The science agenda of the Earth System Governance Project stands at the centre of this special issue of International Environmental Agreements, with the first article introducing the scientific agenda and others presenting new cutting-edge research that builds on this ambitious science plan. Most contributions have been spearheaded by members of the scientific steering committee of the Project, along with several colleagues who have joined the Project after its launch.

The first article by Biermann et al. presents in a succinct way the core elements of the science and implementation plan of the Earth System Governance Project. It offers a conceptualization of earth system governance and lays out the five analytical problems that are central to it. The article also introduces the four crosscutting themes of the science plan and elaborates on the flagship activities that are planned within the programme. → see article

Norichika Kanie et al. is one of the first studies that explicitly build on the science plan of the Project. Their study combines a focus on two analytical problems, “access and allocation” and “architecture”, analysed in one of the flagship domains, that is, climate governance. Kanie et al. identify a number of key problems associated with allocation in climate governance and relate these back to questions of overall governance architecture. Their article also delves into methodological questions that are key to earth system governance research, which in most cases needs to rely on inter- and multidisciplinary approaches. → see article

Heike Schroeder focuses on the analytical problem of “agency”. After a brief conceptualization of the notion of agency—here drawing on the science plan of the Project—Schroeder employs this concept in studying the agency of indigenous peoples in designing a mechanism for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) under a possible post-2012 agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Schroeder analyses whether indigenous peoples have agency in international negotiations and if so, how they have obtained it. She places special emphasis on indigenous peoples because they may be highly vulnerable to the impacts of both climate change and some policy responses; thereby, Schroeder also touches on other key concerns of the Earth System Governance Project, such as the analytical problem of “access and allocation” and the crosscutting theme of power. → see article

Louis Lebel et al. concentrate on another analytical problem, the question of the “adaptiveness” of governance systems. They relate this to water governance, again a flagship domain of the Project. After a brief introduction to the notion of adaptiveness and the role of social learning in it, they apply their concepts to water management in the European Alps and the Mekong region in Southeast Asia. → see article

Another article by Louis Lebel et al. provide a second study on the analytical problem of “adaptiveness”. They explore in detail the politics around the quest for adaptiveness in water management in the case of the major transboundary river basins draining the south and eastern Himalayas. They find that the pursuit of adaptiveness takes place in a context of large differences in exposure and vulnerabilities, disparate interests and unequal power, hence linking this issue to the problem of “access and allocation”. → see article

Questions of access and allocation stand at the centre of the contribution of Joyeeta Gupta and Louis Lebel, who compare water and climate governance. Gupta and Lebel argue that problems of access and allocation have two faces: access to basic resources or eco-space, and the allocation of environmental resources, risks, burdens and responsibilities for causing problems. In their view, only an integrated conceptual approach can advance understanding of conflicts around access and allocation.→ see article

Kathrin Dombrowski, a research fellow with the Earth System Governance Project, studies the fifth analytical problem suggested by the science plan, “accountability and legitimacy”. Her study uses the case of the climate convention to show how its constituency of non-governmental organizations reacted to what they perceived as representation and participation deficits in global governance. She finds that non-governmental organizations tend to support broadly similar standards of participation and representation in the climate convention. At the same time, it appears vital that the organizations do not underestimate the potential costs of high standards of inclusiveness and representativeness.→ see article

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