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Research findings

The Earth System Governance Project’s “Harvesting Initiative” – Background

The Earth System Governance Project was launched in 2009 and has since then expanded into a broad community of more than 300 research fellows, lead faculty, fifteen research centers, an annual conference series, a set of groundbreaking taskforces, and a lively presence in cyberspace.

Given this growth and vitality of our community, we have decided to not close down our operations after a decade (as many other global change projects did), but rather to continue our project into the next decade of research.

To continue with new life and energy we invited a group of project members to write a new Science and Implementation Plan that has been launched in 2018. From this a new leadership team for the Project emerged. In addition, new efforts in institutionalizing the network have been taken, for example through new teaching cooperation, appointment of new research fellows and lead faculty, inclusion of additional research centers, and the creation of an Earth System Governance Foundation as a legal entity for the network.

At the same time, it becomes important to also harvest what has been achieved over the last decade. This is the rationale for the Harvesting Initiative under the Earth System Governance Project. The Harvesting Initiative will compile our key research findings in books or journal contributions, all supported by our vibrant social media outlets. This has resulted in numerous publications, special issues and edited volumes that have been published already. In addition, we will have special sessions and events for the Harvesting Initiative at our upcoming conferences, as well as in other professional and policy networks where we have built up a strong presence, for example the International Studies Association.

The Harvesting Initiative will systematically cover all key research findings based on the Project’s 2009 Science and Implementation Plan. Some harvesting efforts have turned into edited volumes with prominent publishing houses. With MIT Press, notably, we have a flagship “Earth System Governance series” with a top-rated publishing house that might take on some of the harvesting outputs. Furthermore, some harvesting efforts will be published by Cambridge University Press in the a special book series. Some products of the Harvesting Initiative will also be submitted as special journal issues. For each process, we will consider synthesis articles, policy briefs, and other types of output – such as videos and vlogs.

The challenge of harvesting the last ten years of Earth System Governance research is enormous. It thus requires a polycentric approach that relies on decentralized leadership of our lead faculty and members of our scientific steering committee, supported by the many research fellows that make up the core of our community. In addition, the International Project Office will support the decentralized harvesting teams with information, such as on publication data or conference papers for specific issues

Importantly, the process is open to all members of the community – if you are interested, please contact us:

  • The lead conveners mentioned below; or
  • the Earth System Governance International Project Office (

The following edited volumes are planned as products of the ‘Harvesting Initiative’ that brings together the findings of the first ten years of operation of the global research network ‘Earth System Governance Project’.

All titles are still working titles. The lists of authors might change as the process moves on.

Overall Integration Project

Navigating the Anthropocene: Key Insights from the Earth System Governance Project

Editors: Frank Biermann, Utrecht University; and Ruben Zondervan, Lund University

Navigating the Anthropocene brings together the entire project achievements so far. We target around 10-20 authors per chapter, to make it truly representative. This book will be ready for submission to a major academic publisher by mid-2019. This harvesting initiative is led by Frank Biermann (Utrecht University), and Ruben Zondervan (executive director, Earth System Governance Project).


Conceptual Foundations of Earth System Governance

Editors: James Meadowcroft, Carleton University, and Eva Lövbrand, Linköping University

This edited volume harvests research related to the conceptual foundations of earth system governance, one of the key research areas of the Earth System Governance Project. The work draws on the activities organized and encouraged by sub-working groups on critical concepts (such as the Anthropocene, Planetary Boundaries or Resilience) that serve to structure thinking and action related to the challenge of earth system governance in the twenty-first century. The group is organizing workshops to draw together findings across clusters of critical concepts. This edited volume presents this work to the broader community. This book is led by James Meadowcroft (Carleton University), who is also the convener of the Conceptual Foundations taskforce and member of the Earth System Governance Lead Faculty, and Eva Lövbrand, Linköping University, a senior research fellow with the Project.

Anthropocene Encounters: New Directions in Green Political Thinking

Edited by Frank Biermann and Eva Lövbrand, Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Coined barely two decades ago, the Anthropocene has become one of the most influential and controversial terms in environmental policy. Yet it remains an ambivalent and contested formulation, giving rise to a multitude of unexpected, and often uncomfortable, conversations. This book traces in detail a broad variety of such ‘Anthropocene encounters’: in science, philosophy and literary fiction. It asks what it means to ‘think green’ in a time when nature no longer offers a stable backdrop to political analysis. Do familiar political categories and concepts, such as democracy, justice, power and time, hold when confronted with a world radically transformed by humans? The book responds by inviting more radical political thought, plural forms of engagement, and extended ethical commitments, making it a fascinating and timely volume for graduate students and researchers working in earth system governance, environmental politics and studies of the Anthropocene.

