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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May/June 2012:In This Issue

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Greening the United Nations Charter: World Politics in the Anthropocene

Numerous science assessments indicate that the environmental crisis has reached a new stage, progressing from local ecological degradation to Earth system transformation. The four global change research programs warned in 2001 that the entire Earth system “has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented.”1 The evidence of human influence on planetary systems today is such that stratigraphy experts discuss whether to classify the present time as a new epoch in planetary history, the “Anthropocene.”2A group of experts led by Johan Rockstrüm defined in 2009 several boundary conditions in the Earth system that could, if crossed, result in a major disruption in (parts of) the planetary system. According to this study, three threshold values have been breached in recent decades: atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, species extinction rates, and nitrogen removal.3

For these reasons, international research programs argue that the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth system must now be replaced “by deliberate strategies of good management that sustain the Earth's environment while meeting social and economic development objectives.”4 As Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and Veerabhadran Ramanathan conclude, “To develop a worldwide accepted strategy leading to sustainability of ecosystems against human-induced stresses will be one of the great tasks of human societies.”5

There is no dearth of political responses to this challenge. More than 900 treaties on environmental protection are in force, and “sustainable development” has become a catchword that features on 32 million websites. In June 2012, the United Nations will organize in Rio de Janeiro a major summit to further advance international policymaking: the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (hence known as “Rio+20”) and the 40th anniversary of the landmark 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. One of the two main themes of the 2012 conference will be a strengthening of the institutional framework for sustainable development.

So far, discursive developments in the political sphere remain fixated on short-term incremental change, without a vision for broader reform. In the science community, however, a different discourse has evolved, triggered by a growing sense of urgency about large-scale transformations in the Earth system and the transgression of planetary boundaries. In the run-up to the 2012 Rio Conference, several international research organizations have come forward with calls for effective “Earth system governance,”6 long-term “planetary stewardship,”7 and a “constitutional moment”8 that should lead to a series of much-needed reforms in current global governance and UN politics. A press release by the organizers of the open science conference Planet Under Pressure (held in March 2012 in London)—issued jointly by the International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme, the World Climate Research Programme, the biodiversity sciences program Diversitas, and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change—even calls upon governments to fundamentally “overhaul” the entire UN system.9

Yet how such an overhaul should be organized in practice remains vaguely defined so far. Four reforms of the UN system, I argue, would advance global decisionmaking toward more effective Earth system governance and planetary stewardship. These reforms would address four shortcomings in the current system: lack of integration of economic and environmental policies in the UN system; institutional fragmentation and weakness of the environmental pillar of sustainable development; lack of high-level regulatory competence and oversight regarding areas beyond national jurisdiction; and insufficient integration of scientific insights into political decisionmaking. I address each reform proposal in turn.

Integrating Environmental and Economic Governance: A UN Sustainable Development Council

At present, the environmental and the economic pillars of sustainable development are poorly integrated, and both are dealt with in different sets of institutions. Global economic governance is largely regulated outside the UN system through the governing bodies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the regulatory system of the World Trade Organization, and the Group of 20 major economies as emerging, overarching informal negotiation forum. Environmental governance, on its part, relies on a decentralized system of a few hundred multilateral environmental agreements, supported by the UN Environment Programme and specialized subunits in various international organizations.

To better integrate environmental and economic and other policies, governments set up in 1992 the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). Yet this commission has not met the expectations placed in it. Its standing in the UN system remains low, the importance given to it by governments too little, and its power to influence economic or social decisionmaking insignificant.10 The commission remains largely under the purview of the national ministries of the environment. Economic or finance ministries are hardly involved.

The CSD reports to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which elects the commission's members based on regional representation. The ECOSOC is a principal organ of the United Nations, created in 1946 to coordinate economic and social activities of the UN specialized agencies, functional commissions, and regional commissions. In the vision of the drafters of the UN Charter, this council would serve as the central forum for discussing international economic and social issues and for issuing policy recommendations directed at both governments and UN agencies. Even though environmental policy is not mentioned in the UN Charter owing to the time of its negotiation, environmental policies and sustainable development fall today in fact under the purview of ECOSOC. The ECOSOC is based on regional representation; its 54 members include 14 governments from Africa, 11 from Asia, 6 from Eastern Europe, 10 from to Latin America and the Caribbean, and 13 from Western European and other states. While some larger countries are often reelected as members of ECOSOC, the council includes a large number of smaller countries with equal voting rights, unlike the governing bodies of the Bretton Woods institutions (which are based on financial contributions and hence economic relevance) or the Group of 20 major economies. Neither the CSD nor ECOSOC has managed to influence the development of global governance in the area of sustainable development or economic policy.

Selected Proposals for a Reform of the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development

Commission on Global Governance: UN-supported panel of high-level experts that published in 1995 “Our Global Neighbourhood,” calling for wide-ranging reforms of the United Nations system.

