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.
History suggests that the foundations for ramping up environmental governance could be put in place if there is sufficient political will to do so.
Nationally anchored coalitions of NGOs, political and other leaders, and, increasingly, industry that are mobilized around a legitimizing narrative of the public good, framed now in no small measure by the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals, have gained traction in almost all countries around the world.
What is needed is a dramatic strengthening of these coalitions. Several important factors favor such strengthening:
The continuing information and communication technologies (ICT) revolution dramatically accelerates mobilization of citizens;
New technologies for measuring environmental impacts accelerate scientific knowledge as well as enhance public awareness;
Technological innovation is rapidly lowering the costs of new pathways for sustainable development; and
Environmental and climate concerns have dedicated champions in place determined to cement these issues on the international agenda.
Cutting against these favorable trends has been the rise of nationalist movements around the world, calling into question the very idea of global governance.
Nevertheless, worsening environmental problems compel us to seek a better understanding of how global governance of the environmental commons has worked.
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.