Policy Reform

Governing Through Goals: Sustainable Development Goals as Governance Innovation

Edited by Norichika Kanie and Frank Biermann, MIT Press (ESG Series), 2017

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Sustainable Development Goals built on and broadened the earlier Millennium Development Goals, but they also signaled a larger shift in governance strategies. The seventeen goals add detailed content to the concept of sustainable development, identify specific targets for each goal, and help frame a broader, more coherent, and transformative 2030 agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals aim to build a universal, integrated framework for action that reflects the economic, social, and planetary complexities of the twenty-first century. This book examines in detail the core characteristics of goal setting, asking when it is an appropriate governance strategy and how it differs from other approaches; analyzes the conditions under which a goal-oriented agenda can enable progress toward desired ends; and considers the practical challenges in implementation.

Contributors: Dora Almassy, Steinar Andresen, Noura Bakkour, Steven Bernstein, Frank Biermann, Thierry Giordano, Aarti Gupta, Joyeeta Gupta, Peter M. Haas, Masahiko Iguchi, Norichika Kanie, Rakhyun E. Kim, Marcel Kok, Kanako Morita, Måns Nilsson, László Pintér, Michelle Scobie, Noriko Shimizu, Casey Stevens, Arild Underdal, Tancrède Voituriez, Takahiro Yamada, Oran R. Young

Architecture Theme

Global Governance for the Earth: Transforming Institutional Architectures in the Anthropocene

Editors: Frank Biermann, Utrecht University; and Rakhyun E. Kim, Utrecht University

This edited volume of short and accessible ‘synthesis’ chapters brings together earth system governance scholarship on the Project’s analytical problem of ‘architecture’ and, at the same time, proposes novel reform options and future research directions. The volume covers various dimensions of the architectures of earth system governance, such as (1) concepts (interplay; regime complexes; fragmentation; orchestration; environmental policy integration; and ecological integrity); (2) domains of governance (intergovernmental institutions; international bureaucracies; private governance; non-territorial architectures; and architectures beyond national jurisdiction); and (3) policy reform and new research directions. A glossary of key terms in the Architecture debate will be included in the end.

The initiative is led by Frank Biermann (Utrecht University and chair, Earth System Governance Project), and Rakhyun E. Kim (Utrecht University and Senior Research Fellow and Lead Author, New Directions team, Earth System Governance Project). Earth System Governance Lead Faculty members who contribute to this initiative include Kenneth Abbott, Steinar Andresen, Peter Driessen, Ronald B. Mitchell, Sebastian Oberthür, and Oran R. Young.

Still Managers of Global Change? Reassessing the Role and Influence of International Environmental Bureaucracies

Editors: Helge Jörgens, ISCTE – Lisbon University Institute; Nina Kolleck, Freie Universität Berlin; Barbara Saerbeck, Freie Universität Berlin; and Mareike Well, Freie Universität Berlin

Scholars of earth system governance have increasingly turned their attention to the role and impact of the bureaucratic bodies of international organizations. A particular focus has been on the secretariats of multilateral environmental conventions as potentially influential actors in world politics. A key debate relates here to the degree to which these international public administrations can act autonomously, that is, beyond the direct control of a treaty’s member states. Moreover, scholars have started to explore the extent to which treaty secretariats are able to exert autonomous influence on the processes, outputs and the implementation of multilateral treaty negotiations as well as the causal mechanisms through which this influence is exercised. A decade after the seminal study by Biermann and colleagues (Biermann and Siebenhüner 2009), which set the stage for a rapidly growing research programme on the influence of international environmental bureaucracies, this book unites new contributions with innovative theoretical conceptualizations and recent empirical findings. It maps the conceptual, methodological and empirical advances of a decade of rich research and outline avenues for future research. In doing so, the book aims to provide a comprehensive resource for the study of international public administrations in global environmental politics as well as a valuable source for policymakers concerned with the chances and restrictions of global environmental and climate governance.

