Put simply, governance is the design and execution of policy. Global environmental governance is the design and execution of environmental policy at the global level with the purpose to address global problems that demand collective action.

The global environmental governance (GEG) system originated in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972 during the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.  As a result of this conference, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was created to coordinate the efforts of existing and emerging institutions toward a common outlook and common principles to inspire and guide the peoples and nations of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment.

Over past forty years, the GEG system has grown in size and complexity and currently comprises a large number of international institutions and organizations which cooperate (and sometimes compete) with counterparts on regional, national, and local levels.

Among the key stakeholders in the GEG system are multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) and conventions on a range of issues such as endangered species, fisheries, air pollution, ozone, climate change, desertification and biodiversity; various UN agencies and programmes such as the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, and the UN Development Programme; and international financial and development institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

Despite its scope and reach, however, the GEG system cannot govern the global environment as such. Rather, it can set the governance parameters for human activity. The GEG system was indeed envisioned to serve as an interface between economic and social development on the one hand and environmental systems on the other, ensuring the continuity of the former while protecting ecosystem integrity and preventing irreversible environmental deterioration.

The key purpose of the GEG system is therefore threefold: 1) to minimize negative anthropogenic impact on the global environment, 2) to reduce the threat multiplier effects of global environmental change, and 3) to strengthen the ability of various states and societies to adapt to and build resilience for changing climatic and other environmental circumstances. The GEG system strives to achieve these goals through harmonizing economic, industrial and social interactions while strongly urging the reduction of our ecological footprint and stewardship of environmental systems.

While solutions to many environmental problems have been found, these have generally been local, not connected to global environmental policy, and few have been sustained over time. Contemporary environmental challenges have proven persistent and ever wider in scope demanding the cooperation of all nations and many non-state actors.

Continuously evolving in response to the changing environmental problems and socioeconomic conditions, the GEG system has reached a point of excessive institutional fragmentation. In the absence of clear goals, common vision, and effective communication and coordination among institutions, a gap between a growing body of policies and decreasing implementation has emerged.

Recognizing the need for global collective action to solve problems such as climate change, ozone depletion, or biodiversity loss, governments launched a political process for reforming global environmental governance. Coordinated by UNEP, the political effort is dubbed the “Belgrade process” after the Serbian capital where environment ministers met in 2009. Options for reforming the GEG system should be presented to the United Nations General Assembly in 2011.

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The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that there are 500 multilateral environmental agreements in existence. (UNEP 2009 Annual Report)

Dozens of UN agencies work on various environmental issues leading to a multiplicity of institutions in the field.     With little communication among UN agencies, funds, and programmes, multiplicity has turned into fragmentation. (Maria Ivanova)

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Translator: Maria Ivanova (Washington D.C., USA), Director, Global Environmental Governance Project and Assistant Professor of Government and Environmental Policy, The College of William & Mary