNESCO, UNEP, the World Fish Centre, Human Ocean, the Food and Agricultural Organization, etc., etc.
One of the things that we find interesting though is that it’s not only chaos and anarchy at the international arena with all these messy institutions. Actually what we see are emerging patterns of collaboration, information sharing, experimentation, of attempts to navigate this combination of complexity in the problem, essentially in the Earth system, and complexity in the social institutional system.
So we see this pattern of networks emerging. That’s something that we’ve been studying for one particular case that we call PaCFA, the Partnership on Climate Change and Fisheries. And this we believe are interesting networks to keep an eye on if you want to understand the challenges facing global environmental governance to cope with sustainability challenges in the future.
So there are three key messages from this in terms of how global environmental governance has evolved and its capacities to deal with sustainability issues at the global level. One is that you see increased fragmentation over time, but also complexity in terms of institutions and actors linking to each other in very complex ways. And sometimes these create processes of gridlock, essentially the number of challenges are increasing over time and becoming more severe, but the landscape of actors and institutions is so complex that actors are not able to come to robust agreements on how to deal with those challenges. So those are the three key messages from this first lecture.