Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Towards a Global Political-Economic Architecture of Environmental Space

Ton Bührs

CSGR Working Paper Series No. 236/07

November 2007



The concept of environmental space (ES) has been put forward as a means of operationalising sustainability. Based on three tenets, the recognition of environmental limits, a strong equity principle, and a focus on resource consumption, the ES approach offers a cognitive framework for a comprehensive and integrated approach to environmental/resource policy and management. With growing concerns about mounting environmental pressures and looming ecological and resource scarcity, it offers also a more appealing normative basis for dealing with these issues than the ‘environmental security’ discourse increasingly appropriated by governments.

In the 1990s, adoption of the environmental space approach was promoted foremost at the national level by a non-governmental organization and a handful of academics. Although some governments showed interest in the idea, it failed to make much headway. Reasons for that can be found in methodological issues, a weak political support basis, and the collective action trap. No governments adopted and implemented the ES approach as an overall framework for their sustainable development efforts, in part because accepting limits on resource consumption on a national level seems to make little sense as long as other countries are not willing to do the same (the collective action trap).

A preliminary assessment brings up the existence of many significant obstacles to the adoption of the ES approach at the global level, whilst the agency basis is relatively weak and fragmented. Consequently, the chances of significantly changing the global political-institutional architecture to support an ES approach also seem dim. This leads to the conclusion that ‘What must be done, cannot be done’, at least at this stage. The best prospects for advancing the approach lie in the adoption of a global climate change regime based on the recognition of environmental limits and the acceptance of a strong equity principle, in line with the ES approach. This could set a precedent for the development of similar global regimes to address other areas of growing ecological and resource scarcity. In the mean time, a focus on limiting resource consumption associated with specific environmental issues offers the best basis for mobilising support for the adoption of ES principles.


Key words: environmental space; global environmental governance; ecological scarcity; resource consumption; resource scarcity; sustainability; political-economy of the environment.

Contact details: Lincoln University, New Zealand.