One of the two main themes for the Earth Summit is the 'institutional framework for sustainable development'. Put more simply, this primarily refers to the system of global governance for sustainable development. This includes the global institutions charged with developing, monitoring and implementing policies on sustainable development across its three pillars – social, environmental and economic.

The two main institutions governing sustainable development at the global level are the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), established in 1972 as a result of the Stockholm Conference, and the Commission on Sustainable Development, created in 1992 to ensure effective follow-up to the Rio Earth Summit.

A considerable amount of analysis has been conducted into the effectiveness of global governance for sustainable development, not all of it favourable. Many stress that the failure to halt or reverse global environmental degradation is evidence of the inherent adequacies of the global governance system. Due to its limited mandate and status as a 'programme' rather than a UN agency, UNEP has lacked the necessary authority to mainstream environmental considerations throughout the UN system. There has also been a certain overlap of scope and mandate between the Commission on Sustainable Development and UNEP, encouraging competition rather than collaboration, yet with neither possessing the necessary status to accelerate the required global changes to achieve sustainable development.

Discussion and debate regarding reform of International Environmental Governance in the context of Global Governance for Sustainable Development has been ongoing. Over the past decade and since the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, little progress has been made in relation to the required institutional architecture that would propel global environmental and sustainable development issues into the 21st century. Whilst the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) heralded a new era of action-orientated 'partnerships' for sustainable development, it is recognised that despite the considerable success of some of these partnership programmes, they have not delivered the systemic change needed in global governance to deliver sustainable development. It is therefore hoped that the focus on 'the institutional architecture for sustainable development' for Rio+20 presents an unprecedented opportunity to spur progress towards a more effective global system for delivering sustainable development objectives.