Engaging the Public and the Private in Global Sustainability Governance

21 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2011

Date Written: November 30, 2011


Negotiators preparing for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio 20) are missing an important opportunity. Reforming the institutional framework for sustainable development is a central part of the Rio 20 agenda. In the run-up to Rio 20, negotiators have extensively discussed institutional reforms, but have focused almost exclusively on inter-governmental organizations such as UNEP and the Commission for Sustainable Development. At the same time, however, private sustainability governance (PSG) is flourishing. Since 1992, numerous organizations created by business, civil society groups, multi-stakeholder coalitions and other private actors, as well as diverse public-private partnerships, have adopted important regulatory standards and implemented significant operational programs, including financing and project support. Rio 20 negotiators remain almost wholly disengaged from these innovations.

This public-private engagement gap is both puzzling and troubling. PSG has arisen primarily in response to the inadequacies of inter-state governance; it has provided momentum on many environment and development issues while inter-state negotiations have stalled. Embracing PSG would bring this valuable engine of activity into the international system. Indeed, public engagement would be even more beneficial than this 'comparative statics' analysis suggests: supportive engagement would enhance the ability of PSG – and thus of the system as a whole – to address the daunting challenges of sustainability.

This paper first contrasts the inter-state focus of Rio 20 preparations (Section 1) with the growth of PSG (Section 2). Section 3 examines the public-private engagement gap in practice and in scholarship. Section 4 considers why states and international organizations (IGOs) have been loath to engage more actively with PSG. Section 5 identifies six broad benefits of public engagement: helping IGOs to carry out their sustainability missions; improving the distribution of PSG schemes; maintaining the incentives that support PSG; managing fragmentation; promoting experimentation; and enhancing participation and democracy. Finally, section 6 outlines workable mechanisms to strengthen public engagement, under the headings of orchestration and regulatory cooperation. These techniques can move the international system towards truly global sustainability governance.

Keywords: global environmental governance, sustainable development, international organizations, orchestration, Rio 20

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Abbott, Kenneth Wayne, Engaging the Public and the Private in Global Sustainability Governance (November 30, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1966730 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1966730

Kenneth Wayne Abbott (Contact Author)

Arizona State University ( email )

Box 877906
Tempe, AZ 85287-7906
United States
480-965-5917 (Phone)

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