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About the project

Earth System Governance — a global research alliance, is the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change. The Earth System Governance research alliance takes up the challenge of exploring political solutions and novel, more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet. The normative context of this research is sustainable development; earth system governance is not only a question of institutional effectiveness, but also of political legitimacy and social justice.

The Earth System Governance Project is a core project of Future Earth.

Read more about the Earth System Governance Science Plan and Research Agenda.


Since prehistoric times, humans have altered their local environment. Beginning about a century ago, they are altering their planet. More and more parameters of the earth system are changing due to human influences. The scientific knowledge about the earth system and its current transformation becomes more confident every day. Humans now seem to influence all biological and physical systems of the planet. The entire earth system now operates well outside the normal state exhibited over the past 500,000 years. Thus, there is an urgent need to develop better governance mechanisms and institutions at all levels to cope with this emerging earth system transformation.

Yet it is apparent that the institutions, organizations, and governance mechanisms by which humans currently regulate their relationship with the natural environment and global biochemical systems are not only insufficient. They are also poorly understood. More fundamental and applied research on the global, national and local institutions and governance systems is therefore needed. This research must address all levels of policy-making and cut across many sectors. It must be about the people who are drivers of global environmental change and at the same time part of any solution. It must be about places in all their variety and diversity, yet seek to integrate place-based research in a global understanding of the overall challenge to steer human interaction vis-à-vis earth system transformation. Eventually, this research will need to be about our planet. It is the task of developing integrated systems of governance, from the local to the global level, that ensure the sustainable development of the coupled socio-ecological system that the Earth has become. We call this research challenge ´earth system governance´. This term signals, in our view, a paradigmatic change from governing local and national environmental problems to coping with a more fundamental transformation of the earth system.

This research need has been recognised in March 2007 by the Scientific Committee of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), which mandated a scientific planning committee to draft a science plan for a new IHDP Earth System Governance Project. A draft version of this Science Plan has been reviewed by more than 40 researchers and practitioners. At its 15th Meeting, October 2008 in New Delhi, India, the IHDP Scientific Committee approved the Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan, and appointed the Scientific Steering Committee (ESG SSC). This approval marked the official launch of the Earth System Governance Project, as a new core project of IHDP. In 2015, the Project became a core project of Future Earth – the overarching international research platform that seeks to provide the scientific knowledge needed to accelerate transformations towards a more sustainable world.

Policy Relevance

The Earth System Governance Project, while being essentially a scientific effort, is also designed to assist policy responses to the pressing problems of earth system transformation. All analytical problems studied in the project have profound policy implications. For example, the problem of the architecture of earth system governance is a key concern of current negotiations and political processes that are often faced with ‘treaty congestion’ and complex interlinkages between different institutions, for instance between multilateral environmental agreements and the World Trade Organization. ‘Fragmented’ governance architectures are also an increasing problem for decision-makers, particularly in climate policy. A related concern is the reform of the United Nations, for example with a view to the debate on a United Nations Environment Organization. At national and local levels, architecture is a key concern for decision-makers dealing with policy integration, the comparative effectiveness of policy instruments, and the integration of decision-making from international, national and local levels. Research on agency within the project will generate novel ideas on the integration of civil society actors in earth system governance, and on the advantages and disadvantages of private and public-private governance arrangements. Research on governance of adaptation and the adaptiveness of governance arrangements will inform policy-makers who have to deal with adapting politics and policies to a changing world. The accountability and legitimacy of decision-making, from local to global levels, is equally a key problem for public policy. Finally, the research on allocation and access will help to improve governance outcomes and advance philosophical and ethical discourses on an equitable approach to earth system governance.

In 2017, the Earth System Governance Project strengthened its policy relevance through the Governance for Global Sustainability Partnership with Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future.