Global Policy Forum

Efforts to Reform International Environmental Governance Stall

March 19, 2009

After three years of consultations, United Nations Member States are unable to reach agreement on strengthening international environmental governance, according to the co-Chairs for the issue.

  • Ambassadors Claude Heller of Mexico and Peter Maurer of Switzerland announced on 10 February that the competing interests of Member States were too great to overcome and that further consultations in the immediate future would be unproductive. The co-Chairs presented a Report on the informal consultations they facilitated, which included observations, conclusions, and recommendations on the issue. They implied that the process could be resumed during the GA's 64th Session (2009-2010).

According to the GA President's spokesperson on 25 February, the GA was seeking the input of environmental ministers "to help find a way forward."

  • At the 25th session of the Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum of the UN Environment Programme (the UN's main environmental body), which took place on 16-20 February, IEG was included as a major theme, and the Ministers' decisions noted their commitment to a GA resolution on improving the "international environmental institutional framework."

Meanwhile, the UN's Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) recently released a report highlighting problems with the current approach to global environmental governance. Many of the challenges identified in the report overlapped with the GA's consideration of the issue - particularly on coordination of MEAs, the roles and functions of bodies, and funding.

The nine months before the Copenhagen Climate Conference (where a new commitment period for emissions reductions will be negotiated - the Kyoto Protocol set the first commitment period to end in 2012) may offer alternative venues, and additional momentum, for progress on the IEG system, the co-Chairs believe.

Evolution of Draft Resolution, Obstacles to Agreement

The draft resolution under discussion was a product of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, in which Member States called for efforts to reform the international environmental governance (IEG) system. Informal consultations on the issue began in early 2006. The co-Chairs developed an "Options Paper" in June 2007, a draft GA Resolution in May 2008, and a revised draft in July 2008. Member States reviewed the draft Resolution in meetings lasting until 25 November 2008. By that time, according to the Center for UN Reform Education, some believed that the U.S. and the Group of 77 (developing countries) were deliberately delaying the efforts at consensus with numerous suggestions for changes and deletions.

One particularly contentious aspect was financing, with delegations split between efficiency in the use of funds, and the need for additional allocations. Substantial disagreements also arose on capacity-building. In terms of any "broader transformation" of the IEG system, such as establishing a new body, many States argued to postpone consideration until a future GA session. Only the EU favored maintaining momentum on the issue.

Other disagreements included:

  • Whether to focus more on sustainable development, or on environmental protection and adaptation;
  • The scope and mandate of UNEP;
  • The relationship between UNEP and the Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs); and
  • Whether the Bali Strategic Plan for Technology Support and Capacity-Building should guide all the environmental agencies of the UN, or just UNEP.

Moreover, the proposed reporting requirements and management of environmental issues were "not well understood and met with reluctance".

It was also suggested that the success of the consultations depended not on the details of the text "but rather on sufficient political will." Political will may have been compromised by the (unsatisfactory to some) amount of progress on development, as well as upcoming negotiations on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009, which some view as a better forum for addressing environmental governance.

At the most recent meeting on 10 February 2009, the co-Chairs presented Member States with an overview and assessment of the process to date. In the Co-Chairs' estimation, the extent and severity of the disagreements meant that consensus was unlikely. Further, even if agreement was reached, it likely would be too weak to add value to existing decisions.

  • The Co-Chairs voiced their belief that continuing with the informal consultations during the 63rd Session of the General Assembly was an unproductive venture.

Future Steps

At the recently completed 25th session of the Governing Council of UNEP, IEG was one of two major themes. The final decisions adopted by the Governing Council included Decision 25/1, in which the Council "reaffirm[ed] its commitment to continuing the discussion on international environmental governance with a view to adopting a General Assembly resolution on advancing and determining specific actions towards greater coherence and efficacy of the international environmental institutional framework." It outlined commitments and requests on five areas of IEG:

  • Strengthening UNEP's scientific base,
  • Technology and capacity-building (the Bali Strategic Plan),
  • Strengthening UNEP's financing,
  • MEAs, and
  • Enhancing coordination UN-wide, including the Environmental Management Group.

The Decision made several references to system-wide efforts and the "Delivering as One" initiative, especially in the section on strengthening UNEP's scientific base, i.e. encouraged implementation of strategies in accordance with and through Delivering as One.

  • In addition, the President's summary of the session notes that an international "Earth Summit" is being considered for 2010. Labeled "Rio+20" (it would take place 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit and ten years after the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg), the Summit would provide "an opportunity to put a full package on international environmental governance reform on the table for finalization by 2012." (An informal discussion on the Summit among government representatives is summarized here.)

The upcoming negotiations on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009 also could lead to significant momentum for IEG, says the Center for UN Reform Education.

Report of the Joint Inspection Unit

In late 2008 the UN's independent investigative agency, the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), released a report on "Management Review of Environmental Governance in the United Nations System," which highlighted problems with the current approach to global environmental governance. Many of the challenges identified in the report were the subject of the GA's consideration of the issue - particularly on coordination of MEAs, the roles and functions of bodies, and funding. The report said:

  • On communication and coordination: A lack of information-sharing and coordinated action between UN agencies, MEAs, international treaties, and environmental organizations has led to "inefficiencies," such as overlap in activities. The problem has been accelerated by "a blurred distinction in their work programmes between environmental protection and sustainable development," leading to unfocused and expanded mandates, in addition to more organizations and activities dealing with environmental problems. One consequence is that poverty and development-oriented organizations that have added environmental issues to their agendas may use it as a rationale for additional funding. More groups, therefore, are ostensibly working on environmental issues, yet without any increased coordination, and with a broadening and increasingly unfocused scope of activities.
  • On roles and functions: The report notes increased confusion about the roles and functions of UN agencies. The GA should mandate clearly the division of labor between the bodies working in the IEG system. UNEP should return to its original mandate of "coordinating planning and programming".
  • On funding: Developing countries need sustained and predictable funding to adhere to the MEAs. They would also benefit from a "rigorously defined concept of incremental costs" to cover the expenses of any future measures of environmental protection.

The report was presented last month to the UNEP Governing Council. In response, the Council decided to establish a "special group of developed and developing country ministers or high-level representatives," which would develop options for improving and streamlining the governance of the global environmental architecture.

  • According to the Secretary-General's spokesperson on 25 February, the UN Chief Executives Board (CEB) was also beginning "consultations across the system" on the report's findings and would issue a response.



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