Earth System Governance Project: An international research alliance that has developed a number of proposals to strengthen global sustainability governance, calling for, among other recommendations, fundamental reform of the UN system, a world environment organization, and a UN Sustainable Development Council (

German Advisory Council on Global Change: An expert group that has published numerous reports with proposals on global institutional reform, including support of a world environment organization, a UN climate-migrant convention, a strengthened science-policy interface, and others (

High-level Panel on Global Sustainability: A group of high-level experts convened by the UN Secretary General to formulate “a new blueprint for a sustainable future on a planet under increasing stress resulting from human activities.” Published “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing” in early 2012; calling for agreement on sustainable development goals, the integration of social and environmental costs in measurement of economic activities, and a regular Global Sustainable Development Outlook and a Science Advisory Board in the UN (

London Conference “Planet under Pressure” (26–29 March 2012): The largest gathering of scientists in run-up to 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development; meant to provide a comprehensive update of the world's knowledge of the Earth system and the pressure the planet is now under and to discuss solutions to move societies on to a sustainable pathway. The conference has published several policy briefs, including on the institutional framework for sustainable development (

Stakeholder Forum: A UK-based nongovernmental organization that seeks to involve various stakeholders in international decision-making; publishes numerous policy papers with relevance to the institutional framework for sustainable development (

Sustainable Development Goals: A proposal by Columbia and Guatemala to agree at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development on the definition of a suite of sustainable development goals, broader than the earlier Millennium Development Goals.

United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development: Major UN conference to be held June 20–22, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, following the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg), the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (“Earth Summit”, Rio de Janeiro) and the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm). The 2012 conference shall secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, with a focus on a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development (

United Nations Environment Programme Foresight Process: Produces authoritative rankings of the most important emerging issues related to the global environment. The 2012 report identifies “Aligning Governance to the Challenges of Global Sustainability” as the most urgent emerging issues (

In recent years, the Group of 20 major economies has emerged as a mechanism for the coordination of economic policies and the preservation of global economic and financial stability. Its core members are the finance ministers and central bank governors of 19 large economies plus the European Union. It convened for the first time in 1999.11 The Group of 20 effectively integrates the earlier coordinating mechanism of the Group of 7 industrialized countries. The group's original focus on economic cooperation has slowly broadened, now including also issues such as energy, climate, and migration. In short, the Group of 20 meetings are increasingly attempts at policy coordination for sustainable development. However, links with the UN system—notably the UN ECOSOC or the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)—are weak, as opposed to the more formalized cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, whose executive heads participate in meetings of the Group of 20.

Many observers who are concerned about the slow progress of multilateral politics argue for a stronger role for the Group of 20 in sustainable development and Earth system governance. Annual meetings of the Group of 20 would then include sessions for environmental ministers, along with representatives of UNEP and related agencies. Proponents argue that the Group of 20 represents about two-thirds of the world's population and around 90 percent of global gross national product. With merely 20 actors, decisionmaking can be expected to be faster, and due to the inclusion of major developing countries, legitimacy problems are less pronounced compared to the earlier Group of 7 industrialized countries.

On the other hand, the Group of 20 still excludes roughly 150 nations. Vast regions of the world are not represented, such as all of Africa (except for South Africa), most parts of Latin America (except for Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico), and most countries in Asia (except China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia). In the end, the Group of 20 also follows the old governance mode established by the Group of 7 in the 1970s, as an informal network of the most powerful presidents and prime ministers. It is doubtful whether the complexities of Earth system governance can be best handled by a directorate of the powerful few.

Instead, a way forward would be to realign the advantages of the Group of 20 with the broad legitimacy of the United Nations, within an overall UN reform. This could be achieved through replacing the Commission on Sustainable Development with a high-level UN Sustainable Development Council that would give special, yet not exclusive, voting rights to the largest economies as primary members.12 The creation of such a council is possible either based on an amendment of the UN Charter or by a decision of the UN General Assembly. The new UN Sustainable Development Council should have a broad mandate and be firmly placed in the UN decisionmaking process, at the highest level. It would need to be mandated to influence all types of overlap, fragmentation, and lack of coordination in the UN system and beyond.13 This would include, notably, the mandate to issue recommendations to the governing bodies of the Bretton Woods institutions.

The normative basis for the council could be a set of internationally agreed “sustainable development goals,” as recently advanced by the governments of Columbia and Guatemala.14 Such goals could integrate the observance of “planetary boundaries” as they have been suggested by a number of leading natural scientists recently, in combination with social and economic target indicators, such as the eradication of poverty and the advancement of basic human health.

Any significant influence of a new high-level UN Sustainable Development Council, however, would depend on the decisionmaking procedures. A system that grants equal voting rights to Monaco and China is unlikely to have a major bearing on core questions of sustainable development, economic growth, and planetary protection. The question of finding innovative new modes of decisionmaking is addressed further below.

