Earth System Governance Project

Earth System Governance Project
(2008; Utrecht University; ~4 staff; 300+ members;

A global research alliance exploring political solutions and novel, more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet. Developing integrated earth system governance, from the local to the global level, to ensure sustainable development of the coupled socio-ecological system that the Earth has become.  Earth system governance is the interrelated and increasingly integrated system of formal and informal rules, rule-making systems, and actor-networks at all levels of human society, that are set up to steer societies towards preventing, mitigating, and adapting to global and local environmental change and, in particular, earth system transformation. This constitutes a paradigmatic change from governing local and national environmental problems to coping with a more fundamental transformation of the earth system.  While essentially a scientific effort, is also designed to assist policy responses to the pressing problems of earth system transformation.

The Project is a core element of Future Earth, and views itself as the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change.  They run research centers in 14 countries. The Project is open to all social and natural scientists who are engaged in research on the governance of coupled socio-ecological systems.

Analytical Problems:

  • Architecture – Earth system governance is faced by questions relating to the emergence, design and effectiveness of governance systems as well as the overall integration of global, regional, national and local governance.
  • Agency – Tries to understand the agents that drive earth system governance and that need to be involved. The research gap is here especially the influence, roles and responsibilities of actors apart from national governments, such as business and non-profit organizations, the ways in which authority is granted to these agents, and how it is exercised.
  • Accountability – The more regulatory competence and authority is conferred upon larger institutions and supranational systems of governance the more we will be confronted with questions of how to ensure the accountability and democratic legitimacy of earth system governance.
  • Adaptiveness – Tries to understand and further develop the adaptiveness of earth system governance. It must be able to respond to the inherent uncertainties in human and natural systems and combine stability, to ensure long-term governance solutions, with flexibility, to react quickly to new findings and developments.
  • Allocation and access – Earth system governance, like any political activity, is about the distribution of material and immaterial values. The novel character of earth system transformation and of the new governance solutions that are being developed puts questions of allocation and access in a new light.

Global Environmental Governance Task Forces:

  • Planetary Justice – Aims to bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars who are concerned with questions of justice on a planetary scale in the context of profound transformations of the earth system.
  • Ocean Governance – Seeks to address the daunting multi-level challenge of oceans governance in the Anthropocene.
  • Methodology Research – Addresses methodological challenges in terms of both social science methods and interdisciplinary methods at the interface of social and natural sciences.
  • Earth System Law – Explores novel legal developments in and for the Anthropocene, where the earth as a whole is now seen to have become a socio-ecological system with human societies acting as a global geophysical force capable of changing this system, and at once as stewards of earth system care.
  • Conceptual Foundations – Explores key ideas that are coming to frame international discussion of the challenge of governance in times of global environmental change and earth system transformation. It is concerned with understanding, refining and critically interrogating concepts that increasingly provide the foundation for contemporary theory and practice in the environmental domain.
  • Accountability – Explores approaches to accountability, to assess the necessity and potential for greater accountability in the system of global environmental governance that has been riddled by fragmentation and duplication of efforts, dispersed political authority and weak regulatory influence.



Leadership: Ruben Zondervan (Executive Director)

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