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Accountability and legitimacy: An analytical challenge for earth system governance

Biermann, Frank, Aarti Gupta. 2011. Accountability and legitimacy: An analytical challenge for earth system governance. Ecological Economics, 70 (11): 1854-1855.


The anthropogenic transformation of the earth system and the emergence of the Anthropocene makes governance of human interactions with the earth system ever more urgent. Yet current earth system governance still lacks effectiveness, and the legitimacy, accountability, and equity of earth system governance is contested. Research on the way forward is thus the need of the hour. The Earth System Governance Project, launched in October 2008 by the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) under the auspices of the Earth System Science Partnership, is a response to this pressing research challenge. Earth system governance is defined in this Project as the system of formal and informal rules, rule-making mechanisms and actor-networks at all levels of human society (from local to global) that are set up to steer societies towards preventing, mitigating and adapting to environmental change and earth system transformation. The Project’s science and implementation plan is organised around five analytical problems: the architecture of earth system governance; agency in earth system governance; the adaptiveness of earth system governance; allocation, equity and justice issues in earth system governance, and, finally, the accountability and legitimacy of earth system governance arrangements.

This special section of Ecological Economics focuses on the analytical challenge of accountability, legitimacy and the democratic quality of earth system governance. It is intended to be a first comprehensive attempt to bring a variety of perspectives to bear on questions of accountability and legitimacy, which are still comparatively under-analysed in global change and governance literatures.

In this special section, the first article by Biermann and Gupta lays out a research agenda for analysis of accountability and legitimacy of earth system governance, drawing also on the contributions to the remainder of the special section. As a first step, it provides a conceptualization of accountability, which hinges on the existence of four key elements: a normative element, that is, an agreed standard of behaviour; a relational element, that is, a link between those held accountable and those who hold to account; a decision element, that is, a judgement about whether the expected standard of behaviour is being met; and a sanctioning element, that is, an ability to sanction deviant behaviour. It is argued here that these four elements are essential to making an accountability relationship meaningful, yet the pressing challenge for accountability is that these elements are not often, or not all, present concurrently. The authors then highlight specific accountability and legitimacy challenges arising from defining characteristics of earth system transformation, including the spatial, temporal and functional interdependencies generated by such transformations, the inherent normative and scientific uncertainties associated with them, and the always present possibility of extreme events. How such characteristics of earth system transformation shape the accountability and legitimacy challenge is examined here, but is also put forward as a key set of issues meriting further research. Flowing from this analysis, an overall message of this introductory contribution is that, given the fundamentally relational nature of accountability and associated concepts of democratic legitimacy, agreeing on who is a stakeholder in earth system governance remains a first-order theoretical and practice challenge in the search for more accountable and legitimate governance.

This introductory contribution is followed by in-depth analysis of deliberative democracy and its relationship to earth system governance (Dryzek and Stevenson); the role for global administrative law in securing more accountable and legitimate earth system governance (Spagnuolo); and the complex inter-linkages between transparency, accountability and effectiveness of multilevel environmental governance arrangements (Mitchell). These conceptual contributions are complemented by analyses of accountability and legitimacy challenges in a broad array of public and private governance arrangements in specific issue-areas, including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (Schouten and Glasbergen); the new climate mitigation mechanism of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) (Lederer, and Rosendal and Andresen); and transnational public–private partnerships as a tool of water governance (Dellas). The theoretical and empirical insights deriving from these contributions are discussed in the Biermann and Gupta overview article in this issue.

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