Strengthening the Environmental Pillar: A World Environment Organization

In addition to better integrating sustainable development policies, governments also need to strengthen the environmental pillar of global governance. At present, this pillar is largely built on the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which was established in 1972 UNEP is not an intergovernmental organization but a subsidiary body of the General Assembly reporting through ECOSOC. The program is financed through the general UN budget with an additional small “Environment Fund” supported by voluntary government contributions for specific projects. The influence of UNEP in global governance has remained limited,15 which gave rise to repeated calls over the last decades for a stronger environmental pillar in the UN system. In 2010, a Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives on International Environmental Governance identified three “potential options for strengthening the form of the environmental pillar in the context of sustainable development and achieving effective international environmental governance”:16 enhancing UNEP; a specialized UN agency such as a world environment organization; and enhanced institutional reforms and streamlining.

The mentioned institutional reforms and streamlining are important and can be achieved along with a reform of UNEP.17 Yet in addition, it is important not to merely “enhance” UNEP but to upgrade the program by turning it into an independent international organization. This reform would follow the long-standing policy of functional specialization within the UN system, with numerous independent organizations for specific issues, such as food and agriculture (FAO, established in 1945); education, science, and culture (UNESCO, 1945); health (WHO, 1948); civil aviation (ICAO, 1944); or meteorology (WMO, 1947/1950).

This idea of an international organization for environmental protection is more than 40 years old.18 Today it finds wide support among experts.19 It is now backed by more than 50 nations, including all members of the European Union.20 A recent High Level Dialogue on Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development, hosted by Indonesia on 19–21 July 2011 in Solo, concluded that there is now “a greater willingness by all groups of countries to explore the question of a specialized agency status [for UNEP].”21

In 2000, I laid out in Environment the core arguments that speak for the creation of a world environment organization.22 I argued in particular that a specialized agency could: better initiate norm-setting processes, as exemplified by the regulatory process under the International Labor Organization; approve by qualified majority vote regulations that are binding on all members, comparable to article 21 and 22 of the constitution of the World Health Organization23; and improve coordination of environmental governance.

These reform needs are more salient than ever. According to a recent analysis by the UN Joint Inspection Unit, international environmental governance is ineffective because it lacks “a common mechanism to resolve contradictions among MEAs [multilateral environmental agreements] … [and] a framework for common administrative, financial, and technical support services to promote synergies between UN agencies and MEAs.”24 Most international environmental treaties that are administered by the United Nations have their own secretariats—a practice that has been judged by the UN Joint Inspection Unit “rather exceptional under existing institutional arrangements for multilateral conventions within the United Nations system.”25 Just as within countries, where environmental policy was strengthened through establishment of specialized environmental ministries, global environmental governance also could be made stronger through a world environment organization that helps to contain the special interests of individual programs and organizations and to limit duplication, overlap, and inconsistencies.

In sum, according to the conclusions of the UN Joint Inspection Unit, “an overarching authority for global environmental governance is lacking within the United Nations system.”26 A world environment organization would be the much-needed specialized agency to serve as this overarching authority.

Protecting Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction: A Reformed UN Trusteeship System

Caption: Mikklesen Harbour, Antarctica.

Caption: Mikklesen Harbour, Antarctica.

Third, a broader UN reform should include a new trusteeship system for areas beyond national jurisdiction. At present, the United Nations has a trusteeship system that was created under the League of Nations for former colonies and territories of Germany and the Ottoman Empire.27 With the independence in 1994 of the last trust territory (the former German colony Palau), the UN Trusteeship Council became obsolete and decided in 1994 to end holding regular meetings.28

In 1995, the UN Commission on Global Governance proposed to reform the UN Trusteeship Council and to give it a mandate over the global commons. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan adopted this idea in 1997 and suggested reconstituting the UN Trusteeship Council as a forum for member states to exercise their collective trusteeship for the integrity of the global environment and of common areas such as the oceans, atmosphere, and outer space.29 Yet there was not much support for this reform at that time—as for any other reform that requires a change of the UN Charter—and eight years later, Annan proposed to delete the provisions on the trusteeship system from the UN Charter.30

The key problem with the early proposals from the Commission on Global Governance and the UN Secretary-General was the combination of different problem areas. A global trust over issues as ill-defined as “global commons” is too complex for concrete delimitations of a political and legal mandate. The UN trusteeship system was based on the governance of specific territories, and it is difficult to conceive it beyond this core function. There remain, however, three vast areas upon which human activities have a major environmental impact yet that are outside the jurisdiction of countries: the high seas, Antarctica, and outer space. A revitalized UN trusteeship system, in the framework of a broader UN reform, could place these three areas beyond national jurisdiction more firmly under the oversight of the world community and the United Nations.

This does not need, at present, to imply new regulations or institutions, since Antarctica, the high seas, and outer space fall already under complex regulatory systems that have evolved after 1945, namely, the Antarctic Treaty system, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the newly created UN Oceans, and the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (created in 1959 by the General Assembly as the central forum for the development of rules governing outer space, including the five main treaties on the use of outer space).31 Yet the governance challenges for these three areas beyond national jurisdiction are rapidly increasing, from the impacts of global warming to depleted and possibly collapsing fish stocks and unilateral initiatives in the area of geoengineering, which could involve both the high seas and installations in outer space. In this rapidly developing context, a UN Trusteeship Council for Areas beyond National Jurisdiction would imply an upgrade—within the context of a broader UN charter reform—of the regulatory oversight of the international community over these areas, through a UN council at the highest level within a revised and strengthened UN system.

