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Ramping Up Governance of the Global Environmental Commons: What Do Theory and History Tell Us?

This paper discusses how governance of the global environmental commons requires collective action to generate public goods. Public goods theorists vary in their views about what it takes and how likely it is to achieve such collective action to produce these goods. The history of efforts to generate the public good of a better global environment includes some important successes such as the Montreal Protocol and its recent Kigali Amendment and varying results in reducing chemical pollution, addressing climate change, slowing deforestation, protecting biodiversity, and managing ocean fisheries.

Based on both the theories and this history, the way forward to ramping up governance of the global environmental commons will involve a wide range of actions—including strengthening the legitimizing narrative of sustainable development, building more robust national coalitions that underpin international agreements, and supporting technological innovation.

Key Findings

Executive Summary

The history of efforts to create global agreements and governance mechanisms on the environment has been uneven. It includes some critical successes such as protecting the ozone layer through the Montreal Protocol and phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—one of the most potent classes of greenhouse gases (GHGs)—through its Kigali Amendment. The results of other efforts—reducing other chemical pollution, addressing climate change, slowing deforestation, protecting biodiversity, and managing ocean fisheries—have varied widely.

This paper provides a selective review of this history through the lens of theories about the governance of public goods and offers a nontechnical account of the most prominent of these theories. Public goods theorists have varied in their views about what it takes to achieve collective action to produce these goods and the likelihood of success.

Informed by the history and the theory, the paper puts forward a set of recommendations for improving governance of the global environment, including strengthening the “legitimizing narrative” of sustainable development, building more robust national coalitions that underpin international agreements, strengthening the international architecture to support national movements, supporting technological innovation, and supporting better environmental policies and implementation capacity among developing countries.

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