United Nations Environment Programme: Future relevance?

What is the future of UNEP?

To United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP),

Happy Birthday!  Sorry that I am writing this a couple days after your 40th Birthday.  As the first major international organization housed in Africa, the first major international environmental organization, and the key organization behind successes in regards to the ozone layer, regional seas, and others, it has been a crazy 40 years.

As we all do at our birthdays, it is appropriate to think about where we’ve come from and where we are headed.  Apparently, a lot of your friends (and some of your enemies) are doing the same.

Recent news out of France:

More than a hundred countries now support a French proposal to create a “World Environment Organisation” at the upcoming 20th anniversary conference of the Rio Summit, France’s ecology minister said on Tuesday. “More than 100 countries have now associated themselves with the proposal,” Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said at a conference in Paris aimed at stimulating ideas for June 20-22 global gathering.  The idea is to beef up the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which critics say lacks muscle for dealing with the world’s worsening environmental crisis. But rather than be just a branch of the UN, the proposed agency would help implement international environmental standards and include grassroots groups and business, according to the proposal.  Speaking afterwards to reporters, Kosciusko-Morizet said the United States “has yet to back” to the proposal, citing questions of sovereignty.  “However, we have already overcome the north-south divide in terms of numbers,” she said.

It is poetic justice that if you are to be given a strong mandate it will be at the same location that any mandate you had was effectively channeled elsewhere. The first 20 years after your birth in 1972 at the first major international environmental conference in Stockholm was certainly tumultuous.  However, hard work and some luck led to significant successes, notably on issues of the ozone and regional seas programme.  Poised to ride these successes in the 1980s into the next decade though hit a rough patch with that trip to Rio.

Negotiators at Rio in 1992, rather than clarifying the landscape of international environmental politics, created an additional United Nations organization to implement the new agenda: the Commission on Sustainable Development. Maria Ivanova (a professor at University of Massachusetts-Boston) adds that with the creation of the Commission on Sustainable Development at Rio, UNEP lost its leadership position in the arena of international environmental law and became just one organization amongst many (Ivanova 2010).  Since 1992, times have been rough and although you have substantially improved data collection and monitoring of global environmental problems, your role in international environmental governance is not clear.

Earlier ideas to create a World Environment Organization, to replace UNEP have been replaced in recent years by calls to strengthen UNEP and the power of the organization.  Overcoming the divisions between the developing world and the developed world is certainly significant, as claimed above.

But if this birthday party is really going to give the organization a second life, it is important to think about who to invite to the party?

  • Nongovernmental organizations and business hold significant ability to shape the Commission on Sustainable Development (see: Khor 1994); but this seems to have weakened its ability to contribute to hard international environmental law.  There are pros and cons to inviting this bunch to the party.
  • The next big polluters.  China, India, Brazil, and others benefit in some ways from an environmental order based on the world in 1972.  If you are going to invite them as full members of the party, are you going to ask them to help clean up?
  • The Africans.  UNEP was a source of pride for African political leaders who were able to get it located in Kenya.  This certainly makes the party more accessible to a continent that often has to pool its resource for international negotiations.  However, the geography might also make the party less able to coordinate and connect with other UN organizations.  Keeping a strengthened UNEP in Africa or moving it to Europe…glad I’m not deciding this issue.
  • The United States.  When they attend parties, they can be great.  When they don’t, the parties can be ruined completely.  In Kyoto, everyone said “If the U.S. wants to come, great.  If not, we’ll just party by ourselves.”  And that didn’t turn out great.  They seem hesitant to provide any additional power to UNEP, but UNEP could be strengthened without full U.S. participation: the question is whether that is worth it?

Happy birthday again.  Good luck over the next year.  It is an important year for your future.


One thought on “United Nations Environment Programme: Future relevance?

  1. Pingback: Should the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) become a Specialized Agency? « Lullaby of the Commons

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