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Why is there still no World Environment Organisation?

It’s 100 million years since Pangea, and we’re still waiting. Herada, CC BY-NC-SA

It seems an anomaly that among the 15 autonomous, specialised agencies within the United Nations – such as the FAO, WMO, WHO, or UNESCO – there is no dedicated environmental organisation.

This secondary status and the subsequent lack of coherence in environmental matters harms global environmental governance. Wouldn’t having a World Environment Organisation (WEO) help to coordinate global environmental and climate change efforts?

Many calls, few answers

There have been 40 years of debate over a World Environment Organisation, starting with calls from US foreign policy strategists for an International Environment Agency. Instead, following the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was created the following year. Despite this positive step, this was a weaker reform than many proposed, and effectively curtailed further debate over the need for a specialised agency.

Such a global body was again suggested in 1989, principally by the Netherlands, France and Norway, in order to manage the reduction of ozone-destroying CFCs under the Montreal Protocol which came in to force that year. After the Rio+5 meeting in 1997, Germany, Brazil, Singapore and South Africa again called for a global umbrella body for the environment at the UN General Assembly.

The need for the UN to attend more efficiently to environmental matters was once again recognised at the 2005 World Summit. A draft proposal for environmental governance reform was discussed in 2008, but by February 2009 efforts had stalled.

Yet again, in the run up to Rio+20 in 2012 there were calls to use this significant milestone to reform international environmental governance. The challenges identified included the need to integrate science and policy, provide a voice for environmental sustainability, secure funding, and to build a coherent and cohesive approach to working within the UN system and meeting the needs of individual countries.

In the wake of the conference, it was recognised that global sustainable development issues need a permanent international champion. But delegates failed to uphold the proposal to “upgrade” UNEP to a specialised agency. So despite more than 20 years international conferences since the first Rio environmental summit in 1992, there is today a specialised agency for industrial development, but not for sustainable development.

The compromise reached in 2012 was to grant universal membership to UNEP, meaning that any of the 193 UN member states can hold a seat on the governing council, and it will receive with more funding from the UN budget. Despite the UN statement’s claims, this does not tackle any of the structural problems identified at Rio+20, such as the lack of an authoritative, global voice for the environment, and UNEP’s weak role at the science-policy interface.

The next, small steps

There are more than 500 Multilateral Environment Agreements; these are legally binding international agreements between three or more countries to tackle specific environmental challenges, many of which have their own secretariats and legal structures. But UNEP is, on the whole, unable to help implement policies. It has around 15 offices, whereas the UN Development Programme has 177. Its budget pales in comparison to other organisations.

There is also significant overlap of function and expertise between the various organisations that currently exist (and operate autonomously) at the international level. A WEO would deliver the same institutional specialisation of expertise that has been a feature of the UN system to date, and greater coordination on environmental issues. According to a recent report, 62 of 66 countries studied have “flagship” climate change legislation in place. Countries are taking action, but international coordination is conspicuous by its absence.

UN body by revenue; data from UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination. Lucien Georgeson

If there are to be Sustainable Development Goals post-2015, as with the Millennium Development Goals, there needs to be an organisation that can coordinate worldwide efforts and monitor progress. If supplied with adequate funding, a specialised agency for the environment could provide greater regional presence, deliver more on the ground, as well as offer improved technical assistance and policy guidance to governments.

The lack of a WEO remains a clear sign that the environment is not given the same global status as trade, health and labour, or even maritime affairs, intellectual property and tourism – all of which are represented by UN agencies. This continues, despite the existence of high level political groups on sustainable development, or initiatives like Ban Ki-moon’s Year of Sustainable Energy for All.

But is it too late? There would certainly be difficulties in integrating all those involved in administering the various environmental treaties and protocols, which have filled the void left by the lack of a more powerful agency specific to the task.

Such an organisation would provide a central point for collaboration around global efforts to tackle the causes and effects all environmental challenges, of which climate change may be the largest. As summarised by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) excellent What We Know report, “we are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts”.

I would argue that the reform of UNEP is a step in the right direction, but the job is far from done. Will there be renewed calls for more cohesive global governance following the latest report from the IPCC? The UN Economic and Social Council does have the mandate to create a specialised agency, a move that is strongly supported by 35 nations, but not backed by the US, Russia or China. Forty years on from Stockholm and 20 years on from Rio, a World Environment Organisation still seems a long way away.

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