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Time to Get Serious About the Future of UNEP

This post originally appeared in UNEP's magazine, "Our Planet."

“This gathering represents man’s earnest endeavor to understand his own condition and to prolong his tenancy of this planet.”

With these stirring words, Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister, galvanized the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. A wake-up call to the state of our planet, Stockholm gave birth to the UN Environment Programme, amid high hopes that humanity could together curb alarming trends in pollution and natural resource loss.

Hopes were high when a 43-year-old Maurice Strong took the reins of the new institution – the first UN body to be located in a developing country. UNEP’s remit was simple: to be the world’s lead institution on the global environment. Its mandate included compiling much-needed environmental data, coordinating international activities, developing international agreements, and providing capacity development and technical assistance, especially to developing countries.

Forty years on, UNEP has made some vital contributions. It has played a key role in creating dozens of institutions and agreements that have advanced understanding of global challenges and propelled international action. These include such game-changers as the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which led to a 98 percent drop in controlled ozone depleting gases; the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), since 1988 the leading global body on climate science; the 1992 Earth Summit, and its associated global treaties on climate and biodiversity; and the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the first ever survey of the health of the world’s biological resources.

And yet, as it enters its fifth decade, few can believe that UNEP is equipped for the magnitude of the task ahead. The stakes are now much higher than at the time of its creation. Since Indira Gandhi and others raised the alarm at Stockholm, the state of our planet – despite a few bright spots such as repairing the ozone layer – has continued to deteriorate. Two billion people already suffer from water shortages; by 2030, almost half the world’s population will do so. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment revealed that we have degraded or are unsustainably exploiting 60 percent of the ecosystems services that we rely on for such basic needs as food and shelter. As population climbs, so will demand for food, water, and energy – by 35 percent, 40 percent and 50 percent, respectively, over the next 15-20 years. And even the conservative World Bank now projects a 4 degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures – with massive costs to humanity, especially the poor.

Forty years on, UNEP has made some vital contributions...And yet, as it enters its fifth decade, few can believe that UNEP is equipped for the magnitude of the task ahead.

At a simple level, the obstacles in UNEP’s way are well known. With less than one third of member states on its Governing Council, it has lacked strong, universal backing from governments (although its membership is now set to expand). Its funding has been perpetually up in the air, due to reliance on voluntary donations from countries. And as a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly rather than a fully-fledged agency, it lacks independent decision-making authority.

These, however, are symptoms rather than causes of the problem. The root causes are deeper.

Governments haven’t given the level of seriousness to environmental problems that they give to economic issues, nationally or internationally. Environment ministers rarely have the clout of their economic counterparts (Ministers of Trade, Finance, Public Works, etc.) within national cabinets, and so few of these discuss global environmental challenges the way they would discuss global economic ones.

Indeed, many governments don’t actually want a strong global environmental body. They are willing to give tough authority to the WTO or the IMF, since they prioritize economic growth, but have no appetite for doing the same in an area they consider less important. Our grandchildren may not forgive them.

For all these reasons – and despite good leadership from its Executive Director, Achim Steiner – the world’s governments have failed to give UNEP the clout it needs properly to fulfill its mandate.

The Rio+20 Summit, however, opened the door to improvement. Governments agreed to make membership in UNEP’s Governing Council universal and called for increased, stable funding from UN as well as voluntary sources.

If the call for adequate financing is realized (a big if), UNEP should use its new resources and clout to build on its core strengths. These include acting as the world’s leading repository of environmental data and building developing country capacity to implement environmental laws.

UNEP should also look to lead in streamlining the 500+ multilateral environmental agreements that have mushroomed in recent decades, fragmenting global environmental action. And the UN General Assembly should beef up the Rio+20 commitments by giving UNEP greater decision-making authority.

The Rio+20 Summit offered the prospect for renewed global action to address the gathering environmental storm, but fell far short of what is required. UNEP’s innovative groundwork on pathways to a global green economy, for example, failed to gain traction, instead becoming mired in political debate – even as government and private sector leaders acknowledged the unsustainability of current economic trends.

Think of the challenges of the coming half century. What sort of international governance system will be required to ensure that as well as eradicating poverty and creating decent jobs, we are protecting species, preventing climate change, and feeding 9 billion sustainably – all while addressing the aspirations of the booming global middle class, up from one billion in 1990 to two billion today, and due to reach five billion by 2030? Each of these big challenges involves managing global public goods. Yet we are lacking any serious mechanism to address those that relate to the global environment – or, indeed, any serious discussion of this issue. Can UNEP’s Governing Council, supplemented with key economic and scientific leaders, help catalyze progress in this area?

Indira Gandhi ended her Stockholm speech with words that still ring true: “It is clear that the environmental crisis which is confronting the world will profoundly alter the future destiny of our planet.”

One thing, though, has changed. We don’t have 40 more years to get this right.

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