Worldwatch Paper #126: Partnership for the Planet: An Environmental Agenda for the United Nations

July 1995
Hilary F. French
ISBN: 1-878071-27-0
71 pages

Unless the United Nations' key environmental initiatives are maintained and strengthened, no government will be able to protect its citizens from such global threats as skin cancer caused by ozone depletion, disrupted weather patterns caused by climate change, or the unemployment and high seafood prices caused by the further collapse of oceanic fisheries. This is the conclusion of a new study from the Worldwatch Institute, Partnership for the Planet: An Environmental Agenda for the United Nations.

"As the U.N. marks its 50th year, it faces skepticism about its peacekeeping record, and the threat of deep funding cuts," said the report's author, Senior Researcher Hilary French. "But those who want to eviscerate the U.N. neglect the vital role it plays in protecting the world's people from the effects of environmental damage. The U.N.'s environmental funding should be increased, and its operations streamlined, so it can meet the challenges ahead."

The U.N. has brokered more than 170 environmental treaties, two-thirds since the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment. Because of just one of these, the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion, world chlorofluorocarbon production is down 77 percent from its 1988 peak.

But despite many successes, the report warns that "the health of the earth's natural systems has declined rapidly since the U.N. was created, and far-reaching reforms are needed at the United Nations and at affiliated institutions such as the World Bank to restore the health of the planet."

The study notes that when the United Nations was created a half-century ago, environmental degradation was not considered a national threat, let alone a pressing global priority that provokes conflict, and undermines human health, economic well-being, and social stability. The U.N. Charter does not even mention the world "environment." Yet today, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) finances some $470 million worth of environmentally-related projects annually, and the World Bank committed $2.4 billion in loans in 1994 to such initiatives.

The report describes many U.N. bodies charged with environmental protection. Among them: the Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), created in 1972 to catalyze environmental efforts throughout the U.N.; the Global Environment Facility (GEF), created in 1990 as a joint undertaking of UNDP, UNEP, and the World Bank to finance investments in developing countries that benefit the "global commons"; and the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development in New York, created in 1992 after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to oversee implementation of the Rio accords by governments, the United Nations, and private actors.

"Though the growing involvement of many different U.N. bodies in environmental matters is encouraging," says French, "the price of success has been duplication and inefficiency. Rather than a cohesive international system for protecting the environment through sustainable development, we have a patchwork quilt, a disorganized system that needs streamlining if it is to be capable of reversing global ecological decline."

Among other reforms suggested, the report urges the international community to use the opportunity of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations to upgrade the U.N.'s environmental machinery in four ways:

Upgrade the United Nations Environment Programme into a full-fledged, operational agency with a mandate to undertake extensive programs and implement projects around the world, and move it from Nairobi to a center of U.N. power such as Geneva or New York. "In setting up such an agency, it is important to ensure that it consolidates, and not merely supplements, existing environmental efforts," warns French. Thus, the study recommends that many of the tasks now performed by UNDP's environmental unit and by the secretariats for the environmental treaties and the GEF be folded into the new organization. Close links would be forged with the Commission on Sustainable Development, and with international economic institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

Such an empowered, centrally located agency could collect and disseminate environmental data, as well as execute UNDP's environmentally-related projects, offering countries advice on such things as waste-reducing production processes and the effective design of regulatory structures and national-level environment ministries. Many of the agency's programs could be delivered through a decentralized network of regional field offices.

Provide adequate resources for U.N. environmental programs. UNEP's annual budget of just over $100 million is only comparable to that of many non- governmental groups, including the Washington, D.C.-based National Wildlife Federation. The report points to proposals to secure reliable funding for U.N. activities through a small tax on carbon dioxide emissions, international air travel, or on foreign-exchange transactions. The entire annual U.S. contribution to the United Nations comes to just $7 per person--about the cost of a movie ticket. The Clinton Administration has asked the U.S. Congress to appropriate just $16 million for UNEP for FY1996, and spending bills currently under consideration would cut into this sum substantially. Meanwhile, the U.S. military intelligence budget is estimated at $28 billion--almost 2,000 times as much.

Ensure the implementation of major environmental conventions such as the global warming and biological diversity treaties and the Law of the Sea. These treaties set up important frameworks for protecting the "global commons" that now need to be filled in by strengthening commitments and providing for funding and enforcement.

Democratize global environmental governance. Open up U.N. deliberations to the participation of non-governmental organizations through public hearings and other means. Ensure that local communities affected by World Bank and U.N. development projects have a voice.

The report's proposals are likely to meet with widespread public support around the world. A 1993 Gallup Survey found that majorities in both industrial and developing countries favored giving an international environmental agency both financial resources and substantial authority. The Worldwatch report concludes:

"Despite public support for far-reaching changes, the international response to the threat of ecological collapse remains seriously inadequate. Fifty years ago, the world community embarked on an impressive period of institution-building that set the tone for the next half-century. Now a similar burst of innovation is needed to forge a new global partnership through the United Nations to enable the world to confront the daunting environmental challenges awaiting it in the next millennium."