Towards a new system
outlines weaknesses in the governance of global
environmental affairs and suggests a new
There is a pressing need for an improved system of governance of global environmental issues. The increasing stress of
environmental impacts of human activities on the planet and its resources is unlikely to diminish in the immediate
future, while the essential interconnectedness of human affairs becomes increasingly apparent as forces for
globalization grow stronger. Many problems will continue to require concerted responses by the international
community, making the need for a more effective system all the more urgent.
An embryonic system of governance is slowly taking shape, embodied in the existing agreements and institutions: but
there is much room for improvement, for rationalization, consolidation - and for accelerating its development. New or
modified frameworks and mechanisms are likely to be needed. These will have to be inspired by a true spirit of
collaboration between nations, and driven by creative and innovative approaches to the management of global affairs.
Many sensitive questions are involved and political will may fall woefully short of required action. It is timely,
however, to review these issues, particularly in light of the 'Rio+5' discussions, and the general debate on United
Treaties and agreements on aspects of environmental management go back almost to the turn of the century. They include
the 1906 convention between the United States and Mexico on equitably distributing the waters of the Rio Grande for
irrigation; the 1909 boundary water treaty between Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) and the United States; the
adoption, by the International Labour Organisation in 1920, of standards to protect workers against occupational
environmental hazards; the Organization of American States 1940 Washington Convention on nature protection and
wildlife preservation in the western hemisphere, and many others.
The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 signalled the emergence of the environment
as a key issue on the international political agenda. The emphasis, at the time, was largely on transboundary
phenomena and public health. Nevertheless, discussions on the oceans as global commons ultimately led to the United
Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the Stockholm meeting paved the way for the Antarctica Agreement, the
Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes, and more. It also led to the establishment of UNEP - with a combined mandate of
monitoring global environmental conditions and catalyzing action in the United Nations system - and accelerated the
establishment of environment ministries in both developed and developing countries.
The report of the Brundtland Commission in 1987 was another important milestone. It established the essential links
between the environment and economic development, thus broadening the environmental agenda beyond issues of
conservation and protection. It offered a new paradigm, which has since taken hold in the concept of 'sustainable
development', calling for a new era of economic development based on policies that sustain the environmental resource
base, meet the needs of the present without compromising the future, and emphasize global equity in the use of
resources. In doing so, it recognized the need for a greater democracy in international decision-making - and thus
indirectly pointed to the underlying need for political reform in the international system and for new approaches to
Established in the same year, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer exemplified a new type
of global environmental convention. The world community negotiated an important agreement, based on urgent scientific
evidence, which included a set of standards, an implementation schedule for reduction in emissions and a balanced
consideration of North/South interests in implementation, including in its financing and governance.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, attended by many heads of
state, brought discussions to the highest political level with governments moving further towards the collective
management of the global environment. The Conference made the basic premise of sustainable development an important
global priority - and broadened participation in the policy debate by including members of the civil society, the
business community, and many non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The Conference led to the development of the Earth Charter; the adoption of Agenda 21 as an international framework
for action; the signing of global conventions on biodiversity and climate change, and agreement on the need to develop
the Convention to Combat Desertification. It also established the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development
and signalled the designation of the Global Environment Facility as a financial mechanism for the conventions.
Today, the governance of global environmental affairs is mediated by an intricate web of agreements, organizations and
relationships. Key players include:
- The United Nations system, with its member governments, its organs and agencies, particularly UNEP and the United
Nations Development Programme;
- The Bretton Woods institutions, particularly the World Bank;
- Multilateral regional organizations, including the regional development banks;
- Environmental treaties, agreements and conventions, which preceded Rio, with their support bodies;
- More recently created institutions and mechanisms, including the global environmental conventions on ozone
depletion, biodiversity and climate change; the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and the Global
- Other entities and forces which are involved in a myriad of ways and can strongly influence events, including the
international scientific community, the private sector, the NGO community, and the media.
Together these form a loose structure of institutions and activities, addressing fundamentally similar, and often
related, issues in a poorly coordinated and largely fragmented way. There is overlap and duplication, and there are
significant gaps. Nevertheless, these players can be regarded as key components in an emerging embryonic system of
governance of global environmental affairs.
