Catalyzing and publicizing new concepts is another strength. In 1983, by establishing the Brundtland Commission, the UN system helped catalyze new ways of thinking: The Commission’s seminal report, Our Common Future, made “sustainable development” an important organizing concept and spurred the effort to integrate environment and development activities. IUCN was a leading voice in partnerships that produced the World Conservation Strategy, Caring for the Earth, and the Global Biodiversity Strategy, publications that helped popularize the terms “sustainable development,” “ecosystem management,” and “biodiversity,” respectively. These are concepts that guide modern environmental policy-making. UNEP’s Environmental Perspectives to the Year 2000 and Beyond was a driving force behind the convening of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Earth Summit.
Convening governments and setting guidelines or standards are special strengths of the international environmental governance system. This occurs on every scale-from small, technical workshops to international summits, and from procedural standards to “soft law” performance guidelines. In 1998, for example, World Bank President James Wolfensohn convened logging industry leaders to promote a shift to sustainable forestry. The World Bank also worked with IUCN and UNEP to convene the World Commission on Dams in an effort to develop international consensus on guidelines for decisions on building large dams (Dubash et al. 2001:1). The UN summits have not only focused international attention on environmental issues and brought government leaders and many other actors together, but also generated the political momentum needed to forge international treaties.
The World Bank Group has established requirements for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and other environmental “safeguard” policies and guidelines. These apply only to operations financed, cofinanced, or guaranteed by its constituent organizations, but often serve as de facto global standards, at least for developing and transition economies. Many of the largest and riskiest development projects include World Bank participation, for example, and some private financiers adopt the Bank’s procedures and guidelines to reduce risk even in privately financed projects. Voluntary or “soft law” guidelines are increasingly seen as means of generating consensus and action more rapidly than the time required to negotiate binding agreements.
Many developing countries have lacked the capacity to address environmental issues effectively. Here, development agencies such as UNDP and the World Bank have played major roles-by helping countries build the technical skills, legal instruments, and staff to manage pollution or natural resources more effectively. UNDP, for example, plays a direct role in environmental governance through its country offices, 90 percent of which have assisted governments with designing institutions and implementing policies to promote both poverty reduction and environmental goals (UNDP 2001:2). In Cambodia, for instance, UNDP worked with the government to develop a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, which was launched in July 2002 (UNDP 2003a).
UNDP also provides financial support, technical assistance, and training to intergovernmental organizations, research institutes, and nongovernmental organizations. For example, in the Nile River basin, UNDP has worked with 10 riparian countries, donors, and other international organizations to develop a legal and institutional framework for jointly managing the Nile’s resources (NBI 2001).
In recent years, UNDP has become a pragmatic complement to UNEP’s global environmental treaty-making efforts, and has helped countries take practical measures to implement global accords. For example, through its Montreal Protocol Unit, UNDP has provided 85 developing countries with technology, technical assistance, and training to help phase out ozone-depleting substances (UNDP 2003b). And in Europe’s Danube River Basin, UNDP facilitated a partnership among 15 countries, regional commissions, the World Bank, NGOs, and other UN organizations to restore the badly degraded Black Sea ecosystem (ICPDR 2003).
These are tangible achievements. The symphony has clearly made meaningful music. But the present system of international environmental governance is not without serious difficulties.
Weaknesses and challenges
One set of weaknesses stems from the virtual impossibility of coordinating such a complex set of actors to act in synchrony all the time. The results, according to a recent review of international environmental governance convened by UNEP, are gaps in international policy, fragmentation of effort, and sometimes competing or incoherent decision-making structures (UNEP 2001a:19). International policy has all too often focused on sectoral approaches: For example, separate approaches to land degradation, forest policies, and water management, often by different agencies, even though the three areas are intimately related (clearing of forests is a major contributor to erosion, flooding, and water quality problems). Ecosystem approaches, like those reflected in the Convention on Biological Diversity, overlap with sectoral approaches and, in some areas, with those focused on species, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
UNEP, in theory the lead agency for policy coordination, in practice has a mandate that overlaps with those of a dozen other UN agencies. It has neither real authority to set the agenda nor resources to play a major role across the full range of environmental issues. Consultation and coordination efforts are on the increase, but in practice, each international organization tends to make its decisions independently, guided by the wishes of the national governments that are most influential on its council or governing board. The result, all too often, is fragmentation and inconsistency. As the UNEP-convened review concluded, the absence of coordination “seriously undermines the formulation of a strategic approach” (UNEP 2001a:20).
In many ways, these international problems mirror patterns at the national level. There, too, sectoral approaches dominate, and mechanisms for cooperation and coordination among different government agencies are often ineffective. Environmental ministries often have smaller budgets and weaker political voices than, for example, those that directly manage productive natural resources such as agriculture or determine economic policy-in developing and developed countries alike. And since it is predominately environment ministers who sit on UNEP’s Governing Council, agriculture or forest ministers who have the greatest influence on FAO, and economic or finance ministers who talk to the World Bank, it is not surprising that policy gaps at the national level are repeated or reflected in the international system: In effect, it is fragmentation by design.
A second set of problems concerns weak support for existing institutions and oversight mechanisms. UNEP, for example, is financed mostly by voluntary contributions from UN member states. Participation fell substantially in the late 1990s-from 73 contributors in 1998 to 56 in 2000-but has since risen again (Cheatle 2003). At the same time, contributors have increasingly earmarked their money for special projects, reducing the agency’s budgetary discretion. The result has been uncertainty and a reduced ability to plan and carry out core activities. Effective budgets for many UN agencies and the World Bank have also shrunk-even though budgets for environment-related activities at UNDP and the World Bank, for example, still dwarf that at UNEP. “Competing for scarce funds and political commitment, existing institutions are frequently torn between competing priorities