Contributors include Karin Bäckstrand, Stockholm University, Sweden; Michael W. Bauer, German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer, Germany; Frank Biermann, University Utrecht, The Netherlands; Steffen Eckhard, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany; Jörn Ege, German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer, Germany; Nina Hall, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Italy; Thomas Hickmann, University of Potsdam, Germany; Helge Jörgens, ISCTE – Lisbon University Institute, Portugal; Christoph Knill, Ludwig-Maxi­milian University Munich, Germany; Nina Kolleck, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany; Jonathan W. Kuyper, University of Oslo, Norway; Markus Lederer, Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany; Volker Mauerhofer, United Nations University, Japan; Axel Michaelowa, University of Zurich, Switzerland; Katharina Michaelowa, University of Zurich, Switzerland; Philipp Pattberg, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Barbara Saerbeck, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany; Bernd Siebenhüner, Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany; Severin Sperzel, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany; Mareike Well, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany; Oscar Widerberg, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Architectures of Earth System Governance. Institutional Complexity and Structural Transformation

Editors: Frank Biermann, Utrecht University; Rakhyun E. Kim, Utrecht University

International institutions are prevalent in world politics. More than a thousand multilateral treaties are in place just to protect the environment alone, and there are many more. And yet, it is also clear that these institutions do not operate in a void but are enmeshed in larger, highly complex webs of governance arrangements. This compelling book conceptualises these broader structures as the ‘architectures’ of global governance. Here, over 40 international relations scholars offer an authoritative synthesis of a decade of research on global governance architectures with an empirical focus on protecting the environment and vital earth systems. They investigate the structural intricacies of earth system governance and explain how global architectures enable or hinder individual institutions and their overall effectiveness. The book offers much-needed conceptual clarity about key building blocks and structures of complex governance architectures, charts detailed directions for new research, and provides analytical groundwork for policy reform.

Agency Theme

Agency in Earth System Governance

Agency in Earth System Governance provides state-of-the-art understanding of how diverse actors engage with environmental decision-making and exercise authority in steering society towards (and away from) a more sustainable future as well as their capacity to deliver effective, legitimate, and equitable earth system governance. Drawing on a systematic analysis of 322 journal articles published in the period 2008-2016, the chapters offer an accessible synthesis of this broad body of literature and a valuable orientation to some of the field’s major questions and debates. Chapters in Part I reflect on how agents and agency are conceptualized, the theories and methods deployed, and the issues and geographies incorporated in the literature. Part II addresses agency and the dynamics of earth system governance, covering many of the ESG Project’s core analytical problems (architecture, adaptiveness, access and allocation, and accountability) and cross-cutting themes (power, knowledge, norms, and scale). The volume also includes chapters on the performance of governance functions, the evaluation of agents and agency, and the policy implications of ESG-Agency research.

This project is led by Michele Betsill, Tabitha Benney, and Andrea Gerlak. Other contributors include Paivi Abernethy, Michael Angstadt, Jennifer Bansard, Marie-Claire Brisbois, Calum Brown, Devon Cantwell, Sander Chan, Thomas Eimer, Alison Elder, Okechukwu Enechi, Laura Iozelli, Jorrit Luimers, Manjana Milkoreit, Megan Mills-Novoa, Ronald Mitchell, Ina Möller, Amandine Orsini, Hyeyoon Park, James Patterson, Kumar Salla Nithyanth, Luuk Schmitz, Michelle Scobie, Pritee Sharma, Kanak Singh, Sandra van der Hel, and Oscar Widerberg.

The book can be pre-ordered here.

Urban Climate Politics: Agency and Empowerment

Edited by Jeroen van der Heijden, Harriet Bulkeley and Chiara Certomà, Cambridge University Press, 2019

Since the 1990s, a burgeoning literature has emerged on urban climate politics and governance. It is now evident that urban responses to climate change involve a diverse range of actors as well as forms of agency that cross traditional boundaries, and that have diverse consequences for (dis)empowering different social groups.
This book provides an overview of the forms of agency in urban climate politics, discussing the friction and power dynamics between them. Written by renowned scholars, it critically assesses the advantages and limitations of increasing agency in urban climate governance. In doing so, it sheds critical new light on the existing literature, advances the state of knowledge of urban climate governance, and discusses ways to accelerate urban climate action. With chapters building on case studies from across the world, it is ideal for scholars and practitioners working in the area of urban climate politics and governance.