Strengthening Scientific Advice: A Global Environmental Assessment Commission.

Finally, it is vital to strengthen the input from science into political decisionmaking. Existing scientific assessment institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are issue specific and largely reactive to governmental mandates. In addition, large areas of concern are not covered by such assessment institutions, as are the interlinkages between issue areas. Smaller expert commissions have been temporary—like the commissions headed by Brandt or Brundland or the recent High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability—or remained technical commissions, such as the specialized commissions that determine the safety of food or medicine. The overall integration of existing knowledge on the environmental security of the planet on a stable basis and with a high authority in the UN system is missing.

An authoritative voice of the science community in the UN system could be provided through creating a permanent Global Environmental Assessment Commission. The commission would consist of a limited number of experts of high esteem. Its function would be to synthesize the state of scientific knowledge on vital planetary systems with a particular view to the effectiveness of international policymaking. The commission would operate independently from governments as an autonomous (warning) voice with a view to planetary stability and security.

National political systems provide various examples of a strong, authoritative role by independent expert bodies. These include constitutional (or supreme) courts, which serve in some countries as highest arbitor for the legality of acts from legislative and executive bodies; the boards of central banks, which in many countries guarantee currency stability independently from parliamentarian influences; or various types of ombudspersons or chambers of appointed senators. Despite all differences in detail and political function, what all of these bodies have in common is technical expertise, independence from political influence, long terms of office, a mandate to protect a specified public good often with a long time horizon (such as currency stability or the national constitution), and generally a high public esteem and respect.

These criteria would also apply for the Global Environmental Assessment Commission. Unlike temporary high-level commissions, the Global Environmental Assessment Commission would be permanent and firmly institutionalized in the UN system, similar to the International Court of Justice, which is provided for by the UN Charter. This commission would have the mandate to ascertain the state of knowledge regarding core parameters and boundary conditions of the Earth system, as well as the broad effectiveness of political responses. This commission would rely on widely supported scientific evidence, such as reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Like international courts, the Global Environmental Assessment Commission also could hold public hearings that would be open to submissions by governments and civil-society representatives.

Given the overall structure of the intergovernmental system, the decisions by the Global Environmental Assessment Commission would remain largely hortatory.32 The decisions would need to weigh on political processes through the scientific and moral standing of the commission's members, as well as the underlying evidence. This function would need to be supported by giving the commission a strong functional role in the UN system, for instance, by allowing the commission to place items on the agenda of functional UN commissions and in special cases even of the UN General Assembly, and to request international bodies to respond to its conclusions. Also, members of the commission could become as chief scientists part of the bureau or executive boards of international institutions, conferences, and agencies.

The selection of the members of the Global Environmental Assessment Commission would be a key variable for its success. The selection would need to be based on individual expertise and excellence. In this way, again, the commission would resemble international institutions such as courts and ombudpersons. Members of the International Court of Justice, for example, are elected “regardless of their nationality from among persons of high moral character, who possess the qualifications required in their respective countries for appointment to the highest judicial offices, or are jurisconsults of recognized competence in international law.”33 For the Global Environmental Assessment Commission, one could think, for example, of Nobel laureates or winners of the Volvo Environment Prize. Geographic representation should be one broad criterion among these others, again similar to the International Court of Justice that needs to represent all world regions and systems of law. The commission should be broadly interdisciplinary and link key expertise on human societies with knowledge of the planetary system. Similar to the selection of international judges, members of the Global Environmental Assessment Commission would be selected by governments in open and transparent processes.

Formalized rights of expert commissions in public policy raise important problems of accountability and legitimacy. One might feel reminded of Plato's idea of governance by philosophers instead of by the people. For this reason, the mandate of the UN Global Environmental Assessment Commission must be clearly defined. It should not be detailed policy advice, yet purely the broad identification of the scientific knowledge about the planetary boundaries and the planetary operational space for humanity. This restriction in the mandate of the Global Environmental Assessment Commission would be laid down in the relevant part of the UN Charter. In addition, commission members will need to develop a practice of “expert restraint,” similar to the practice of judicial restraint common to court systems in many countries.

Adjusting Global Decisionmaking to the 21st Century

Any powerful international institution requires a decisionmaking system that reflects the political realities of its time and the special circumstances of the issues to be addressed. Most UN organs follow the practice of intergovernmental diplomacy of the 19th century, granting each sovereign state the same vote. In the General Assembly or the Economic and Social Council, the 20 economies that make up two-thirds of world population and 90 percent of global gross domestic product (including the European Union) together hold merely a quarter of the voting power. These large countries are thus unlikely to grant such institutions a powerful influence over their economic development or environmental policy. Some institutions and organizations have weighted voting systems; however, these also appear out of date today. The Bretton Woods organizations weigh their votes based on financial contributions and are, despite recent adjustments, still biased in favor of a few industrialized countries. The UN Security Council grants a veto right to five permanent members in a system that is widely seen as outdated and no longer legitimate or effective.

