Rio+20 Countdown: Do we have the right institutions to go small?

This is Part 4 of a series of blog posts leading up to the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20-22.  The full series is available here.


Without a treaty for countries to sign, with the current political climate, with daunting environmental and poverty challenges, the Rio+20 Conference is most likely going small.  This does not mean it is pushing for tiny changes, but it is aiming for governance that relies upon individual action by people and corporations rather than collectively-agreed treaties, resulting in laws in every country, resulting in individual action by people and corporations.  If such a individual-action focused agenda is going to work, we need certain institutions to facilitate global action.  Thankfully, one of the major agenda items for the Rio+20 Conference is on “the institutional framework for sustainable development.”  What are the options and which ones are likely to facilitate success in the post-Rio+20 world?

To simplify matters significantly, there are three major institutional groupings relevant in international environmental politics today.  There is the United Nations System which includes a host of different organizations, efforts, and connections that deal with the environment.  For our purposes: the two significant ones are the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) affiliated with the General Assembly and thus having wide membership.  The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) affiliated with the Economic and Social Council of the UN and thus having a more focused, rotating membership.  Currently, there are also connections with a host of specialized agencies, like the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank, that focus on some environmental issues but there is not a dedicated environmental specialized agency.

Outside of the UN System there are other institutions that deal with the environment.  There are a host of independent treaties that are not part of the UN System, like the International Whaling Convention for example.  These are crucial and the connections between them are growing stronger every year.  Then there are non-treaty NGO institutions like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) that links NGOs with businesses to create effective forest certification arrangements.  There are other efforts that are not in any of these groups, but they do not form a large part of the landscape.

There are many problems with the current governance institutions identified by a variety of different perspectives:

  1. They are confusing.  Let’s say you have a great idea on how to globally deal with the depletion of carbon in the soil: who do propose it to?  UNEP? CSD? NGOs? FAO?  The roles and responsibilities of these organizations are rarely clearly defined and evolving constantly.  This may seem like a small problem, until you consider how it impacts the actual development of effective governance on an issue like deforestation.  UNEP has some deforestation efforts, CSD does as well, there are some floating in the UN system ether, NGOs have active efforts that engaged in competing certification wars earlier, there are independent treaties like the International Tropical Timber Organization.  This is not an example of multiple heads coming together to create a clear focus, it is an example of continuing degradation and efforts, policies, and competencies spread between too many areas.
  2. It is competitive.  Let’s assume for a second that the people of the world are willing to spend 1 out of every 100 dollars on the global environment.   The people may like a variety of institutions so they can choose how to divide this dollar up.  The problem is that this then creates a competitive environment between the institutions for that dollar.  UNEP was the primary global environmental institution from 1972 until 1992.  In the first Rio Conference, the CSD was created and that created two UN organizations working on similar issues.  The situation has grown increasingly complex, and although competition may spur improved performance it also can spur turf wars.  The relationship between UNEP and the UN’s Environmental Management Group has shown that institutions can augment one another, but in working out this augmentation, significant time and efforts are expended.
  3. No World Environmental Organization.  A lot do not seem to mind the confusion or competitive nature, but simply that there isn’t a highly elevated international body on the environment, like there is for trade with the World Trade Organization.  If we are going to take environmental concerns seriously, we need an institution that is elevated to a high level.  Maybe, it could be a specialized agency, maybe an independent treaty organization, etc.  

Before turning to the specific proposals for change at Rio+20, it is important to ask whether this current structure can accomplish the decentralized effort likely to follow the Rio+20 Conference?  It certainly does not seem to be working effectively, but does this mean it needs overhaul?  Not necessarily.  One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: I Don’t Need Therapy, I Need Money (pictured at the right).  Let’s assume that one outcome of the Rio+20 conference is that states agree to 7% GDP in official development assistance and 2% in GDP to the current international environmental institutions (this is a completely ridiculous utopian possibility that does not reflect any actual proposal).  Could the current institutions achieve the broad-based individual focused approach in this situation?  Purely gut instinct says ‘No’.  Injecting money into a confused, competitive environment does not seem like it will help the governance situation.  Instead, it seems just as likely to create expensive dueling pilot projects by different states and institutions in order to get more funding, but not to actually improve the situation.  Although overhaul might not be necessary, institutional reform does need to happen to fix these problems.

Proposals for Reform.  There are lots of these that have been bandied about in the couple of years leading up to Rio+20, but a few stick out as plausible institutional reform.

Strengthen UNEP.  The G77 and European countries have both formally endorsed strengthening UNEP as a crucial reorganization of the institutional environment.  President Kibaki of Kenya makes the claim simply:

Achieving green development and environmental development requires strong institutions. The AU has taken a common position to support UNEP transformation into a specialized UN agency.

