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Assessing the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development

By Andrea Brock & Ruben Zondervan

English: Diagram showing aspects of sustainabl...

The upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) will focus on two themes: Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development. These two themes have received ample attention by a wide range of stakeholders over the past months already – and will increasingly do so as the conference draws closer and the preparatory process get more intense.

The global environmental change research community is also joining this process towards Rio+20. The four global environmental change research programmes (IHDP, IGBP, Diversitas and WCRP), as organizers of their joint Planet under Pressure Conference, have commissioned nine policy assessments with the aim to make concrete science-based policy recommendations for Rio+20.

One of these assessments focuses on the institutional framework for sustainable development and has been compiled by the Earth System Governance Project.

The Earth System Governance Project started the assessment of the state-of-art of the social sciences on the institutional framework for sustainable development in April 2011. A group of 31 leading senior social scientists in the field of global environmental governance accepted the invitation to join this challenge. Grouped in teams, they elaborated on specific aspects of the assessment, based on their expert knowledge. The diverse group of contributors reviewed existing literature and drafted text elements as a basis for a consolidated first draft of a policy brief.

The text has then been revised several times to improve the outcome and to ensure accessible language, closely related to urgent political processes and questions. Consultations with diplomats and policy makers with key roles in the Rio+20 conference confirmed the high demand for a policy assessment on the institutional framework for sustainable development and helped to synchronize the content of the assessment with the specific questions of policy makers to social sciences. What followed was a very interactive process which triggered interesting debates among the authors and the larger research community, amongst others at the 2011 Colorado Conference on Earth System Governance.

This process resulted in a short, to-the-point policy brief with key policy-relevant messages, which has been published end of September 2011. The core findings of the assessment can be summarized in ten policy recommendations:

  • Strengthen international environmental treaties: Governments must engage in structural reforms in how international environmental negotiations are conducted and treaties designed. Present and future treaties must rely more on systems of qualified majority voting in specified areas.
  • Manage conflicts among multilateral agreements: International economic institutions must advance transitions to a sustainable economy, including by multilaterally harmonized systems that allow for discriminating between products on the basis of production processes, based on multilateral agreement. Global trade and investment regimes must be embedded in a normative context of social, developmental, and environmental values.
  • Fill regulatory gaps in international sustainability governance: New or strengthened international regulatory frameworks are needed in several areas, including on emerging technologies, water, food, and energy.
  • Upgrade UNEP: Governments need to engage in negotiations for the up-grading of UNEP to a specialized UN agency, along the lines of the World Health Organization or the International Labour Organization.
  • Better integrate sustainable development policies within the UN system: Governments need to support overall integrative mechanisms within the UN system that better align the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development.
  • Strengthen national governance: New policy instruments are a promising complement to regulation if carefully designed. But they are not panaceas.
  • Streamline and strengthen public–private governance networks and partnerships: The CSD and other bodies need a stronger mandate and better methodologies for the verification and monitoring of partnerships. Despite the growing role of non-state actors, there is still a strong need for effective and decisive governmental action.
  • Strengthen accountability and legitimacy: Novel accountability mechanisms are needed, including mandatory disclosure of accessible, comprehensible and comparable data about government and corporate sustainability performance. Stronger consultative rights for civil society representatives in intergovernmental institutions should be introduced.
  • Address equity concerns within and among countries: Equity concerns must be at the heart of the institutional framework for sustainable development. High consumption levels in industrialized countries and in some parts of the emerging economies require special and urgent action. Financial transfers from richer to poorer countries are inevitable, either through direct support payments for mitigation and adaptation programmes or through international market mechanisms, for example global emissions markets.
  • Prepare global governance for a warmer world: Global adaptation programmes need to become a core concern of the UN system and governments.

Meanwhile, the Earth System Governance Project has taken the initiative to further investigate the state and reform directions of the institutional framework for sustainable development and – based on existing knowledge and findings from science – to provide an ambitious vision for the required transformative change of governance for sustainability.  This vision is called the “Hakone Vision”, named after the venue of the workshop in which it was developed in September 2011. The Hakone Vision calls for a charter moment — the beginning of a reform process leading to transformative change of sustainability governance.

The Policy Brief and the Hakone Vision are key products of the Earth System Governance Project’s initiative on the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development and International Environmental Governance, contributing to the process  of Rio+20 – a process  that must become a major stepping stone towards introducing a stronger institutional framework for sustainable development and fundamental reform of current sustainability governance.

Earth System Governance Project

The Earth System Governance Project is the largest research network in the area of governance and global environmental change. Its international research programme takes up the challenge of exploring political solutions and novel, more effective governance systems to cope with global environmental change. The Earth System Governance Project is a ten-year international and interdisciplinary core project of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) and operates under the auspices of the International Social Science Council (ISSC), the International Council for Science (ICSU), and the United Nations University (UNU).


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