This harvesting initiative is led by Jeroen van der Heijden (Australian National University, and Lead Author of the New Directions in Earth System Governance), Harriet Bulkeley (Durham University, Earth System Governance Lead Faculty), and Chiara Certomà (Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa, Earth System Governance Research Fellow).

Adaptiveness Theme

Adaptiveness – Changing Earth System Governance

The Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan identified adaptiveness as an ‘umbrella term for a set of related concepts—vulnerability, resilience, adaptation, robustness, adaptive capacity, social learning and so on—to describe changes made by social groups in response to, or in anticipation of, challenges created through environmental change’. Since then, governance processes of adaptiveness, particularly in the field of climate change adaptation, evolved into a highly dynamic manner including international, national-level and countless local and community-based activities. Concomitantly, there has been ample research on these processes within the Earth System Governance Project. The edited volume on Adaptiveness brings together key insights and conceptual advancements from this field. The focus is to bring together experiences from different world regions as well as levels of decision making. In addition, synthesis activities are conducted to bring together cross-cutting experiences of conceptual developments as well as to overarching lessons and remaining research challenges. Key questions in this book include: What are the politics of adaptiveness? Which governance processes foster adaptiveness? What attributes of governance systems enhance capacities to adapt? How, when and why does adaptiveness influence earth system governance?

This initiative is led by Bernd Siebenhüner (Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg) and Riyanti Djalante (United Nations University). Other contributors include: Dave Huitema, Louis Lebel, Courtney Schultz, Peter Stoett, Pedro Fidelman, Annie Montpetit, Asim Zia, and Carolyn Peach Brown.

The book will be available over the late summer of 2020.

The Politics of Adaptation to Climate Change and the Impacts of Large-scale Water Infrastructure

One harvesting product on the Adaptiveness theme will be a synthesis paper on what has been learnt about the politics of adaptation to climate change in managing water resources and river basins – some of it directly inspired by the conceptual distinctions and questions raised by the Earth System Governance Project. The emphasis of this paper is on transboundary waters, but the analysis recognizes that impacts and governance are both multi-level. One of the most important findings is that adaptation politics are interwoven with the contestation over the benefits and negative impacts of large-scale water infrastructure. Another is that interactions between climate change and infrastructure usually (but not invariably) exacerbate the challenges of maintaining river health, equitable water allocation, acceptable flood risks, and good water quality. For these two reasons this analysis takes into account infrastructure whenever examining climate change. The analysis will also explore the growing empirical set of case studies of adaptation and governance in the water sector to examine: how adaptation in the water sector is framed, negotiated and implemented; how benefits and burdens of adaptation projects are distributed; the influence and strategies of non-state actors in adaptation projects; and, how attributes of water governance systems might be important for capacities to adapt. Finally, information will be synthesized on how international agreements are being adjusted, and how expert knowledge and uncertainties about future climate, water demand, and impacts, are or are not being addressed. These later findings provide preliminary answers to the question of how, when and why do systems of governance themselves adapt.

This initiative is led by Louis Lebel (Chiang Mai University, and founding member, Earth System Governance Project Scientific Steering Committee).

Accountability Theme

Transparency in Global Environmental Governance: Critical Perspectives

Edited by Aarti Gupta and Michael Mason, MIT Press (ESG Series), 2014

Transparency—openness, secured through greater availability of information—is increasingly seen as part of the solution to a complex array of economic, political, and ethical problems in an interconnected world. The “transparency turn” in global environmental governance in particular is seen in a range of international agreements, voluntary disclosure initiatives, and public-private partnerships. This is the first book to investigate whether transparency in global environmental governance is in fact a broadly transformative force or plays a more limited, instrumental role. After three conceptual, context-setting chapters, the book examines ten specific and diverse instances of “governance by disclosure.” These include state-led mandatory disclosure initiatives that rely on such tools as prior informed consent and monitoring, measuring, reporting and verification; and private (or private-public), largely voluntary efforts that include such corporate transparency initiatives as the Carbon Disclosure Project and such certification schemes as the Forest Stewardship Council. The cases, which focus on issue areas including climate change, biodiversity, biotechnology, natural resource exploitation, and chemicals, demonstrate that although transparency is ubiquitous, its effects are limited and often specific to particular contexts. The book explores in what circumstances transparency can offer the possibility of a new emancipatory politics in global environmental governance.

More about the transparency book is available here.

