Despite increased interest in the planetary boundaries concept, the institutional and political aspects of it remain largely unexplored. This also include discussions on the role of the United Nations as a bridge between earth system science and intergovernmental politics. Photo: R. Kautsky/Azote

Governing within the planetary boundaries

Developing the scientific concept is one thing, coming up with appropriate governance strategies is quite another

Short summary: governance of planetary boundaries requires repeated, legitimate and inclusive assessments and a review of the architecture of international institutions. More attention should also be paid to innovations that are sensitive to the bonds between social and ecological systems.
In 2009, a team of 28 renowned scientists proposed that global biophysical boundaries could define a safe planetary operating space for humanity. Ever since then, the planetary boundaries concept has been meet with interest and enthusiasm by both policymakers and the scientific community. Among them is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who has urged world leaders to apply planetary boundaries thinking.
However, developing effective governance strategies that are based on the scientific work behind the concept are still in the early making.
In an article recently published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, researchers have looked at how governance challenges related to global environmental governance can be addressed.

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The researchers, including Victor Galaz, Beatrice Crona, Per Olsson, Carl Folke and Åsa Persson from Stockholm Resilience Centre, investigated the governance implications of dealing with the boundaries.
A safe operating space for whom?
In the paper, Galaz and his colleagues discuss four related governance challenges and possible ways to address them. One challenge is how to define what constitutes a "safe operating space for humanity" in a North-South dimension. Who will have to carry the biggest burden to stay within the boundaries? 
"Although the boundaries are reasonably conservative in their estimations, they are likely to induce considerable debate between nations with different needs for development," says Victor Galaz.
Another challenge is the fact that the boundaries are likely to change over time: scientific advances will lead to revised estimates of the individual boundaries, and the interactions between the boundaries themselves will require continuous revisions and updates. This in turn will affect decision-making processes. In fact, governance failure is imminent when the information needed to monitor the boundaries is outdated when policies are developed. Furthermore, political efficiency is compromised when the information needed to monitor the boundaries is dispersed among a wide set of agencies and scientific communities.
"The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 provided an important global and collaborative scientific process. The emerging Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) holds a similar great potential. New research should explore the institutional architecture needed to support repeated and integrated assessments of planetary boundaries," says co-author Carl Folke.

What about the United Nations?
Closely related to this are discussions on what role the United Nations will play, particularly the the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in particular. In a labyrinth of organisations, networks and agendas, both programmes play an important role in coordinating and bridging various interests.

One solution might be that they take on the role as a brokers between different international institutions dealing with individual boundaries.

"A programme like UNEP might seem like the obvious actor to be entrusted with such a task, but a more promising step would be the development of a stronger UN agency like a World Environmental Organisation," says Victor Galaz, well aware that such a centralised organisation comes with its own baggage of problems.

Alternatively, polycentric systems, which connect decision makers that are formally independent of each other and form new relationships, can also contribute to smooth the collaboration between various institutions and interests. Polycentric governance comes with a range of exciting prospects. It represents flexible solutions for self-organisation where more formal procedures seem to fail. However, there are several pitfalls.

Great potential
Overall, the interplay between earth system science and policy brings with it several challenges, but Galaz an his colleagues are convinced the planetary boundaries concept can be useful.

"Despite challenges and limited knowledge on its institutional implications, the concept can help support an international environmental governance structure that is more integrated and synergistic," Galaz concludes.

Source: Galaz, V. Planetary boundaries — exploring the challenges for global environmental governance. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain ( 2012), doi: 10.1016/j.cosust.2012.01.006

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See video with co-author Frank Biermann on the future of global environmental governance:

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Galaz, V. Planetary boundaries — exploring the challenges for global environmental governance. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain ( 2012), doi: 10.1016/j.cosust.2012.01.006.


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