13 December 2018
Towards more sustainable governance
Interview originally published in the Impact Magazine impact.pub, November 2018.
Why was the Earth Systems Governance Project set up, and what does the work of the organisation involve?
The governance systems that are set up to steer societies towards preventing,mitigating and adapting to environmental change are insufficiently understood and performing poorly. Increasing the understanding and contributing to the improvement of governance for sustainability through cutting-edge research is the rationale for the Earth System Governance Project. The Project was established in 2009 and has since developed into a global alliance of researchers and research institutions. In addition to undertaking fundamental and applied research, the Project also engages in policy advisory, teaching and capacity building – often in close collaboration with decision makers and stakeholders.
What are the current key research challenges on global environmental change and sustainable development, and how is the Earth System Governance research alliance working to address these?
Governance and behavioural change is not only a question of governance effectiveness, but also a challenge for political legitimacy, inclusiveness, liberty and social justice. Research on this is obviously at the core of the Earth System Governance network. Another research challenge, which we address through collaboration with natural sciences, humanities, arts, the private-sector and civil society actors, is that of transformative change. Incremental change will not be sufficient to cope with the societal challenges posed by global environmental change; but how and toward what to transform, is scientifically complex and has significant normative aspects.
How will the Earth System Governance Project assist integrated decision making and policy development in regards to earth system transformation?
Even though the Earth System Governance research alliance is predominantly focussing on cutting-edge scientific research, it is also designed to assist policy responses. It aims at improving the science-policy dialogue and at exploring and implementing more effective ways of translating complex, interdisciplinary social science research into policy-relevant insights and information. To this end, many researchers engage in advisory groups to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), other UN agencies, and national and regional governmental and nongovernmental organisations; contribute to scientific assessments; or serve in national delegations to intergovernmental negotiations. With the compilations of policy assessments that synthesise the research findings to specific policyrelevant questions, the global, diverse and interdisciplinary Earth System Governance network brings to bear its collective knowledge and insights.
Coordinating efforts for such a large network must be challenging. How do you support collaboration and communication within the alliance across the globe?
Coordination is challenging indeed – not just because of the scope of the Project’s research and the size of its interdisciplinary international network, but also because of decentralised funding and its non-hierarchical network structures. This requires innovative research management and boundary work. Continuous communication in person, through social media or via virtual meeting platforms is key. Virtues like trust, patience and improvisation are assets. That said, the network has developed a strong element of self-coordination. The connections brokered and fostered by the Project between individual researchers (particularly the early career researchers) in our global network have resulted in numerous interactions that strengthen the network. And last but not least,the solid long-term hosting of the Earth System Governance International Project Office – at Lund University since 2011 and at Utrecht University from 2019 on – is an essential anchor in the dynamic network.
How much progress has been made towards Europe achieving sustainable development? What steps do you consider essential to ensuring the gains in this area are sustained or built on?
Measuring progress depends on which metric is used and how one defines sustainable development as objective. In a comparative global perspective, Europe is certainly not underperforming. Single issue environmental problems, like pollution of surface water, are being addressed quite successfully. Measured against the problems ahead, most of which are rather complex and span environmental, social and economic aspects, there is a long way to go. Integrating sustainability throughout all policy domains would be a necessary step to take. Also, the false dichotomy of environment versus economy is still prevalent and hampering necessary change. Again, sustainability may require transformative change. Good intentions and incremental change may not suffice. Moreover, it will be important to strengthen the scientific knowledge base and the science-policy mechanisms. The European Environment Agency has been doing solid work on this for decennia. The Chief Science Advisor in the previous European Commission was one other attempt in this direction; the current Scientific Advice Mechanism, another. The most important, though, is a research and innovation policy striving for high quality research.
What do you consider will be the big sustainable development topics of interest in the coming few years, and what steps is the Earth System Governance Project taking to ensure that the world is well placed to address these?
The Sustainable Development Goals are increasingly structuring sustainable development efforts. The research agenda will reflect that, and will have to address not only the goals but also the principles underpinning them, like universality and leaving no one behind – and in that vein, I see themes like planetary justice as an emerging issue. Important and interesting are the interactions between major global developments. For instance, even the best environmental agreement will not achieve its objectives if trade agreements are not aligned,or if agricultural policies remain unchanged. Climate change will remain a dominating item on the agenda though, and the emergence of issues like climate engineering will add complex new dimensions to it. It would be presumptuous to assume that the Earth System Governance Project can ensure that the world is well placed to address these issues. What we can do, and are doing successfully, is to make sure that the scientific community is well placed to address these issues by producing relevant, high quality research in a timely manner.
Do you have any important outreach activities planned within the Earth System Governance Project in the near future?
Our annual open science conference is the highlight in a calendar full of workshops, lectures and other events. The conference this year in Utrecht, the Netherlands, marks the 10-year anniversary of the Project and sees the launch of a renewed research agenda, as well as the start of the hosting of the Project’s International Project Office at Utrecht University. In addition, the Earth System Governance Project entered a partnership on governance for global sustainability with Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future. The partnership will strengthen the evidence base of the multi-stakeholder facilitation processes by Stakeholder Forum and the impact of the policy solutions derived from the fundamental and applied research by the Earth System Governance Project. A first joint event was held at the United Nations Environment Assembly in December 2017. With this partnership, a research agenda fit for the years to come, a successful decennium of operations and a global network, the project will be optimally positioned to address understanding and improving of governance for sustainability.