Things are happening. The term 'Anthropocene' is not only embraced by scientists to describe humans' decisive influence on the Earth system, but also increasingly by a scientifically engaged public and the media. Time Magazine recently listed the Anthropocene as one of ten ideas that will change our lives and in 2011 The Economist welcomed us to the Anthropocene.
With the wider acknowledgement that human pressure on the planet is propelling Earth into a new geological epoch, calls for improved governance of Earth's resources is gaining momentum. Structural change is needed, both inside and outside the UN system.
Seven building blocks
In an article recently published in Science, centre science director Carl Folke, along with an international team of Earth System governance experts, present seven reform measures that can improve global sustainability governance.
First, the environmental agencies and programmes of the United Nations must be reformed and potentially upgraded. Creating a governance body equivalent to the UN Security Council is largely believed to be too centralised and top-heavy, but turning the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) into a UN agency for environmental protection on par with the World Health Organization or the International Labour Organization is considered a better option.
"We need a strong, environmental organisation with a sizable role in agenda-setting, norm-development, science assessment and capacity-building," says Carl Folke.
Integrate social, economic and environmental aspects
Second, it is crucial to strengthen the integration of the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development. The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) has not become the influential reference point decision-makers hoped it would be.
"The most promising route is creating a high-level UN Sustainable Development Council directly under the UN General Assembly," says lead author Frank Biermann of VU University Amsterdam.
To be effective, such a council should give special predominance to the 20 largest economies in the world but also welcome access for civil society representatives.
"Only such a strong novel role for these countries will allow the council to have a meaningful influence in areas such as economic and trade governance."
As for international institutions in general, Biermann, Folke and their colleagues argue for a stronger reliance on qualified majority voting to speed up international governance and norm setting. Political science shows that majority-based governance systems are quicker to arrive at far-reaching decisions and that consensus-based systems are too limited to the preferences of the least ambitious countries.
"Weighted voting mechanisms can ensure that decisions take all major interests among governments into account without granting veto power to any country," Biermann says.
Give civil society stronger rights
But amid calls for stronger intergovernmental institutions there are concerns that legitimacy and accountability will be compromised. Global governance through UN-type institutions tends to give a larger role to international and national bureaucracies rather than national parliaments and concerned citizens.
To strengthen accountability, the authors suggest that stakeholders gain better access to information and decision-making through special rights enshrined in agreements or stronger participation in councils that govern resources.
"Stronger consultative rights for civil society representatives in intergovernmental institutions would be a major step forward," they argue.
Time for a "constitutional moment"
Overall, the authors conclude, there is a need for a major transformative shift in governance similar to what happened after 1945 when the UN and several other international organisations were established.
"We need similar changes today, a 'constitutional moment' in world politics and global governance," Folke and his colleagues proclaim.
Source: Biermann, F., 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. 2012. Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance. Science 335: 13.06-1307