In spite of significant progress and many substantial achievements, the system is beset by many weaknesses, ranging
from governments' insufficient political will to discord between major interest groups; to uncertainties in
interpreting the available science and genuine gaps in knowledge; to fundamental organizational weaknesses and to a
chronic lack of resources. Thus for example:
- There are fundamental drawbacks to processes of multilateral negotiations. Decisions tend to reflect the lowest
common denominator that can be agreed upon and there are usually long time lags between drafting, adoption and entry
- Policy development tends to be fragmented, and decision-making piecemeal. Sometimes these are at odds. Often they
are undertaken at an inappropriate level and with critical key players absent;
- The sovereign nature of conventions and the sectoral, quasi-independent structure of agencies encourage the
individual pursuit of objectives and make cooperation difficult;
- The multiplicity of bodies dealing with similar issues leads to overlap, ambiguity, confusion and incoherence,
and spreads the available resources too thinly;
- The general lack of accountability, the absence of enforcement mechanisms and the reliance on soft law encourages
foot dragging and the pursuit of unilateral interests;
- The system reflects the opportunities, decisions and needs of the past. There has been little systemic
consolidation, and long-standing activities have been perpetuated, regardless of their performance or current merit;
- The coordination of policies and actions is made difficult by the imbalance in relative power, influence and
competence of key components, and the perception by some participants that the playing field is not even;
- There are inconsistencies on national policies within governments and weaknesses in their mechanisms for
addressing environment and sustainable development issues. These spill over into the international domain and are
aggravated by such global economic forces as trade, capital markets, new technologies and the activities of
transnational corporations, which often leave governments behind;
- An almost universal resistance to relinquishing any aspect of national sovereignty to a common effort to address
issues concerning the global commons results in a dysfunctional 'world' system, making effective, rapid progress all
Some far-reaching proposals have attempted to address deficiencies. In 1989, for example, Britain proposed either
creating a security council for the environment, or entrusting the existing security council with environmental
matters. The same year President Gorbachev proposed creating a global environment emergency capability and the Hague
Declaration called for a new institutional authority to set and implement environmental standards. There have been
proposals to revive the United Nations trusteeship authority - entrusting it with global environmental concerns - and
recent informal discussions on the merit of bringing the global environmental conventions under a single umbrella. All
draw on a fundamental recognition that policy development and decision-making must be improved, and that joint
strategies and the implementation of agreements must be coordinated more effectively.
Existing international arrangements have evolved to the point that the need for a comprehensive effort at
rationalizing, streamlining and consolidating the present system has become compelling. Genuine progress in managing
the global environment will require a move towards an overarching, coherent, international structure. Indeed, some
have proposed the establishment of a Global Environmental Authority, with regulatory powers of its own, as the
From a management viewpoint the requisite new framework can be embodied in different types of structure, different
architecture, reflecting different organizational approaches. Some, for example, advocate the establishment of a new
centralized agency modelled after already existing international bodies such as the World Trade Organization or the
World Health Organization. But other, more imaginative models, favouring a decentralized approach, can be developed.
These would reflect the potentials of new information and communication technologies and better fit the pluralistic,
multi-faceted and cross-impacting characteristics of environmental concerns. Such an approach would emphasize linking
already existing organizations more effectively. It would refocus their mandates, add new capabilities to close
functional gaps, and reconfigure and strengthen mechanisms for coordination and governance.
Unifying principle needed
Any new system should provide a clear and unifying organizing principle. It should be designed to ensure effective
responses to global environmental problems. It should integrate the essential elements necessary in order to: monitor
global environmental conditions, develop the appropriate international policies, promote optimal strategies for
collective actions and leverage implementation, and ensure compliance and timely achievement of effective results. It
should combine thoughtful rationalization and consolidation of key functions, sharper definition of roles and a clear
division of labour, and a comprehensive coordination capability, in a coherent, well-managed whole.
Implementing a decentralized yet rigorously coherent system is likely to present demanding organizational and
management challenges. Nevertheless, it may emerge as the most appropriate approach to pull together and progressively
strengthen the loose framework of entities which form the nascent system of governance of global environmental
affairs. One important component - UNEP - itself needs deep and far-reaching reform. Reinventing it could provide the
impetus and the opportunity for rethinking the institutional framework for international environmental cooperation.
Managing the global environment cannot be approached as a zero sum game. Ultimately, all stand to win or to lose, thus
making many key features of old style diplomacy obsolete. Imaginative developments towards an integrated system of
governance of global environmental affairs may therefore contribute fresh thinking and innovative new approaches to
international cooperation in general - and thus greatly enhance humanity's ability peacefully to manage life on this
small, blue planet.
Dr. Michael Ben-Eli is an international consultant on management and organization, and President of the Cybertec
Consulting Group, based in New York.