Global Environmental Governance and the Accountability Trap

Edited by Susan Park and Teresa Kramarz, MIT Press (ESG Series), 2019

An examination of whether accountability mechanisms in global environmental governance that focus on monitoring and enforcement necessarily lead to better governance and better environmental outcomes.

The rapid development of global environmental governance has been accompanied by questions of accountability. Efforts to address what has been called “a culture of unaccountability” include greater transparency, public justification for governance decisions, and the establishment of monitoring and enforcement procedures. And yet, as this volume shows, these can lead to an “accountability trap”—a focus on accountability measures rather than improved environmental outcomes. Through analyses and case studies, the contributors consider how accountability is being used within global environmental governance and if the proliferation of accountability tools enables governance to better address global environmental deterioration. Examining public, private, voluntary, and hybrid types of global environmental governance, the volume shows that the different governance goals of the various actors shape the accompanying accountability processes. These goals—from serving constituents to reaping economic benefits—determine to whom and for what the actors must account.

After laying out a theoretical framework for its analyses, the book addresses governance in the key areas of climate change, biodiversity, fisheries, and trade and global value chains. The contributors find that normative biases shape accountability processes, and they explore the potential of feedback mechanisms between institutions and accountability rules for enabling better governance and better environmental outcomes.

Contributors Graeme Auld, Harro van Asselt, Cristina Balboa, Lieke Brouwer, Lorraine Elliott, Lars H. Gulbrandsen, Aarti Gupta, Teresa Kramarz, Susan Park, Philipp Pattberg, William H. Schaedla, Hamish van der Ven, Oscar Widerberg

Other relevant publications edited by Teresa Kramarz and Susan Park:

Democracy in Earth System Governance

Work in progress.

Allocation and Access Theme

Access and Allocation in Earth System Governance

Edited by Prof. Joyeeta Gupta and Dr. Louis Lebel

This Special Issue on ‘Access and Allocation in Earth System Governance‘ undertakes a review and analysis of of the terms Access and Allocation as per the analytical theme in the Earth System Governance Project initial Science Plan, in order to harvest lessons learnt, to test emerging ideas and further theory development on governance. The Special Issue, consisting of 12 articles, forms part of the Earth System Governance Harvesting Initiative which compiles key research finding from the first decade of the global research alliance.

By reviewing literature of the last decade, this Special Issue assesses the scope and depth of ideas with intellectual merit covering access and allocation across disciplines by authors in the field of earth system governance. Each articles provides an overview of the field and aims to serve as entry portals to literature on access and allocation. The special issue also contrast work and research on the terms access and allocation to closely related concepts in academic literature such as justice, equity, distributive issues and fairness.

International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics is a peer-reviewed, multi-disciplinary journal that focuses on the theoretical, methodological and practical dimensions of cooperative solutions to international environmental problems. Free access to the Special Issue is provided until 3 September 2020.

Flagship Activities

Food Governance

The Global Environmental Politics of Food 

Edited by Jennifer Clapp and Caitlin Scott, MIT Press, 2018

This special issue seeks to expand our understanding of the complex inter- linkages between the politics and governance of the global environment, on one hand, and the global food system on the other. The articles in this issue explore insights that the field of global environmental politics can bring to questions of food system sustainability, while at the same time considering what the relationship between food systems and the environment reveals about the nature of global environmental politics. The authors examine how issues at the intersection of environment and food are framed in international political settings; the articles explore the political and economic dynamics surrounding different actors—including states, corporations, civil society organizations, and marginalized populations—in shaping debates around how best to govern these issues.

In addition to the special issue proposal, we are considering an edited book to further consolidate work in this area under the Earth System Governance Project. The harvesting initiative on food governance is open to all Earth System Governance Project members working in this field, and is led by Jennifer Clapp, University of Waterloo, and member of the Earth System Governance Lead Faculty.

Water Governance

Work in progress. This effort will be developed by Joyeeta Gupta (University of Amsterdam and member, Earth System Governance Project Scientific Steering Committee).

Climate Governance

Kuyper, Jonathan W., Björn‐Ola Linnér, Heike Schroeder. 2018. Non‐State Actors in Hybrid Global Climate Governance: Justice, Legitimacy, and Effectiveness in a Post‐Paris Era. WIREs Climate Change, 9:e497.

Kuyper, J.W., H. Schroeder and B.-O. Linnér (2018), The Evolution of the UNFCCC, Annual Review of Environment and Resources 43: 343-368