Discovery Guides Areas

  Environmental Policy Issues

Global Environmental Governance
(Released August 2005)



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Review Article

The global environment is an integrated, yet evolving, system characterized by connections. Such drivers of environmental change as population pressure and pollution know no boundaries; rather waste is emitted into the global commons of the oceans and the atmosphere. That forests cut down in the Amazon may reduce carbon sequestration, and hence speed up global climate change, is only one example of the environmental chain of causation. Forests also perform a variety of ecosystem services, such as improving air quality, enriching soil, providing renewable resources, regulating hydrology, and contributing to biodiversity.

Attempting to govern these complex ecosystems is a dizzying array of organizations and international treaties. These include governmental and nongovernmental actors at levels ranging from local to national to international. Perhaps most important is the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which acts to centrally coordinate organizations and information. With a full-time staff of only 300, however, UNEP faces a difficult task.

Major international conventions, held every decade or so, guide the process of global governance, while a series of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) provide the basis of international environmental regulation. Environmental treaties are implemented with the help of small organizations called secretariats. The chart below shows only a few of the most important organizations, conferences, and treaties:

  Conferences & Reports Treaties / Conventions Organizations

& earlier

UN Conference on the Human Environment

Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements

Antarctic Treaty

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission

United Nations Environment Programme

United Nations Human Settlements Programme

GEMS/Water Programme


The Brundtland Report

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer

Montreal Protocol on the Ozone Layer

Convention on Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal

World Commission on Environment and Development

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


UN Conference on Environment and Development

Agenda 21

International Conference on Population and Development

Earth Summit +5

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Convention on Biological Diversity

Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change

Global Environment Facility

Commission on Sustainable Development

Committee on Trade and Environment


World Summit on Sustainable Development

International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources

Cartegena Biosafety Protocol

Doha Declaration

Pew Oceans Commission
See for a comprehensive database of environmental treaties

Special thanks to Rebecca Davis for help compiling this chart

Sustainable development, a new concept in environmental governance, was introduced in the Brundtland Report of 1987 and further developed in the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Sustainable development asserts that we should hand our children and grandchildren an earth with environmental systems as healthy or healthier than those we inherited. Partly a response to theories of limits to growth, that we are in a condition of overshoot in which we are using environmental resources faster than they can be renewed, sustainable development also strives to balance economic and environmental needs.

Two important international treaties are the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. The first is the most successful example ever of international environmental cooperation; it led to a substantial decrease in the emission of chlorofluorocarbons that harm the ozone layer. This is largely because the treaty was self-enforcing, providing a mixture of incentives and punishments, according to economist Scott Barrett. The ready availability of substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons also helped the treaty.

The Kyoto Protocol, by contrast, has barely gotten off the ground; its ratification was delayed until 2004, and the treaty still suffers from the critical absence of the United States (which has just announced a pact with Australia, China, and other partners to update technology that fights global warming). The Kyoto Protocol limits the emission of carbon, believed to be a prime cause of global warming, while encouraging countries to create sinks to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Critics claim that the treaty was flawed from the start, relying on rigid targets and exempting developing countries (including heavy polluters such as India and China) from responsibility. The high cost of a transition away from our current energy infrastructure makes the Kyoto Protocol particularly difficult to fulfill.

Market-based instruments, such as tradable permits, are a key strategy employed by the Kyoto Protocol, and many other current environmental governance plans. Such schemes allow different economic segments to play to their strengths, and balance the need to conserve resources and reduce waste with the need for economic development. Another basic strategy for integrating the environment into global economic management is to force goods to be priced at their full life-cycle assessment, including the cost to the environment from resource extraction to production to use to final disposal.

Population control as a tool of environmental governance is another hotly debated issue. Some environmentalists hold that human population is the main driver of environmental degradation, and that employing tougher measures to limit population is the only way to ensure a sustainable future. Population pressure, for instance, leads to greater use of water, depleting aquifers and contributing to the spread of desertification. A contrary argument holds that human population is only one of several factors which must be weighed equally, including per capita consumption, technology, and conservation techniques.

Human population, now at over 6 billion people, is expected to level off at around 9 billion by 2050. Urbanization is one of the main reasons for the slowing of population growth. Some 50 percent of the earth's population now live in cities; people living in dense urban areas tend to have fewer children, leading population to fall. Education, particularly of women, is also an effective means of lowering population growth. Affluent people also tend to have fewer children; such countries as Germany and Japan, for instance, are no longer replacing their current populations. Developing countries, contrarily, are responsible for most of the world's population growth.

The role of developing countries, sometimes called the Global South, remains fiercely contested. Advocates for developing countries argue that the wealthier countries contribute most to international environmental degradation, and so should be most responsible for cleaning it up. Environmental justice, particularly toward developing countries, has been heatedly discussed, although its role in international decision-making remains limited. This is partly because wealthy countries contribute the most money to international institutions, and so claim the most influence in decision-making.

The status of the environment is closely tied to international economic growth. Many economists believe that globalization is helping the environment through dissemination of better technology and more efficient economies of scale. The concept of an environmental Kuznets curve is that once people attain affluence they will then concentrate on achieving a clean environment. Some environmental economists, however, argue that economic growth correlates strongly with environmental degradation, and argue for a steady state economy that eschews growth in favor of qualitative development.

Maintaining biodiversity is another key goal of environmental governance. The removal of one species, the argument goes, may have unexpected effects; the more changes made to the environment, the greater the chance of a cascade of unintended consequences. Some ecosystems have shown a surprising resilience, however, as with the recovery of Yellowstone after the 1998 fires. Since we cannot fully understand the complex interactions of our ecosystems, environmentalists now argue for the precautionary principle, that potentially harmful activities must pass a reasonable doubt test regarding their environmental effect. In 2000 this principle was integrated into the Cartegena Biosafety Protocol.

Because of the increasing globalization of environmental threats, some have called for the creation of a World Environmental Organization (WEO) more powerful than UNEP. Frank Biermann and Steffen Bauer, for instance, argue that this organization should do for the environment what the World Trade Organization does for global trade, and should have the power to adopt treaties and enforce international regulations.

Written by Ethan Goffman