In simple terms, the word “governance” denotes the institutions or processes we collectively put in place to solve shared problems or other issues which need to be effectively managed. In terms of the global climate, keeping humanity—and a whole range of existing ecosystems, diverse species, and natural resources—within a “safe operating space” is of course of crucial concern. We have already seen an intensification of devastating forest fires, melting ice caps and extreme weather events in various regions across the globe; signals of our already-changing climate.
Climate governance – that is, effective management of the global climate system – is thus of vital importance. However, building effective collective mechanisms to govern our impacts on the climate system at the planetary level presents particular challenges. I will just name a few. One is the complexity of the relevant science and the progressive refinement of scientific knowledge about our global climate and planetary systems, and the challenge of communicating this knowledge to the general public and to policy makers. There is also the urgency of addressing this issue; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has underlined that the international community has a narrow window of opportunity to act to keep global temperature rise at safe levels. Yet the transformations required of our economic systems are monumental, involving many sectors of the economy and diverse areas of human activity. Also, multilateral treaty-making processes – the current form of global environmental governance – are slow and cumbersome, with uneven implementation of agreed goals and lack of enforcement, allowing shared objectives to be undermined. For example, despite the great success of concluding the 2015 Paris Agreement, it has been noted that there is a 97% chance of exceeding a 2°C temperature rise target based on countries’ climate policy pathways thus far.
While the Covid-19 global pandemic reduced fossil fuel emissions temporarily, climate-induced fires have at the same time increased carbon emissions from natural sinks, and atmospheric concentrations continue to rise.
Our shared question now is really, how can we all learn from the best available scientific knowledge and technical solutions – providing all the tools we need to solve the collective climate challenge (see e.g., the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap) – as a basis for more effective or enhanced global governance of the climate? Can we build upon and endow our current global governance architecture with sufficient capacity to ensure that we can meet the climate emergency, which has been called “the fight of our lives”?
The governance requirements of our time may require a conceptual shift, to acknowledge an essential global commons and the need for new approaches to earth system governance, based on ever-expanding planetary science (e.g., see the work of the Earth Commission and Global Commons Alliance).
Maja Groff, International Lawyer, Co-winner of the 2018 New Shape Prize of the Global Challenges Foundation, a Convenor of the Climate Governance Commission, Global Challenges Foundation. This note is written in an individual capacity and not on behalf of any organization.