Can global governance meet future environmental challenges?

Most of us acknowledge that the sustainable development goals (SDGs) agreed by world leaders in 2015 was a remarkable achievement.The 17 aspirational goals with 169 targets cover a wide range of sustainable development issues, including climate change and sustainable consumption. But does that mean we are all ‘off the hook’ now?  Can we rely on the SDGs and take comfort that the world will be a better guardian of our world’s natural resources, biodiversity and the planet’s species?

I’m not holding my breath.

The anthropocene

As the SDGs were being debated, another debate was begun by scientists claiming that the earth had entered a new geological epoch. One they call the ‘anthropocene’.The anthropocene is a geological age during which human activity has been the dominant or significant influence on climate and the environment. This theory coincides with the science of planetary boundaries.  This suggests that in order to protect the Earth’s ecosystems from significant global impact it is necessary to govern by setting a series of scientifically prescribed thresholds.  These were set into 9 neat boundaries reflecting the main earth system processes upon which Earth’s own function depends.  These boundaries include atmospheric, hydrologic, biosphere and climate earth system processes.

Scientists argue that when various thresholds in the earth’s systems are crossed, the world which currently supports our world as enjoyed today, is put at risk, tipping into ever more dangerous and unpredictable climate states.

A failure of global governance

One of the drivers causing pressures on these planetary boundaries is quite simply a failure to govern ourselves.  Our current systems of global governance fail to put meaningful thresholds in place to guide decision and rule making by States.  It is well understood that in a world with less resilient ecosystems it is the poor who will be the most exposed to extreme weather, to food price spikes, to agricultural land grabs (an estimated 80m hectares since 2000),  and to rising inequality of income and dysfunctional social systems. To tackle these problems we still need governance that ensures the world is staying within what the scientists have termed ‘the safe operating space’ – a place that enables all societies to continue to develop and flourish without suffering from the dangerous impacts of runaway climate change or living in highly degraded environments.

The need for bold vision

No doubt the SDGs will go some way to curbing excesses and keeping well regulated societies within a degree of control over their global impacts. But much more could be done. We need still a bold vision for global governance that keeps world leaders on track to meet the Great Challenge of the anthropocene. Such a vision must encompass transformational shifts in our world legal order. We need more than ever now a positive vision around the rule of law in a world that currently feels as if it is sliding rapidly towards lawlessness. We need legal mechanisms that empower citizens to become true guardians of their natural world through substantive rights to inherit their natural heritage, which must be left to them at least as good as, if not better, than the present generation.

Reforms on international institutions

We also need reform of our international institutions so that the principle of ecological integrity is embedded throughout all UN mandates. The protection of the diversity and functionality of our global biodiversity has not been served well by the Convention on Biological Diversity – despite the Aichi targets requiring governments to drive down their impacts on biodiversity by 2020. The WWF Living Planet report (2014) showed that globally, populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles measured for the report have declined by a shocking 52 per cent since 1970; and freshwater species have  suffered a massive 76 per cent decline – an average loss almost double that of land and marine species.

There is a desperate need for legal advocates to take responsibility too for the legal frameworks they serve.  A new world order that better serves both people and planet is now critical. One principle already recognised in international law is that of ‘ecological integrity’.  This must be defined as setting ecological limits to the use of natural resources and human’s impact on the environment. In 1996 a Commission for Global Governance was established to review global governance systems. It argued for a remodelled Trusteeship council that would have authority over the global commons. It is now 20 years since that Commission and time the UN remodelled itself.  If it were to do so with the principle of ecological integrity at the heart of every action we take the world might just have a chance.