The Imperative Role Science Plays in Global Environmental Governance Today

March, 2019

Randy Burd, Ph.D., Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Long Island University
Michelle Wyman, Executive Director, National Council for Science and the Environment

The pace of technological discovery and growth today is unprecedented. This development brings greater benefits as well as increased risks, most especially to the environment. Nations around the world are experiencing increasing threats to the environment and natural resources. These global challenges require global responses. It is critical that decision-makers on the international stage look to science as a key asset in their determinations to develop effective policies. 

Recognized as the most impactful multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) to date, the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol) is a landmark international agreement designed to protect the stratospheric ozone layer. The treaty was originally signed in 1987 and substantially amended in 1990 and 1992. The Montreal Protocol[1] has successfully reduced the global production, consumption, and emissions of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs). ODSs are also greenhouse gases that contribute to the radiative forcing of climate change. The Montreal Protocol was signed by 197 countries and became the first treaty in the history of the United Nations to achieve universal ratification; it is considered by many as the most successful environmental global action.[2]
Another example of successful environmental governance is the work resulting from the 2001 Doha Ministerial Conference, where the World Trade Organization (WTO), recognizing that global economies and markets are affected by environmental threats, took action to address the adverse relationship between WTO rules and MEAs.[3] At Doha, WTO members agreed to negotiate on the relationship between WTO rules and the multilateral environmental agreements, particularly those that contain “specific trade obligations” (STOs), to ensure that global trade obligations did not conflict directly with or compromise MEAs. These negotiations take place in special sessions of the Trade and Environment Committee. Members have agreed that the scope of these negotiations would be limited to applicability of WTO rules to WTO members that have signed the MEA under consideration.

Closer cooperation between MEA Secretariats and WTO Committees is essential to ensuring the trade and environment regimes develop coherently. The Plan of Implementation of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg recognizes the need for this cooperation and calls for efforts to “strengthen cooperation among United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other United Nations bodies and specialized agencies, the Bretton Woods institutions and WTO, within their mandates.”[4]
While the Montreal Protocol and the work of WTO have resulted in tangible outcomes with global impact, some other agreements have been less successful, such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which aimed to control anthropogenic emissions of the main greenhouse gases (GHGs). All multilateral treaties and negotiations, however, provide nations with mechanisms to work together to respond to global environmental threats. Even if outcomes do not result in enforceable, binding regulatory agreements, the ability for heads of state to engage deliberately about the most imminent environmental risks is essential to the future of the world.

People at UNEA-4 looking at large screens


Most recently, more than 4,000 people, representing 170 countries, attended the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) in Nairobi, Kenya, in March. The United Nations Environment Assembly[5] is the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment. Its mandate is to address the critical environmental challenges facing the world today. The Environment Assembly meets biennially to set priorities for global environmental policies and develop international environmental law. Through its resolutions and calls to action, the Assembly provides leadership and catalyses intergovernmental action on the environment. 

Under the overall theme “Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production,” UNEA-4 focused on:

  • Environmental challenges related to poverty and natural resources management, including sustainable food systems, food security, and halting biodiversity loss;
  • Life-cycle approaches to resource efficiency, energy, chemicals, and waste management; and 
  • Innovative sustainable business development at a time of rapid technological change.

UNEA-4 resulted in 23 resolutions, a Ministerial Declaration, and three decisions that addressed shared and emerging global environmental issues. While in some areas the Assembly fell short of the ambition and action that many participants hoped for, there were still notable achievements, such as the first UN-endorsed language on the circular economy and “industry symbiosis” and the sending of a strong signal of countries’ willingness to phase out or reduce single-use plastics. 

Also during UNEA-4, the UN Environment released the 6th Global Environmental Outlook (GEO6)[6] which calls on decision-makers to take immediate action to address pressing environmental issues to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals[7] as well as other international accords, such as the Paris Agreement.[8] 

The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), an accredited organization to the UN Environment, participated in UNEA-4 with a delegation of ten scientists from universities across the United States to take part in the consultations and deliberations by national delegations. This is one example of how NCSE is actively bringing science to decision-making processes at all levels of government and bringing decision-makers from all levels of government to the scientific community to create a feedback loop. This feedback loop will grow in content and value over time as continual learning results from real-world application in decision-making. Taken with the variability of environmental challenges and change, these connections and exchanges are essential.

In January 2019, NCSE announced a partnership with Long Island University to scale global science diplomacy for the environment through fostering collaborations between scientists and policy-makers from leading universities and governmental institutions around the world. This joint work will implement practical, science-based solutions; provide thought leadership; and develop new approaches that address collective global issues in the area of environment and health. 

Multilateral diplomacy is as challenging as it is essential. The dynamics are deeply complex given the many priorities and differences nations have. While there are strong critiques of the lack of enforceability of MEAs, there is general agreement by the world’s nations that these multilateral, not just bilateral, mechanisms play an important role in shaping environmental policies and creating common parameters for action. Multilateral engagement and global environmental governance create shared frameworks, objectives, and roadmaps. 

Global environmental threats and vulnerabilities require evidence-based responses by decision-makers. Science is an imperative part of effective, enduring responses to ecosystem, climate, and resource changes. The benefits of international cooperation are even greater today than ever before as governments at all levels strive to balance the needs of their communities with the environmental impacts of rapid innovation. Global environmental governance, supported by scientific knowledge, is vital for responding to current local, national, and transboundary challenges and to the accelerating pace of scientific and environmental change.