Over 100 countries adopted the proposal, but the Americas were quite wary of the          proposal.  A U.S. State department official told AFP that:

We do not believe that international efforts on the environment and sustainable development would be improved by creating a new specialised agency on the environment.  We prefer to work towards a strengthened role for UNEP, as well as better coordination across the UN system in integrating environment into development, and in working towards sustainable development.

Brazil and Canada were similarly skeptical of this proposal and made their disagreement clear from early on.  The issue appears to be largely off the table at this point.  A flurry of news discussing reforming and strengthening UNEP hit in February, and since then it has gradually decreased, as shown in 2012 UNEP Google Trends graph.  This proposal would have changed the picture above into the picture at the right.  UNEP would become an exclusive Specialized Agency with the ability to develop its agenda outside of the UN System.

A New Umbrella Body For the Rio+20 Agenda.  The Stockholm Conference created UNEP to implement its agenda, the Rio+0 Conference in 1992 created CSD to implement its agenda, it may seem appropriate that we create a new institution for the specific agenda of Rio+20.  Jan-Gustav Strandaneas for Stakeholder Forum has specifically developed a lengthy proposal arguing for this outcome.  Strandaneas writes:

This paper argues for the establishment of a permanent council on sustainable development to be established. The Rio plus 20 Conference has a mandate for such a decision to be made. Having made the decision the Rio plus 20 Conference should elaborate this decision and include a number of concrete elements in this decision. As with the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council, a high -level committee of experts, including representatives of civil society ‘major groups’, needs to be established by the UN Secretary General to prepare a series of options for governments’ consideration. 

The idea would be to create a permanent council on the same level as the UN Economic and Social Council.  The current international system would then begin to look like the picture at the right with a UN Council on Sustainable Development moving outside of ECOSOC and containing within it UNEP and other UN Environmental programs.  The result would be an elevated forum for sustainable development issues beyond either currently UNEP or CSD.

All Institutions are Local.  The third approach contends that the international infrastructure is not likely to be improved in any significant way, so that instead we might want to push for nations to begin prioritizing sustainable development, we may want to require corporations to present sustainability reports, we may want local governments to be leaders in sustainability politics.  Essentially, create a world where NGOs and competing governments and businesses have enough information to pressure, compete, or contest the claims of a business or government.  This seems to be the path favored by those who see the best outcome of Rio+20 in developing Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).  Bernstein and Brunee explain:

SDGs have the advantage of not only clarifying and focusing goals, but of potentially creating benchmarks and an accountability mechanism. The UNCSD could endorse a process, commitment and time line to develop SDGs as well as an institutional platform for that process.

Sustainable Development Goals would be set through international agreement, monitored often through self or minimal monitoring and NGOs, Governments, or shareholders of companies would hold groups accountable through pressure, campaigns, and negotiated outcomes.  The picture would look very similar to the first picture but we would expect that the monitoring provisions of the different bodies would be greatly increased and possibly see the creation of a high-level science body in the UN to propose and develop evaluation tools for these efforts.

Do we have the right options for implementing a local focused global environmental political order?  If we are going to see a global environmental order that operates through small-level actions rather than treaty-based mandates, we are going to need clarity, resources, and creative spaces.  We currently lack the first two and this confines the creative spaces available to a significant extent.  The options above are not mutually exclusive and can be done in conjunction with one another.  However, all three institutional changes have significant limitations when it comes to going small.

Strengthening UNEP has the potential to provide clarity and resources but may squeeze out creative spaces and if the organization has poor leadership it could reverberate.  A new umbrella organization has the same problem but also may not actually clarify the situation.  If UNEP remains outside of the new umbrella organization, it may be quite problematic.  The Sustainable Development Goals approach offers lots of creativity but relies upon the continued activity of civil society with the resources to put pressure globally.  Also, if the reporting does not significantly strengthen, we should not consider sustainability reporting to be a credible alternative at this time.

We do have the institutional options for implementing a small global environmental order.  What is important is that 1. institutional reform does happen and 2. that it not be the only thing that happens.  The current system is not effective and confuses the situation more than it clarifies it.  The options though may make a larger mess of the arrangement and lead to a lost decade of governance if they are not attached to clearly established agreements about funding, reporting, and the institutional arrangement.  The next few blog posts will talk about some of these aspects. Institutional reform is crucial but cannot be the only aspect of the Rio+20 outcome and if it is we will be in line for more problems in the coming years.


3 thoughts on “Rio+20 Countdown: Do we have the right institutions to go small?

  1. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown: What are Sustainable Development Goals? Why Are they Important? « Lullaby of the Commons

  2. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown Review: The Impacts of the Identity Crisis at Rio+20 « Lullaby of the Commons

  3. Pingback: Rio+20 Report Card « Lullaby of the Commons

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