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Earth system governance is a recently developed paradigm that builds on earlier notions of environmental policy and nature conservation, but puts these into the broader context of human-induced transformations of the entire earth system. It conceptualizes the system of formal and informal rules, rule-making mechanisms and actor-networks at all levels of human society (from local to global) that are set up to steer societies towards preventing, mitigating, and adapting to global and local environmental change and earth system transformation, within the normative context of sustainable development.
The notion of governance refers to forms of steering that are less hierarchical than traditional governmental policy-making (even though most modern governance arrangements will also include some degree of hierarchy), rather decentralized, open to self-organization, and inclusive of non-state actors that range from industry and non-governmental organizations to scientists, indigenous communities, city governments and international organizations.
The integrative new paradigm of earth system governance has evolved into an active research area that brings together a variety of social science disciplines including political science, sociology, economics, ecology, policy studies, geography, sustainability science, and law.
Major international conferences on ‘Earth System Governance’ have been held in Amsterdam (2007, 2009), Berlin (2008, 2010), Colorado (2011), Lund (2012, 2017), Tokyo (2013), Norwich (2014), Canberra (2015) and Nairobi (2016). In 2017, the 8th Annual Earth System Governance Conference took place in Lund, Sweden. This conference was co-hosted by Lund University during its 350 year celebration. In 2018 it is due to be held in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
On 16–19 May 2011, more than twenty Nobel Laureates, several leading policy-makers and some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and experts on global sustainability met for the Third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. The Nobel Laureate Symposium concluded with the Stockholm Memorandum, calling for "strengthening of Earth System Governance" as a priority for coherent global action. This memorandum has been submitted to the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability appointed by the UN Secretary General and fed into the preparations for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).
The new paradigm of earth system governance was originally developed in the Netherlands by Professor Frank Biermann in his inaugural lecture at the VU University Amsterdam, which was published later in 2007 Based on this pioneering contribution, Biermann was invited by the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change to develop a long-term comprehensive international programme in this field, which became in 2009 the global Earth System Governance Project.
Key researchers who have applied the earth system governance framework in their work include Michele Betsill, John Dryzek, Peter M. Haas, Norichika Kanie, Lennart Olsson, and Oran Young. In 2011, Lund University appointed Biermann as guest professor of Earth System Governance, making him the worldwide first chair holder in this rapidly developing field of research.
In 2009, the UN-sponsored global change research networks have set up a long-term research programme in earth system governance, the Earth System Governance Project. The Earth System Governance Project currently consists of a network of ca. 300 active and about 2,300 indirectly involved scholars from all continents, and is the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change. The Earth System Governance Project is essentially a scientific effort, but also aims to assist policy responses to the pressing problems of global environmental change. The International Project Office of the Earth System Governance Project is based at Lund University, Sweden.
Research centres on ‘Earth System Governance’ have been set up or designated at VU University Amsterdam; the Australian National University; Chiang Mai University; Colorado State University; Lund University; University of East Anglia; University of Oldenburg; the Stockholm Resilience Centre; the University of Toronto; the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Yale University. In addition, strong networks on earth system governance research exist in China, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and Russia.
MIT Press launched in 2009 a new book series on Earth System Governance. Recent papers drawing on the paradigm of integrated earth system governance research have analysed issues as diverse as river basin management in Hungary, deforestation policies in the Amazon, and climate change adaptation in Australia.
The Earth System Governance Project builds on a conceptual framework that is organized into five analytical problems. The five analytical problems identified in the Science and Implementation Plan of the Earth System Governance Project are: