The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

As human impact on the planet’s environment reaches unprecedented scale, what leverage points exist for transformative change in the way we collectively govern our world? Four directions deserve particular attention: support for new legal norms, changes in the UNEP mandate, supporting innovations with positive environmental impact, and securing popular endorsement.

The human enterprise’s influence on the Earth system calls not only for an increased understanding of emerging global risks and transformation pathways, but also a serious reconsideration of the ways we, as a global community, govern ourselves.

Global governance and global institutions are of extreme importance at a time when decision-makers, business leaders, citizens and non-governmental organizations try to navigate a turbulent future. As the literature in the social sciences has shown, these actors are guided by a complex set of international norms and rules. What is worrying, however, is the fact that current models of global governance are clearly not up to the challenges created by the Anthropocene era – the current period of history defined by unprecedented influence of human action on the natural environment.

In a period of increasing interdependence and complexity, global governance remains fragmented, hampered by loud national interests, and unable to address global risks that present non-linear dynamics and repercussions. Current global governance models also systematically ignore the fundamental role that the biosphere plays for economic and human development in all parts of the world.

It is easy to focus on the severe political and economic obstacles that hinder the emergence of models of global governance able to tackle the multiple social, political and environmental challenges posed by a connected planet under pressure. However, we also know that there are several potential leverage points for transformative change.

In this context, it is easy to focus on the severe political and economic obstacles that hinder the emergence of models of global governance able to tackle the multiple social, political and environmental challenges posed by a connected planet under pressure. However, we also know that there are several potential leverage points for transformative change in the way we currently manage our global affairs. These include:

  • the support of new legal norms that put “planetary boundaries” or a safe and just operating space for humanity at the center of international policy discussions
  • an upgrade of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) into a strong international organization with a mandate to coordinate international rules in ways that support a transition to global sustainability
  • a strong commitment by governments, private actors and the international community to experiment with, evaluate and upscale innovations that have a positive impact on the biosphere, or expand a safe and just operating space  
  • a recognition that transformative change requires engagement and mobilization “from below”, which requires that global initiatives for sustainability be endorsed by the population. Hence, beside being effective, reforms in governance need to be viewed as legitimate by the general public. For this, they must meet three criteria: transparency, participation and accountability.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but as we face the prospect of a turbulent future, it provides important first steps towards a much needed transformation in the way we govern ourselves and our biosphere.

Johan Rockström

Johan Rockström is an internationally recognized scientist working on global sustainability issues, professor of envrionmental economics at Stockholm University and executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Johann Rockström is currently vice-chair of the science advisory board of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and a member of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), as well as a member of several other committees and boards. He acts as an advisor to several governments, business networks and international meetings, including the United Nations General Assemblies, World Economic Forums, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conferences (UNFCCC, also known as COP).