The promise of Stockholm

The promise of Stockholm


United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


As we contemplate the nature of the next century and the beginning of a new millennium there is much talk of vision and 'preferred futures'. Not surprisingly, this thinking is infecting the United Nations Environment Programme.

When the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment convened 25 years ago, a major shift was under way in how the world conceived environmental issues. At its root was the growing realization that a healthy environment was fundamental to human well-being, and that people living on one side of the planet could be affected by how the environment was treated on another. It became clear that a concerted international effort was warranted, and UNEP was created.

But if the need was identified 25 years ago for intergovernmental collaboration in the protection of our global commons, this need has only grown since. At a time when expanding consumption and growing population is putting more pressure on the environment, the ability of governments to respond individually is diminishing. As sovereign power is ceded increasingly to the global market, fulfilling sovereign responsibilities to domestic populations creates a greater need for international agreements than ever before.

This is a time of interdependence. The planet is being interlinked by a global trading system, global information super highways, global financial systems, global communications and entertainment networks and global companies. On the threshold of the millennium, our agenda for the environment must recognize, shape and benefit from these trends.

In the 1950s, environment and development were incompatible. One did 'economically well by doing ecological bad'. Gradually, throughout the 1980s, we aimed to do economically well while doing ecological good, or at least being environmentally benign. Now, following the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), we are committed to realizing a sustainable society - ecologically and economically sustainable.

While UNEP's major task has been to catalyze and coordinate environmental action, it has also served, by its mere existence, as a flagship, lending credence to the idea that there was an indispensable role for environmental institutions in the world. However great the expectations for the Stockholm Conference may have been, it is unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the emergence of environmental institutions, or the augmentation of the existing ones with environmental divisions, in virtually every sector of society, every part of the world and at every level. Building institutions is clearly no longer a priority. Making sure that the ones we have are working in concert with each other, is.

While circumstances have changed since 1972, there remains a strong sense that the world community needs an organization like UNEP to champion issues and act as an independent, objective and authoritative advocate for the global environment. This year, as we mark UNEP's 25th anniversary, assess progress in the post-Rio period, and chart the way ahead, the time is right to consider how UNEP can best adapt to the new circumstances and realize its potential as the United Nations voice for the environment.

For my part, as someone who has seen UNEP's strengths and encountered the obstacles to its success, I offer a few observations.

In 1961, President Kennedy prophesied that the United States would put a man on the moon and return him by the end of that decade. At that time nobody knew how to do it. In 1960, the Government of the Republic of Korea set out to transform a peasant economy ravaged by war into a modern economy. In each case the country invented its way. Through the creation of a coherent programme of imagination and strategic action prophecy was turned into reality.

Just so, to create a sustainable future we must design our way there. The forthcoming Governing Council will provide a unique opportunity to articulate UNEP's vision for itself in preparation for the General Assembly's post-UNCED review. As we reflect on 25 years of service, UNEP must fundamentally rethink how it can most effectively help the world create that sustainable future.

Three-fold responsibility

In my view, there are three responsibilities that must fall to an organization such as UNEP by virtue of its unique position as the environmental body of the United Nations. The first is the collection and assembly of facts into a picture of the state of the planet's physical health. The second is the evaluation of conditions and trends, together with their underlying root causes and likely effects, with a view to their policy implications. And the third is the provision of a framework to develop international environmental agreements and support their implementation and of an ongoing forum for the exploration and discussion of newly breaking issues.

These three themes have always, in one way or another, been part and parcel of UNEP's mandate. But what I am proposing is that they henceforth comprise its entire programme, and that they be revitalized. Focusing on these three main themes - synthesizing available science, deriving policy implications and supporting international negotiations - would call for a strong knowledge-based organization capable of mobilizing international environmental science and technology, and its related social, political, economic and legal components. And in so doing, it would require that other activities that divert scarce resources from these core themes, and which are better done by others, be jettisoned.

UNEP should forego, for example, the implementation of operational projects at the country level, leaving it in the hands of organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme, among others, which were created for this purpose and have vastly greater on-the-ground capacity.

Similarly, UNEP should focus on the coordination of substantive scientific and technical support in a manner modelled after its work with the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. With respect to the sustainable development policy process, the responsibility of the Commission on Sustainable Development, UNEP would clearly be the principal agency in the provision of environmental inputs to that process.


From accord to action

Agreeing on what UNEP should do is one thing. Putting in place the means for doing it is another. To begin with, funding levels must be made more stable and predictable. They should be based on management programme and budget proposals, and be approved at each meeting of the Governing Council. The practice of governments earmarking funds for individual projects should be substituted with contributions to one core fund. The existing method of voluntary contributions should be replaced by a fair system of assessment, and based on a negotiated budget that reflects the needs of the agreed work programme.

While universal participation underpins the decision-making process of the United Nations, it is not achieved fully in UNEP's governing structures. Universal participation in the biennial sessions of the Governing Council is highly desirable, particularly considering the universal nature of environmental problems. At the same time, if UNEP is to become proactive rather than reactive, it must be agile. The designation of a smaller intersessional body is crucial in order to provide the Secretariat with timely and substantive policy guidance and present a powerful collective voice on emerging environmental issues.

A bold and creative vision for the UNEP of the future would redesign its programme, funding and governance - and more. UNEP must reach out beyond governments and the reliance predominantly on law and economic policy instruments. A global agenda for environmental innovation, tapping the significant potential of the private sector and civil society at large, could shape the 21st century in dramatic and positive ways.

Finally, to deliver on the promise of Stockholm, UNEP must now evolve into an organization that acts clearly and unambiguously as the world's environmental agency, providing principal environmental inputs into the sustainable development agenda and shaping global environmental consensus. It must see itself as vision maker and forecaster, as consortium builder and as monitor and auditor of progress and change. On balance, it must be proactive rather than reactive. And, through consistently encouraging excellence, the community of nations would adopt the best of approaches rather than the minimum negotiated.

This is indeed a significant agenda for change. The time is right for such a discussion.

Elizabeth Dowdeswell is Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UNEP.

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