For sustainable development, many observers have recently called for a stronger role for the Group of 20 major economies, which some see as a more effective governance mechanism than the UN system. Yet the exclusion of the remaining smaller countries is a major problem for the legitimacy of this group. Therefore, it seems a viable option to combine in a broader UN reform the advantages of the Group of 20 major economies with the legitimacy of the United Nations, in a novel decisionmaking system that could be applicable to the governance of all three main UN bodies proposed here: the UN Sustainable Development Council, the World Environment Organization, and the UN Trusteeship Council for Areas beyond National Jurisdiction. In these three new bodies, member states could grant a special role and primary membership to the Group of 20 major economies, as the countries that are indispensable for any solution to be implemented and supported. For instance, 50 percent of the seats in a governing body could be allocated to the members of the Group of 20 (the status of which should be reassessed on a regular basis). In order to ensure the broad legitimacy of the decisions, especially in regions with many smaller and/or poorer countries, the other 50 percent of the seats could be allocated to the roughly 150 smaller nations that are not represented in the Group of 20.34

In addition, the complexities of modern governance require a stronger involvement of stakeholders and representatives of civil society. One option would be to add to three of the four new bodies35 proposed here a special chamber for representatives of civil society,36 which could have clearly defined consultative rights in the governing bodies. These representatives should be chosen by special caucuses of a wide array of organizations, taking into account, importantly,37 regional balance and geographic representativeness. Interests to be represented could include a revised form of the currently nine “major groups” in UN sustainable development politics. These nine interest groups have been named in Agenda 21 as core elements of civil society and include women; children and youth; indigenous people; nongovernmental organizations; local authorities; workers and trade unions; business and industry; scientific and technological community; and farmers. The “major group” concept has been criticized regarding both its rather spontaneous origin around 1992 and its current interpretation. For instance, while farmers are represented, fishers are not; while indigenous people are included, urban poor are not; while youth are represented, the elderly are not; and so on. Many private governance mechanisms have meanwhile invented other ways of organizing civil society and stakeholder caucuses, from the Forest Stewardship Council38 to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil,39 and such experiences could be considered as well.

Most countries are unlikely to accept full voting rights for nonstate actors (despite the precedence of the International Labour Organization [ILO] where unions and employer organizations can vote). It would be possible, however, to address these concerns and to restrict the rights of civil society organizations, for instance, by reserving agenda items of highest importance—including agreement on new legally binding standards—for a vote of only governmental representatives. For civil society, formal participation in deliberations as well as the right to be heard and to voice contending opinions, within the framework of a special chamber in bodies such a UN Sustainable Development Council, would already be important gains that could increase the legitimacy and accountability of intergovernmental decisionmaking.

The decisionmaking procedure as proposed here would reintegrate the current system of Group of 20 meetings back into the United Nations, yet also include representation of the smaller countries, thus increasing legitimacy and representativeness of decisionmaking. If one assumes a governing body of 50 members—which seems to be a good size to ensure both broad legitimacy and effectiveness—each member of the Group of 20 would have a seat. In addition, 20 seats would go to the smaller countries to be divided according to the traditional formula for the world regions. The 10 remaining seats would form the special chamber of civil society representatives, bringing in special concerns and voices from environmental protection to industry, agriculture, science, or youth. Overall, the decisionmaking system as proposed here would help overcome the shortcomings of current, outdated systems that no longer reflect the political realities of the 21st century.


The institutional blueprint provided here would be the largest transformation of the United Nations system since 1945. It would be the constitutional turn that many actors in recent years have called for, and would bring the UN system in line with the urgent needs of planetary stewardship and Earth system governance. The four bodies that I propose would form together an Earth Alliance in the UN system, consisting of a high-level UN Sustainable Development Council, a World Environment Organization, a UN Trusteeship Council for Areas beyond National Jurisdiction, and a UN Global Environmental Assessment Commission.

The creation of these bodies would build on existing bodies that are at present all too weak and not influential enough: The current UN CSD—and possibly even the ECOSOC40—would be replaced by an UN Sustainable Development Council as a main organ of the UN, with a revised decisionmaking system that would give a stronger role to the Group of 20 as primary members and hence allow the council to exert meaningful influence over the Bretton Woods institutions. The current UN Environment Programme would be upgraded to a World Environment Organization, putting it at a par with other specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization or the International Labour Organization. And the defunct UN Trusteeship Council would be reformed as a strengthened mechanism for stable, long-term governance and oversight by the entire international community over areas that lie outside the jurisdiction of individual states.

