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November-December 2010
Vol. 35, No. 6

Global Environmental Governance and New Narrative

Dr. Maria Ivanova leads the Global Environmental Governance Project and is a consultant for the UN Environment Program. The following article is taken from Dr. Ivanova’s recent speech to the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development at the United Nations and from an interview conducted with her for the blog The New Security Beat: Seeking a sustainable future for a lasting peace, which is maintained by the staff of the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

The concept of Global Environmental Governance (GEG) was first put forth in 1972 at the United Nations Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. This Conference followed the publication of the first photos from space causing the image and sense of one Earth atmosphere to become indelibly etched in human consciousness.

The Stockholm Conference created the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and gave it the mandate to centrally coordinate organizations and information pertinent to the environment. By 1987, a central focus related to GEG was put forth: sustainable development. Sustainable development links economic development with environmental and social well-being. It recognizes that Earth’s resources are limited and emphasizes the obligation to keep in mind the needs of future generations of people while providing for the needs of today. At the time, it was hoped that sustainable development would be a driver for ending poverty and improving the quality of life for those in need.

In 1992, the United Nations held a Conference on Development and the Environment in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. This Conference is commonly known as the Earth Summit. Among other documents, it produced the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21, a basic document for guiding humanity through the 21st century from a sustainable development perspective. The Summit had two other major achievements: it established the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and it recognized that governments could not achieve sustainable development without the collaboration of civil society. It, therefore, formally established the nine major groups of civil society for collaboration with United Nations entities and member states. This was a breakthrough potentially bringing the whole of humanity into conversation about the environment and sustainable development.

Nevertheless, as Dr. Ivanova pointed out, since the Earth Summit, global environmental problems have multiplied and economic and social well-being has deteriorated. More of humanity lives in poverty now than ever before. While the causes for this are multiple and complex, the basic difficulty rests with governments that are competitive and protective of national sovereignty.”

On the other hand, “Civil society groups and even individuals around the world have come together in new coalitions and formed new alliances.” It is heartening to witness this “unprecedented mobilization and collaboration.” Also, around the world the Global Environmental Governance Project is sponsoring discussions that are “generating genuine engagement in thought and action on governance.” New initiatives are emerging and new leadership is springing up. Speaking to this point, Ivanova said, “We need to encourage behavior that is bold, visionary and entrepreneurial rather than conformist.”

Finally and most important, a new and dramatic shift in narrative for GEG is arising; the narrative is captured in one word: sustainability. “Sustainability builds on sustainable development but goes further than that. As a concept it allows for new thinking, new actors, and new politics. It avoids the North-South polarization of sustainable development, which is so often equated with development and is therefore understood as what the North has already attained and what the South is aspiring to. By contrast, no one society has reached sustainability, and learning by all is necessary.

Moreover, much of the innovative thinking about sustainability is happening in developing countries, which are trying to improve quality of life without jeopardizing the carrying capacity of the environment. Progressive thinking is also taking place on campuses in industrialized countries, which are creating a new sense of community and collaboration. In deed, young people around the world are engaging in finding new ways of living within the planetary limits in a responsible and fulfilling manner.”

What lies ahead? In 2012 there will be another Earth Summit: Rio + 20. It is predicted that it will come to be known as the Sustainability Summit.

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