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Study field


Defining Global Environmental Governance

Defined most simply, global environmental governance consists of efforts by the international community to manage and solve shared environmental problems.1)

Background and context

Since the 1970s, there have been increasing concerns about environmental problems of global significance such as declining biodiversity, diminishing forests, disappearing wetlands, expanding deserts, and climate changes. These concerns have been addressed by nation states at a number of global meetings including the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (better known as the Stockholm Conference) in 1972, which resulted in the creation of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP); the 1992 Rio Earth Summit; the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg; the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009; the RIO+20 Conference in 2012; and COP21 in Paris in 2015. Each of these meetings has spurred more preparatory meetings sponsored by different interest groups and resulted in a growing number of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). Examples are: the Vienna convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1985); The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (1994); the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2016) on climate changes; and the Basel Convention on the Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (2001/2004). Each agreement is supported by a structure of formal and informal advisory committees, secretariats, programs, and commissions.2)

Although international and supranational government organizations and MEAs arguably dominate contemporary global environmental governance, states themselves are still important actors in environmental governance. Other types of actors such as the epistemic community, NGOs, and private business companies increasingly take part in global environmental governance, and new partnerships and modes of governance have emerged. International governmental organizations outside the environmental arena such as the World Bank and WTO often address environmental issues and/or have significant impacts on the options for other actors to address these issues. Global environmental governance has thus come to comprise a complex body of agreements, actors, and governance mechanisms, and huge amounts of money have been invested in problem solving over recent decades. In spite of all these efforts, global environmental problems persevere.

Some scholars see the complexity and fragmentation of the global environmental regime as one of the major constraints for overcoming current environmental problems. They argue that inadequate use of resources contributes to program inefficiencies, and tend to criticize NGOs, companies, and academic scholars for forwarding their own sometimes contradictory reform agendas. These scholars often seek to outline an optimal institutional form and function for the GEG system and recommend improved coordination of and collaboration between global actors and regimes as a way forward, for instance by strengthening the role of UNEP.3) Other scholars are more concerned with how polycentric and multi-level governance systems, “bottom-up” initiatives, and transnational and network governance can contribute to solving environmental problems.4) Yet others address the North-South divide that has often been considered a major constraint in global negotiations about the climate and the environment, or how to strengthen the leadership of USA, China, or the EU in negotiations about the environment.5)

The study field

Solving global environmental problems entails enormous challenges. The problems and solutions are complex, social consequences differ within the context of local populations, and decisions are being made in a highly fragmented and politicized institutional environment. Despite the increasing number of actors being involved in global environmental governance and the huge amount of money invested, environmental degradation and endangerment persevere.

GEG is concerned with questions such as what is the nature of the global environmental problems we must deal with; what (more specifically) constitutes global environmental governance; what factors account for the rise of global environmental problems and concerns; what explains the shape, emergence and effectiveness of governance institutions and arrangements; what are the different modes and sites of global environmental governance; what is the role of science and technology versus politics; and what factors determine how we perceive of environmental problems and their solutions.


1) O'Neill, K., 2009. The Environment and International Relations, First ed. Cambridge University Press, New York

2) For a data base of MEAs and related information, see:

3) Najam, Adil; M. Papa, N. Taiyab. 2006. Global Environmental governance, a reform agenda. IISD. Chapter 1. A primer on the GEG Reform Debate (pp 9-27)

Maria Ivanova: “UNEP in Global Environmental Governance: Design, Leadership, Location,” Global Environmental Politics, 2010, Vol. 8, Issue 1, pp.30-55.

4) Ostrom, E., 2010. Polycentric systems for coping with collective action and global environmental change. Global Environmental Change 20, 550-557

Parks, B. C. & Roberts, J. T. 2008. Inequality and the global climate regime: breaking the North-South impasse. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 21, 621-648

Bertil Kilian and Ole Elgström 2010. Still a green leader? The European Union's role in international climate negotiations, Cooperation and Conflict 45