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Why We Need A Global Environmental Organization

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On December 15-16, governments, international agencies and civil society groups met to discuss hundreds of recommendations on sustainable development in preparation for the June 2012 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. Focuses ranged from creating green jobs, to improving food security, achieving universal energy access, bettering water resource management, and addressing shark finning and marine pollution.

It will be no small feat to produce a new consensus over the next six months that will set a real path towards the future we need. If the world is serious about achieving these new goals, we will need a strong and coordinated governance institution -- one with resources and jurisdiction to facilitate and enforce compliance: a global environmental organization.

The Rio+20 conference will mark 20 years since the historical 1992 Rio Earth Summit, where world leaders ambitiously adopted Agenda 21 and its landmark conventions. These agreements were meant to guide the world to sustainable development through economic improvement, social equity, and environmental protection. Two decades later, it is largely acknowledged that the world has missed the mark on the 1992 goals by a wide margin -- particularly on the environmental front.

In a preparatory report for Rio +20, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that "most indicators of environmental improvement have not demonstrated appreciable convergence with those of economic and social progress; indeed, the overall picture is one of increased divergence."

Indicators tell us we need drastic improvements in global environmental management. Since 1970, animal populations have been reduced by 30%. Global warming has increased: the heating effect of atmospheric pollution has risen by 29% since 1990 -- and climate scientists now believe that carbon emissions must begin to fall within a decade if we are to avoid a temperature rise of over two degrees, the goal agreed at the 2009 U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen and reaffirmed in Durban [in early December].

But environmental degradation cannot be viewed in isolation from the other two pillars of sustainable development. Lack of strong environmental management means economic benefits lost as well: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Report estimates that loss of ecosystem services from forests is over $4 trillion a year. This figure demonstrates that the destruction of forests reduces our ability to use nature's resources for economic and social welfare. The world's resources must be protected and renewed in order to ensure we meet our needs and the needs of future generations.

Since the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, and largely since Rio, efforts have been made to confront environmental problems: the U.N. Environment Programme was established, and over 500 multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Law of the Seas, have been negotiated and agreed to. Many of these agreements have had successes -- thanks to the Montreal Protocol, for instance, consumption of ozone-depleting substances has decreased by 95%.

However, these issue-specific MEAs have dealt with problems on a symptom-by-symptom basis, often creating other problems elsewhere. For example, although the regulation of chemical CFCs refrigerants has benefited the ozone layer, the production of the unregulated greenhouse chemical that replaced them -- HFCs -- has vastly increased, compounding global warming.

Unlike the World Trade Organization (WTO), which supervises international trade, there has been no overarching legal framework for the environment. The environmental pillar needs an anchor institution to provide policy and scientific coordination to MEAs. The centralization of scientific knowledge and research can address the current piecemeal approach to regulation, and provide strategic direction to MEAs and other U.N. agencies with environmental mandates. It can also reduce administrative costs of the hundreds individual environmental treaty secretariats.

And, an anchor institution can also reduce administrative costs of governmental institutions that are charged with protecting the environment, which is often a burden for developing countries. Diplomats today, for instance, attend technical meetings year-round in various countries across the globe. An anchor institution could relieve these burdens. Co-location and eventual joint administration of the many convention secretariats could help developing countries to build specialized "environmental embassies" at the seat of the new organization.

In terms of implementation, a new body in the organization could financially and technically support developing and least developed countries to meet their MEA commitments. Currently, all eight of UNEP's divisions have the responsibility to monitor, assess, and report on their subfields, an unnecessary redundancy. And, national reporting could be streamlined into one document, and submitted to one body. This move would use significantly less state administrative resources.

So why does UNEP not do all of these things? As of 2010, UNEP's resources were low (approximately $220 million annually) compared to the Global Environmental Facility, an independent financial organization which has allocated $9.2 billion in grants to developing countries for specific environmental projects.

Moreover, as UNEP is designated as a U.N. programme and not a Specialized Agency, which would afford it more independence, decisions made by its governing council must be referred to the U.N. General Assembly. Moreover, not all countries are represented in the governing council. Upgrading UNEP to a Specialized Agency -- namely a Global Environmental Organization with universal membership, increased budgetary autonomy, and decision making authority comparable to the WTO or the World Health Organization, could close the gap between ambition and reality.

Further, it should not be ignored that a new agency could provide a voice for a significantly larger portion of the world, not only by formalizing the voice of more states, but by formalizing the relationship with civil society. Through a voting structure similar to the International Labour Organization (ILO), environmental groups could be granted an equal seat. The sustainable development field has long made special efforts to include civil society in decision making, and rightly so: civil society brings important technical capacity and local knowledge, and expresses the interests of often overlooked peoples.

Some argue that environmental protection is too pressing and that we can't afford the time for institutional reform. However, an increasing number of states have demonstrated support for reform, including the African Union, Small Island Developing States, Asia-Pacific states, the European Union, and other countries from every geographical location.

We must invest the time and resources to form a more effective, coherent and focused governance system in order to truly achieve our goals and build a better, sustainable future. This requires a strong environmental governance arm to enable a balanced integration of economic, social and environmental governance. Indeed, at an annual conference of French Ambassadors in September, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, said "without a strengthening of international environmental governance, whatever is potentially agreed in Rio+20 will only contribute to a persistence of the challenges, rather than the delivery of the opportunities and the imperative for a more intelligent and equitable 21st century development."

This editorial is co-signed by:

Bonian Golmohammadi

Secretary-General of the World Federation of United Nations Associations, a global nonprofit organization representing and coordinating a membership of over 100 national associations and their thousands of constituents.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock

Chairman, United Nations Association of the UK and former British ambassador to the U.N.

The Honorable Robert Hill

President, United Nations Association of Australia

Michael Powles

President, United Nations Association of New Zealand

Mohamed Zawahir

President, United Nations Association of Sri Lanka

Lancine Diakite

President, United Nations Association of Cote d'Ivoire

Berglind Sigmarsdóttir

Secretary-General, United Nations Association of Iceland

Torleif Jonasson

Secretary-General, United Nations of Denmark

Alexei Borisov

Secretary-General, United Nations Association of Russia

Andre Rollinger

President, United Nations Association of Luxembourg

Luis Alves

President, United Nations Association of Portugal

Biljana Peseva

President, United Nations Association of Macedonia

Edgardo Carrasco Echave

Secretary-General, United Nations Association of Peru

Lucia Alberti

President, United Nations Association of Argentina


In an earlier version of this post, the author incorrectly stated that the hole in the ozone layer was "nearly closed" due in part to the Montreal Protocol. The post has been corrected to reflect following the Montreal Protocol, "Consumption of ozone-depleting substances has decreased by 95%."