A New Global Architecture for Sustainability Governance

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ahead of Rio+20, the Worldwatch Institute explores ways that governments can move toward a more efficient architecture for environmental institutions

Washington, D.C.—At the upcoming Rio+20 summit from June 20 to 22, political leaders will embark on new measures to achieve sustainability by enhancing institutional capacity. In particular, the summit will seek to improve the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other institutions in order to enhance the global community’s ability to achieve sustainable development. In “A New Global Architecture for Sustainability Governance,” Chapter 8 in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, author and assistant professor of global governance at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Maria Ivanova, examines steps that can be taken to improve UNEP’s effectiveness as an environmental institution.

UNEP was conceived at the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment as the anchor institution for the global environment. It was envisioned as the global body that would provide leadership and encourage partnership between organizations, nations, and peoples to enhance environmental policy and protect future generations.

Over the 40 years of UNEP’s existence, it has become apparent that it suffers from inadequate authority and a lack of resources. These deficiencies have constrained UNEP from inspiring the broad, catalytic environmental policies its creators envisaged.

In order to increase UNEP’s efficacy in addressing environmental concerns and improving partnerships, governments are discussing several reform options. One suggestion is to transform UNEP from a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly into a specialized agency. The other option is to improve UNEP’s ability to deliver on its ambitious original mandate and enable it to perform additional functions as necessary without changing its current institutional form.

“No one institutional structure can guarantee effective resolution of environmental problems, especially at the global level,” writes Ivanova. She argues that a systemic approach is necessary for success, where solutions begin at the source of challenges, instead of focusing on their symptoms.

In Chapter 8 ofState of the World 2012, Ivanova outlines three ways to reform UNEP:

  • Improve authority. At UNEP’s conception, other specialized UN agencies questioned its ability to serve as the center of a global environmental network. Today, UNEP is a veteran organization, yet it remains under-publicized and under-utilized. To enhance UNEP’s authority, governments should expand its Governing Council to universal membership and enable it to set the global policy agenda for the environment. A smaller, geographically representative board could be charged with operational management. Importantly, UNEP itself could undertake actions to improve its authority and influence, such as recruiting experts to engage more actively in its work and creating an independent scientific advisory body. In addition, a High Commissioner of Sustainability in the Office of the UN Secretary-General could enable sustained cooperation among UN agencies in the environmental, social, and economic fields and bring additional visibility to UNEP as the leading UN body for the environment.
  • Enhance connectivity. UNEP has a limited presence outside its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, which reduces the ability and willingness of distant organizations to collaborate with it on environmental issues. At the same time, UNEP’s location in a developing country makes it uniquely qualified to engage with other developing countries at multiple levels of governance. Moreover, connectivity should no longer be an issue, due to improved information and communication technology worldwide. Governments could review the need for an expanded implementation mandate for UNEP. Meanwhile, UNEP could increase its global online presence and enhance its use of social media, promoting its mission to catalyze environmental policies and action. Additionally, UNEP could increase its presence and engagement at the UN headquarters in New York City.
  • Increase financial resources. UNEP’s lack of financial resources is often attributed to the voluntary nature of its funding. Yet, in 2010, the four largest budgets in the UN system were of UN bodies with voluntary funding mechanisms. Most specialized agencies rely on both assessed and voluntary contributions. To attract and retain donors, UNEP must increase its authority and media presence, and consistently demonstrate the results of its work. To build trust with its donors, the organization could publish comprehensive financial reports that indicate spending in terms of mandated functions. At the same time, governments should consider enacting a limited system of assessed contributions to support UNEP’s core work. Financial transparency and a hybrid financing mechanism could enhance UNEP’s stability and financial security.

While there is no single solution that will ameliorate all of the challenges UNEP faces, by improving its authority, connectivity, and financial resources, the organization could enhance its ability to be the leading environmental institution on the global stage.

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2012, released in April 2012,focuses on Rio+20, the 20-year follow-up to the historic 1992 Earth Summit that was also held in Rio. The report analyzes the steps that are necessary to make progress toward sustainable development. 

Notes to Journalists:

For more information and for a review copy of State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, please contact Supriya Kumar atskumar@worldwatch.org.