Time to take charge

October 26, 2009 12:00 am


Global environmental crises, from vanishing biodiversity and degrading forests to collapsing fish stocks and climate change, will not be solved without some tough thinking about international governance.

The way the world has evolved its response to the unfolding challenges has become a bewildering and perhaps confusing array of institutions, agreements and treaties that is in urgent need of reform.

That urgency has been given momentum by Chancellor Merkel of Germany and President Sarkozy of France through the lens of climate change. In a letter to the UN Secretary General, they underlined that we must overhaul environmental governance and make use of the momentum provided by Copenhagen to progress the creation of a World Environmental Organization.

Other world leaders adopted a similar tone, albeit in the corridors, at the recent UN Summit on Climate Change and at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh.

What the world is waking up to is something many ministers of environment have known for some time—that solving environmental challenges and seizing emerging opportunities will prove elusive without political clout and effective institutions.

International organizations charged with addressing the environmental pillar of sustainable development have a welter of mandates—but all too often their hands are tied by a lack of sufficient funding or authority to deliver on them.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which is mandated as the global authority for the environment, has one of the lowest annual budgets in the UN system—less than the price of a new Boeing 737.

A lot of the funding that is available for the environment is also often channelled through facilities and funds that are disconnected from the very agency requested to set the global environmental agenda.

The problem is compounded by the fact that most of the hundreds of treaties meant to solve global environmental concerns have separate secretariats, which makes co-operation among the collection of bodies difficult, to put it mildly.

It is also a drain on scarce funds–a recent independent study has estimated the costs of separate secretariats are four times more compared to organizations that have all their related treaties under one roof.  Resources could be better deployed to support countries address the challenges. 

For developing economies with scarce human and financial capacity, it is a particular challenge in terms of costs, but also the sheer complexity and time-consuming nature of the current landscape.

Over the period 1992-2007 for example, there were over 540 meetings linked to 18 international environmental treaties. These meetings generated more than 5,000 decisions upon which countries are required to act.

There is an urgent need for an environmental organization within the UN system with the influence to realize change and to stand side by side with strong organizations such as the World Trade Organization and World Heath Organization that are the cornerstones of the social and economics pillars of sustainable development.

History has proven that strong international institutions are the pre-condition for building any successful international co-operation. The global financial crisis and the collaboration through the G20 and the International Monetary Fund are recent examples.

A planet of six billion people, rising to nine billion by 2050, requires governments to plan for tomorrow, otherwise tomorrow will plan itself.

If that planning is to be serious about solving persistent, systemic and emerging environmental crises and if governments now accept that a low carbon, highly resource efficient Green Economy is the only way for the world to survive, let alone thrive in the 21st century, then strengthening the international environmental governance system must be part of the package of enlightened reforms under active and world-wide debate.

(Hon. Stefania Prestigiacomo is the Minister for Environment, Land and Sea, for Italy
Hon. John Njoroge Michuki is the Minister for Environment and Mineral Resources for Kenya, both are co-chairs of the UNEP Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives on International Environmental Governance).


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