All Change?

OUR PLANET 10.2 - UNEP - Looking Forward

All Change?


examines the hurdles confronting UNEP at a critical time in its history

There is reason for those who have watched the difficult times experienced by UNEP to give a gentle cheer. A corner may have been turned with the arrival of Klaus Toepfer as the agency's new Executive Director and the latest meeting of its Governing Council, in February.

Many of UNEP's problems go back to the run up to the 1992 Earth Summit, when its role was never properly clarified. The result was a mess, nay a compounded mess. By 1992 a number of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) had been established with their own secretariats and Conferences of the Parties (COPs) based in various capitals. Their allegiance to the small catalytic agency that had parented many of them was unclear. Then at Rio the governments agreed to a climate convention, a biodiversity convention and eventually a desertification convention, all with their own secretariats - and that the Global Environment Facility should help with finance. Again the relationships were not clear. To compound the difficulties, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created with a small secretariat in New York, to follow up on the Earth Summit and report (along with UNEP) to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It might have worked if all these bodies had been sited in Nairobi, Geneva or New York - but not when they were scattered across three continents.

Failure to inspire

So what was UNEP to be for? In the past, it had had a patchy record. On the plus side it had spawned many of the key environmental conventions, a number of useful regional processes and an arm in Paris that was setting about reforming industry. But it had failed to inspire in its central task of monitoring and evaluating environmental trends, and it was constantly hamstrung in advancing capacity building - a vital ingredient of national and regional progress. Discontent among governments had reduced the annual budget to below $50 million a year; too little to count and far less than the amount spent by many an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO). It all got to crisis proportions by late 1996/early 1997, when some donor countries froze their contributions. Something had to change.

In the spring of 1997 the governments agreed to the Nairobi Declaration, designed to set out a new mandate. Klaus Toepfer took over in early 1998. He was asked not only to take on UNEP but also to head a Task Force to review the whole operation for the environment in the United Nations for Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General.

In May of 1998 he set out his thesis on four major trends: the proliferation of institutions on the international environment; the increasing polarity of wealth and access to technology in a freer 'globalized' world of trade; environmental trends and events that threaten the very security of nation states; and the failure to integrate social, environmental and economic management. It may seem familiar stuff. But what was fresh was the way the new Executive Director faced up to the first issue - the fragmentation and proliferation of institutions. At present every department in national government has its own pet agency. Indeed UNEP, and the CSD, can be seen as the environment ministers' clubs; the World Health Organization that of health ministries; the World Bank and International Monetary Fund those of treasuries and so on. Unless integration starts at home disintegration will surely follow abroad.

Toepfer reminded everyone that the Nairobi Declaration (one optimistically assumes as agreed by cabinets and not just ministers) stated that the focused mandate of UNEP would be about analyzing the state of the global environment, assessing global environmental trends, providing policy advice and early warning on threats, and catalyzing and promoting international cooperation and action, based on the best scientific and technical capabilities available. This would involve the development of international law, coherence between existing laws and conventions, and compliance with them.


Aiming high

There was also a clear coordination job to be done in the United Nations as a whole, with UNEP taking the lead on environmental matters. On the all-important issue of capacity building, UNEP was to promote greater awareness and facilitate effective cooperation among all sectors of society and to provide policy and advisory services in key areas of institution building to government and other relevant institutions.

All very sensible stuff, but very hard to pull off given the Byzantine nature of the United Nations. However Toepfer, through his Task Force, is going for the high ground; its recommendations were, after protracted deliberations by the Secretary-General, owned by him and presented to the General Assembly for approval. The recent Governing Council has provided valuable support by pushing for coordination among the conventions and close cooperation with the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements and the United Nations centre in Nairobi. It also called for the creation of an Environment Management Group for the United Nations alongside the all-important Administrative Committee on Coordination.

The millennium, when presidents and prime ministers will set targets for the new century, could be a turning point for the United Nations. Cynics may smile, but there is clearly great potential for UNEP.

Some powerful leaders have urged the creation of a World Environment Agency to match the power of the World Trade Organization (WTO). President Chirac raised it again at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) last autumn. Broadly speaking, governments have liberalized trade far ahead of any social and environmental checks and balances. The WTO is a much bigger player than UNEP, or even ECOSOC. Yet the MEAs have enormous trade implications - as over biodiversity and genetically modified organisms, climate change and traded climate permits. So why not upgrade UNEP? Indeed, the United Nations General Assembly has stated: 'The role of the United Nations Environment Programme in the further development of international environmental law should be strengthened, including the development of coherent interlinkages among relevant environmental conventions in cooperation with their respective conferences of the parties or governing bodies'.

Can a reinforced UNEP really impact the trade agenda and 'globalization'? Who knows? Meanwhile Toepfer is all for 'renewing and strengthening UNEP's work on Trade and Environment' and for 'building closer links between international trade and environmental policies'. No doubt the links between environmental law and trade are important. But will UNEP be up to the task? The Executive Director seems to want a key role in defining the as yet undefined, trading regime for climate change mitigation agreed at Kyoto, and to be in the vanguard of the coming disputes between MEAs and the trade regime. The European Union (EU) statement to the Governing Council provides some encouragement: 'The EU supports the analysis and underlines the proposed actions for UNEP in the future in the area of economics, trade, and financial services and considers them important... to this end the EU stresses the importance of the envisaged closer cooperation with the WTO.'

Multiple issues

There are many other priorities to address, such as the issues that went before the CSD in April (oceans and seas, marine pollution from the land, sustainable tourism, small islands, changing consumption patterns). Others include environmental technology, pollution and UNEP's monitoring and assessment function - not to mention the all-important role of its six UNEP regional offices. And all this is to be done on a budget of $100 million in the 2000/2001 biennium and $120 million in the next.

Much now depends on the team Toepfer builds to back him up. Can he regain the respect of the 'professionals' outside the United Nations? Will he be able to further expand the miserable budget? Will he be able to work again with the many actors who are not a part of the United Nations at all, such as the policy research institutes, universities and membership NGOs? It is going to be a tough road.

But so far so good. The United Nations must have the environment on its agenda, if only to build the much needed capacity at the all-important national and regional levels to produce anything approaching sustainability. We continue to need strong norms, and even laws, if the world is going to avoid an environment trade war. And we will not even meet the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's ambitious poverty allieviation targets halfway if the natural substrate of so much economic activity is allowed to burn or wash away in tomorrow's uncertain climate.

Richard Sandbrook is Executive Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, London, United Kingdom.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Kofi A. Annan: An indispensable contribution (The Way Ahead) 1997
Michael Ben-Eli: Towards a new system (The Way Ahead) 1997
Rudolf Dolzer: Time for change (The Way Ahead) 1997
Maurice F. Strong: The way ahead (UNEP 25) 1997
Mostafa K. Tolba: Redefining UNEP (UNEP 25) 1997

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