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Explore the Science and Implementation Plan

The Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan sets out the agenda for the next decade of earth system governance research.

It has been developed in the New Directions Initiative of the research community and provides an overview of environmental, economic, social and political trends that define the context of the next generation of earth system governance research.

The 2018 Science and Implementation Plan is organized, around five research lenses and four contextual conditions for conceptualizing and organizing Earth System Governance research. Below, you can explore shorter explanations of the research framework components. For deeper reading, you can:

Research Lenses

A core part of the framework are the five sets of research lenses. These lenses together provide a multifaceted view of earth system governance. Individually, they relate to established or emerging research fields, with roots in various social scientific disciplines. The lenses were intentionally coupled to enrich the analysis of earth system governance, by highlighting not only similarities but also productive tensions between the two paired concepts. Individual lenses can be paired in myriad ways and new pairings can lead to new research questions. These five pairs of concepts represent dynamic clusters of social scientific research, each inviting the engagement of diverse disciplines and research traditions.

Adaptiveness & Reflexivity

This research lens focuses on understanding how societies can navigate change towards global sustainability. Adaptiveness is “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” (Biermann et al., 2009a:45). In the context of earth system governance, reflexivity refers to the ability of actors and institutions to critically reflect on their own performance (especially their environmental impacts), and to reshape their goals, practices and values accordingly in order to wisely navigate complex, contested and changing human-environmental systems (Voss and Kemp, 2006; Dryzek, 2016). While these two concepts overlap, adaptiveness emphasizes responses to changing social and ecological conditions (which may be coordinated, self-organized or emergent), while reflexivity emphasizes the centrality of critical scrutiny of prevailing values and practices in governing processes of change. This distinction is also helpful in light of increasing interest among both academics and policymakers in solutions-oriented activities in earth system governance, for example, as part of efforts to bring about transformations to sustainability.

Anticipation & Imagination

Increasingly, earth system governance includes proliferating processes of anticipating and imagining diverse futures, including, among others, through modelling, integrated assessments, foresight and scenario building. There is an urgent need to examine how to govern such diverse anticipation processes, but also to scrutinize how anticipation itself becomes a site of politics and governance. Analysing these twin processes is a crucial and timely task for the social and interdisciplinary sciences, including for the earth system governance community.

Architecture & Agency

This research lens focuses on understanding the institutional frameworks and actors implicated in earth system governance and how these institutions and actors resist or respond to change and evolve over time. Over the last decade, researchers studying governance have increasingly highlighted the interaction between architecture and agency within governance systems. Combining these topics as a coupled research lens offers new opportunities for understanding dynamics and change in governance systems and the actors herein, as a key ambition of the new Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan.

Democracy & Power

Democracy worldwide is under pressure from new configurations of power within states, notably the resurgence of populism and authoritarianism, often with a strident anti-environmental tenor (Bomberg, 2017). Political currents at the national level may in turn have far-reaching implications for the international community’s capacity to solve collective problems. In these conditions it is imperative for future research in earth system governance to examine whether new conceptions of democracy and power can help make sense of, and craft responses to, these trends. Earth system governance research must also contend with the fact that the exercise of power extending well beyond conventional political institutions may influence global environmental change, not least through the ways in which business interests and dominant discourses shape patterns of production and consumption.

Justice & Allocation

Questions of justice and allocation are becoming central political discourses in a world with growing inequalities within and across national borders. Currently, governments and intergovernmental organizations formulate goals and set priorities for action that aim to address these issues on a global scale. As justice and its core demand of allocation become fundamental political and social concerns, there is an urgent need to develop a systematic analytical, philosophical and empirical investigation thereby.

Contextual Conditions

Against the backdrop of complex and dynamic trends worldwide, contextual conditions represent meta-level conditions that define the research context we observe at the outset of the second decade of earth system governance research (2018-2028). These four conditions, or concepts, encompass and distill broader patterns of change. All four are subject to extensive empirical research and scientific and societal debate. They are intended to help provide a common language for the research context in which the Earth System Governance Project operates, and to stimulate interesting and relevant research questions when brought together with research lenses.


The Anthropocene concept encapsulates the idea that humanity now exerts a pervasive influence on the earth system. While the Anthropocene concept remains debated, there is growing recognition that its use in research and policy must reflect global interconnectedness and acknowledge diversity across human societies. The Anthropocene poses major challenges for earth system governance due to the urgency of global environmental risks, uncertainty about how the earth system will respond to human influence, and the complexities associated with addressing the multiple drivers of those risks.


Diversity refers to ways of being, valuing, knowing, and doing, resulting in differences in world views, norms, knowledge systems. As such, diversity conditions governance research and practice. As the society-nature dichotomy increasingly fades, we should consider governance responses in the context of the diversity of socio-ecological systems.


Inequality as a contextual condition for earth system governance research has multiple manifestations and consequences. Environmental inequality worsens the position of already vulnerable groups worldwide. Economic inequality is deeply interlinked with environmental unsustainability and intertwined in multiple ways with poverty. Inequality provides a context from which new and challenging questions emerge for earth system governance research.


The deepening urgency of global sustainability and human development challenges is catapulting a focus on transformative change to the forefront of earth system governance. Transformations are deeply political and contested, which poses major challenges for earth system governance research. A tension exists between the emergent, bottom-up nature of transformations and efforts to steer or guide them. New approaches to governance research must interrogate and navigate these tensions. Sustainability transformations have significant implications for equity and social justice along with ecological concerns, but this intersection is vastly under-researched. Transformations may be fluid, shifting and complex phenomena that have no clear beginning or end. This suggests the need for evaluative tools that are iteratively revised, and encompass longer time horizons.
Infographic ESG