A complete implementation of these proposals would need a revision of the UN Charter. This would require, according to article 108 of the UN Charter, the support of two-thirds of the United Nations members, including the five permanent members of the Security Council. So far, the UN Charter has not been amended except for a few revisions that increased the number of countries represented in the UN Security Council (1965) and the ECOSOC (1965 and 1973), reflecting the almost fourfold increase in the number of independent countries since 1945. Yet despite this reform resistance of the UN Charter—which is also related to lack of consensus on some of its core elements, such as the UN Security Council—there is no reason to a priori rule out the possibility of a charter amendment. In fact, article 109 of the UN Charter explicitly foresees the need for further revisions and amendments of the Charter, which were originally—in 1945—planned for a revision conference in 1955.41

Moreover, many core elements of the reforms as outlined here do not require a formal amendment of the UN Charter, but can be implemented in a “light” version. The UN Sustainable Development Council can be instituted through a decision of the UN General Assembly (article 22 of the UN Charter), similar to the creation of a UN Human Rights Council in 2006. At the time of writing, such a council is mentioned as one option in the first drafts of the outcome of the 2012 Rio Conference. Also a UN Trusteeship Council for Areas beyond National Jurisdiction, as proposed here, could be installed under article 22 by the UN General Assembly without affecting the legal status of the obsolete trusteeship system as enshrined in the charter.42 This solution would not be ideal, yet would be legally and politically possible. Moreover, a world environment organization, based on an intergovernmental agreement, can be based on support of only those countries that are willing to join the organization. What is important is support by a majority of countries, which allows for transformative change.

In sum, the proposal of an “Earth Alliance” of UN agencies and bodies would constitute a major reform of the UN system. Yet it would not be without precedence in national political systems, and not even in global governance. Economic, financial, and trade governance, in particular, has seen tremendous increases in global institutionalization in recent decades, not the least by the creation of the powerful regulatory systems under the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Yet sustainable development and planetary stewardship go beyond mere economic growth, the main target of current economic governance. Influential institutions are needed to protect the vital planetary systems on which human survival depends. After the creation of the United Nations in 1945 to ensure international peace, and the strengthening in the 1990s of economic governance systems, what is now needed is a new constitutional moment to strengthen the overall institutional framework for effective governance of the interaction of human societies with the planetary system.

1. Challenges of a Changing Earth. Declaration of the Global Change Open Science Conference Amsterdam, signed by the chairs of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, the World Climate Research Programme, and the international biodiversity program DIVERSITAS. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 13 July 2001. Available at (last accessed 10 February 2012). For the seminal summary of the underlying science, see W. Steffen, A. Sanderson, P. D. Tyson, J. Jäger, P. A. Matson, B. Moore III, F. Oldfield, K. Richardson, H.-J. Schellnhuber, B. L. Turner II, and R. J. Wasson, Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure (New York: Springer, 2004).

2. See J. Zalasiewicz, M. Williams, A. Smith, T. L. Barry, A. L. Coe, P. R. Brown, P. Brenchley, D. Cantrill, A. Gale, P. Gibbard, F. J. Gregory, M. W. Hounslaw, A. C. Kerr, P. Pearson, R. Knox, J. Powell, C. Waters, J. Marchall, M. Oates, P. Rawson, and P. Stone, “Are We Now Living in the Anthropocene?” GSA Today 18, no. 2 (2008): 4–8.

3. See J. Rockstrüm, W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, E. F. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H.-J. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. de Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sürlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. A. Foley, “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461 (24 September 2009): 472–475.

4. Challenges of a Changing Earth, note 1 above.

5. P. J. Crutzen and V. Ramanathan, “Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate in the Anthropocene: Where Are We Heading?,” in H.-J. Schellnhuber, P. J. Crutzen, W. C. Clark, M. Claussen, and H. Held, eds., Earth System Analysis for Sustainability (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, in cooperation with Dahlem University Press, 2004), pp. 266–292.

6. In 2009, the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change set up a 10-year program in this field, the Earth System Governance Project (see for more detail). The Third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability “Transforming the World in an Era of Global Change,” held in May 2011 in Stockholm, called in its Stockholm Memorandum for “strengthening Earth System Governance” as one of the eight priorities for coherent global action (available at, accessed 22 December 2011).

7. See Interconnected Risks and Solutions for a Planet under Pressure. Transition to Sustainability in the Context of a Green Economy and Institutional Frameworks for Sustainable Development, one of nine policy briefs produced by the scientific community to inform the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development and commissioned by the international conference “Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions” (available at

8. See F. Biermann, K. Abbott, S. Andresen, K. Bäckstrand, S. Bernstein, M. M. Betsill, H. Bulkeley, B. Cashore, J. Clapp, C. Folke, A. Gupta, J. Gupta, P. M. Haas, A. Jordan, N. Kanie, T. Kluvánková-Oravská, L. Lebel, D. Liverman, J. Meadowcroft, R. B. Mitchell, P. Newell, S. Oberthür, L. Olsson, P. Pattberg, R. Sánchez-Rodríguez, H. Schroeder, A. Underdal, S. Camargo Vieira, C. Vogel, O. R. Young, A. Brock, and R. Zondervan, “Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance,” Science, vol. 335 (16 March 2012), 1306-1307.

9. See “U.N. Overhaul Required to Govern Planet's Life Support System,” press release by the consortium organizing the Planet Under Pressure conference held 26–29 March 2012 in London, released 23 November 2011 (on file with author). The consortium includes the Earth System Science Partnership; the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme; DIVERSITAS, the international programme of biodiversity science; the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change; the World Climate Research Programme; and as sponsor the International Council for Science.

