The Global Environmental Governance Project and the Center for Governance and Sustainability engage in analysis and discussion of international environmental politics, and institutional and normative change. We are currently working on the following projects:

Africa Initiative

Environmental Conventions Initiative

Environmental Governance Reform

Forest Governance

Land Governance

Post-2015 Governance

Project on Environmental Law Effectiveness (PELE)

Science-Policy Interface

What is Global Environmental Governance?

In 1995, the Commission on Global Governance wrote:

Governance is the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs. It is continuing process through which conflicting or diverse interests may be accommodated and co-operative action may be taken. It includes formal institutions and regimes empowered to enforce compliance, as well as informal arrangements that people and institutions either have agreed to or perceive to be in their interest.”

Following this concept, Gus Speth and Peter Haas, explain that global environmental governance “is the intersection of global governance with environmental affairs.”

The Global Environmental Governance Project and the Center for Governance and Sustainability seek to understand, in depth:

– What norms guide various environmental regimes
– How formal and informal environmental norms and institutions perform
– What are the roles of state and non-state actors in shaping environmental governance outcomes
– How different environmental institutions cooperate


Speth, J. G., & Haas, P. (2006). Global Environmental Governance: Foundations of Contemporary Environmental Studies. Island Press.

UNEP, the Anchor Institution for the Global Environment

In 1972, over 100 nations came together in Stockholm to create a system for international environmental governance. At the time, there was consensus among those countries that there was a need to coordinate efforts to address large scale environmental problems, and that there was an intimate link between environmental integrity and economic prosperity.

A major outcome of this meeting was the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as the anchor institution for the global environment.  Anchor institutions are the primary, though not the only, international organizations in a global issue area and typically perform three main functions:

1) Overseeing monitoring, assessment, and reporting on the state of the issue in their purview;

2) Setting an agenda for action and managing the process of determining standards, policies, and guidelines; and

3) Developing institutional capacity to address existing and emerging problems.

In the case of the UNEP, it was tasked with gathering and transmit information, catalyzing action, and coordinate environmental activities within the United Nations system.

While the number of institutions, policies, and programs charged with stewardship of the global commons has risen dramatically over the past 30 years, the state of the global environment continues to show negative trends and increasing risks. As a result, national governments, civil society groups, and experts on global environment policy have called for efforts to strengthen the global environmental governance system and, in turn, transform UNEP into a more powerful global environmental organization. After an almost decade long process, states agreed on strengthening the organization during the Rio+20 conference.

More information about the reform process.

The Global Environmental Governance Project and the Center for Governance and Sustainability has conducted a research project on the reform process of UNEP and rigorous analysis of the outcomes of the Rio+20 conference.


Ivanova, M. (2007). Designing the United Nations Environment Programme: A Story of Compromise and Confrontation. International Environmental Agreements 7:337–361.

Ivanova, M. (2005). Can the Anchor Hold? Rethinking the United Nations Environment Programme For the 21st Century. Available at



Global Sustainable Development Governance

According to the report of the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, often referred to as the Brundtland Report, sustainable development“is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

During the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) created the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The mandate of the CSD was to monitor progress of Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and integrating environmental and development goals within the U.N. system.

The CSD fell short in fulfilling its obligations, however, and was unable to engage all UN agencies and bodies in considering environmental, economic, and social issues in an integrated manner as envisioned by the 1992 Rio Summit. For this reason, one of the core themes of the 2012 Rio+20 conference, “institutional framework for sustainable development,” sought to identify new institutional arrangements within the UN system to strengthen global governance for sustainable development. In addition to upgrading UNEP, the General Assembly also decided to replace the CSD with a “high level political forum on sustainable development.”

Convened for the first time on September 24, 2013, the High-Level Political Forum will build on the work of the CSD, and is tasked with following up on the outcome document of the Rio+20 Conference. The Forum brings country representatives at the ministerial level every year and assembles heads of state every four years at the UNGA. According to Resolution A/RES/67/290, the forum shall provide:

– “Political leadership, guidance and recommendations for sustainable development;
– Follow up and review progress in the implementation of sustainable development commitments;
– Enhance the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development in a holistic and cross-sectoral manner at all levels;
– Have a focused, dynamic and action-oriented agenda, ensuring the appropriate consideration of new and emerging sustainable development challenges.”

Also in September 2013, the UN Secretary-General created the Scientific Advisory Board to advise him and the Executive Heads of UN Organizations on science, technology and innovation for sustainable development. One of the main functions of the Scientific Advisory Board is to strengthen the science-policy interface. More information.



Ivanova, M. (2014) Assessing the Outcomes of Rio+20. In Worldwatch Institute. State of the World Report 2014: Governing for Sustainability. Click here to access the chapter.


An important analytical task for the GEG Project is to unravel the complicated web of actors working within the current environmental governance system. To this end, the project has identified twelve environmental issue areas and over fifty international organizations working in some capacity on these issues. This page presents research conducted by students at the College of William and Mary on the main problems associated with each issue and the main institutions active in that particular area.

Mapping out the current structure of the GEG system reveals overlap and opportunities for cooperation. Armed with an understanding of the present system, the GEG project hopes to identify areas in need of reform as well as organizations that may serve as institutional models.