10. S. M Kaasa, “The UN Commission on Sustainable Development: Which Mechanisms Explain its Accomplishments?,” Global Environmental Politics 7, no. 3 (2007): 107–129. For an appraisal of the first, somewhat more effective years, see F. Biermann, C. Loose, and B. Pilardeaux, “Five Years after Rio: Right Track or Dead End?,” Nord-Süd aktuell 11, no. 2 (1997): 228–236; P. S. Chasek, “The UN Commission on Sustainable Development: The First Five Years,” in The Global Environment in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects for International Cooperation, ed. P. S. Chasek (New York: UN University, 2000), pp. 378–398.

11. Members of the Group of 20 include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Republic of Korea, Turkey, United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the European Union. These countries do not necessarily represent the largest economies. The Netherlands, for example, is not part of the Group of 20 despite having more voting rights in the International Monetary Fund than the Group of 20 members Australia, Argentina or Indonesia; however, the Netherlands are represented in the Group of 20 indirectly through the European Union, along with relatively larger European economies such as Spain or Poland. Switzerland—not a member of the Group of 20 and not of the European Union—has a higher gross national product than Saudi Arabia, Argentina, or South Africa, all members of the Group of 20 member states. The composition of the Group of 20 is thus not only based on purely economic indicators, but also linked to additional criteria such as size of population and global representation. Overall, this is likely to increase the relevance of this relatively new coordinating mechanism. One complication that might need to be addressed in the future is that the four largest European countries are represented twice, both through the European Union and individually, reflecting at present the hybrid character of the Union.

12. See here also Towards a Charter Moment: Hakone Vision on Governance for Sustainability in the 21st Century (Earth System Governance Project, Lund, 2011). Downloadable at (last access 10 February 2012). A “global sustainable development council” has meanwhile also been proposed by the United Nations Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Global Sustainability in its report Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing. See It is also supported in “Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance,” note 8.

13. For an extensive overview of the possible structural and legal setting of a UN Sustainable Development Council see S. Bernstein with J. Brunnée, Consultants' Report on Options for Broader Reform of the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development (IFSD): Structural, Legal, and Financial Aspects (accessed 20 December 2011).

14. Rio + 20: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A Proposal from the Governments of Colombia and Guatemala. Undated (2011). On file with author.

15. See with further references, for example, S. Andresen and K. Rosendal, “The Role of the United Nations Environment Programme in the Coordination of Multilateral Environmental Agreements,” in F. Biermann, B. Siebenhüner, and A. Schreyügg, eds., International Organizations in Global Environmental Governance (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), pp. 133–150.

16. See Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives on International Environmental Governance, Nairobi-Helsinki Outcome (agreed at the group's second meeting in Espoo, Finland, 21–23 November 2010, paragraph 13).

17. See on streamlining, for example, the set of measures suggested in A. Najam and M. Muñoz, Four Steps for Targeted Coherence (Winnipeg: International Institute for Sustainable Development, Global Environmental Governance Briefing Paper 3, 2008). A good analysis of medium-term reform options of UNEP is also in S. H. Olsen and M. Elder, Strengthening International Environmental Governance by a Two-Phased Reform of UNEP: Analysis of Benefits and Drawbacks, IGES Policy Report 2011-04 (Kamiyamaguchi, Japan: Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, 2011). See also the analysis in N. Kanie, “Governance with Multilateral Environmental Agreements: A Healthy or Ill-Equipped Fragmentation?,” in L. Swart and E. Perry, eds., Global Environmental Governance: Perspectives on the Current Debate (New York: Center for UN Reform Education, 2007), pp. 67–86.

18. The first published proposal is G. F. Kennan, “To Prevent a World Wasteland: A Proposal,” Foreign Affairs 48, no. 3 (1970): 401–413. See the different viewpoints and the history of the debate presented in F. Biermann and S. Bauer, editors, A World Environment Organization. Solution or Threat for Effective International Environmental Governance? (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005).

19. “Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance,” note 8 above.

20. On the position of the European Union, see the Union's submission on 1 November 2011 to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, paragraph 21. “The EU view of a UN Specialised Agency for the environment is as follows: Pursuant to Articles 57 and 63 of the UN charter, a Specialised Agency of the UN (a ‘World Environment Organisation’ or ‘United Nations Environment Organisation’) would be established as the global body for the environment with its seat in Nairobi. It would be based on the models of some of the existing, medium-sized UN specialised agencies such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), or the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).” (Available at, accessed 9 December 2011.)

21. Chair's Summary, High Level Dialogue on Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development, held 19-21 July 2011 in Solo, Indonesia, paragraph 13. On file with author.

22. F. Biermann, “The Case for a World Environment Organization,” Environment 42, no. 9 (2000): 22–31; F. Biermann, “The Emerging Debate on the Need for a World Environment Organization: A Commentary,” Global Environmental Politics 1, no. 1 (2001): 45–55; F. Biermann, “Strengthening Green Global Governance in a Disparate World Society. Would a World Environment Organization Benefit the South?,” International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics 2 (2002): 297–315.

23. Within the WHO system, some regulations—for instance, on sanitary and quarantine requirements, nomenclatures, or safety or labeling standards—enter into force for all states after adoption by the Health Assembly with the exception of states that have formally objected within a certain period.

24. See Joint Inspection Unit, Management Review of Environmental Governance within the United Nations System (prepared by Tadanori Inomata), UN Doc. JIU/REP/2008/3, at p. 15.

25. See Joint Inspection Unit, note 24 above, at p. iv.

26. See Joint Inspection Unit, note 24 above, at p. 30.

27. The Trusteeship Council is comprised of an equal number of countries that administered trust territories and of countries that did not administer trust territories, and including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and United States).

28. The UN General Assembly concluded in 2005 that chapter XIII of the charter, which stipulates the UN trusteeship system, should be deleted. Even though such declaration of the UN General Assembly cannot have this intended effect per se—which requires a formal amendment of the charter—the declaration indicates the consensus of members. See UN General Assembly, Resolution 60/1 “2005 World Summit Outcome,” UN Doc. A/RES/60/1 of 24 October 2005.

29. Renewing the United Nations. A Programme for Reform, Report of the Secretary General, UN Doc A/51/950 of 14 July 1997, paragraph 85.

30. See In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All, Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/59/2005 of 21 March 2005, paragraph 218.

31. These are the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies; the 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space; the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects; the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space; and the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. There are in addition a series of declarations and principles on specific aspects of outer space governance.

32. Here I differ from a recent initiative by WWF-UK, the “Draft Declaration of Planetary Boundaries,” which argues for a “Planetary Boundaries Institution” and for “creating an independent public enforcement body with appropriate and effective legal powers and duties” (which could be identical with the Planetary Boundaries Institution). While the draft declaration is not very elaborated at this stage, it seems to veer into a direction that gives too much executive power to scientific networks. The draft declaration, dated 24 October 2011, is available at (accessed 10 February 2012).

33. See article 2 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, which forms, as annex to the Charter of the United Nations, an integral part of this document.

34. See here also Towards a Charter Moment: Hakone Vision on Governance for Sustainability in the 21st Century, note 12; and “Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance,” note 8.

35. The Global Environmental Assessment Commission that is proposed here would necessarily remain an independent panel of experts. It would be open to interventions by civil society organizations, yet not formally include those in decisionmaking.

36. The idea of separate chambers for civil society representatives dates back to Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighbourhood. The Report of the Commission on Global Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

37. The representation of nongovernmental organizations from developing countries in UN settings remains low, compared to the richer and better organized organizations from industrialized countries. This has also been identified as a problem as regards the UN Commission on Sustainable Development; see Kaasa, note 10 above, at pp. 115–116.

38. See, for instance, P. Pattberg, “Private Governance and the South. Lessons from Global Forest Politics,” Third World Quarterly 27 (2006): 579–593.

39. See G. Schouten and P. Glasbergen, “Creating Legitimacy in Global Private Governance. The Case of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil,” Ecological Economics 70 (2011): 1891–1899.

40. I cannot discuss here in detail whether a UN Sustainable Development Council would exist alongside the ECOSOC or replace it. Creating a UN Sustainable Development Council under article 22 of the UN Charter would leave the ECOSOC intact, and hence require a delineation of responsibilities between both councils. This route would also allow creating a novel decisionmaking system for the UN Sustainable Development Council, for instance, by granting a stronger role to the 20 largest economies and a new role to representatives of civil society, as outlined earlier in this article, without requiring an amendment of the charter. However, if governments agreed on a fundamental revision of the UN Charter itself, then integrating ECOSOC into a new UN Sustainable Development Council would be the best option by allowing for a meaningful integration of all three pillars of sustainable development under one high-level council of the UN.

41. The UN General Assembly established in 1955 a committee to report on options for UN reform, and terminated this effort formally in 1967.

42. In addition, article 77 para. 1 lit c of the UN Charter allows for trusteeship agreements for “territories voluntarily placed under the system by states responsible for their administration.” Technically, this could apply to Antarctica, if members of the Antarctic treaty system would chose so. However, the high seas and outer space can hardly be subsumed under the term “territories.” Also, a trusteeship agreement under article 77 would place the governance domain under the present UN Trusteeship Council, which is in its current form dominated by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, hence making a stronger role of the existing council, without larger reform, unacceptable for many countries.

Frank Biermann is Professor and Head of the Department of Environmental Policy Analysis in the Amsterdam Global Change Institute at the VU University Amsterdam. He is chair of the Earth System Governance Project and has led in this function several policy assessments in preparation for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, involving several dozen senior experts in this field.

The present article benefited from numerous fruitful discussions within the Earth System Governance Project, notably at the 2011 Colorado Conference on Earth System Governance (May 2011) and the 2011 Hakone Vision Factory on Earth System Governance (September 2011). For valuable suggestions and comments on earlier drafts, the author is grateful to Steffen Bauer, Aarti Gupta, Philipp Pattberg, Timothy O'Riordan, and Ruben Zondervan.

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