UN General Assembly Plans Rio +20 in 2012: Environmental Clout?
For the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, the UN General Assembly is organizing a three-day conference known as Rio + 20
Themes will include a green economy, poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development. From that meeting in 2012, we can expect a focused political document that will outline the next steps in reform of international environmental governance.
International Environmental Body with Powers
According to Michael Meacher, a former UK environment minister (1997-2003), a new strengthened environmental institution must have powers to take legal action against offenders in a world environmental court that can impose penalties sufficient to remedy environmental damage and to deter repeat offenses. Furthermore, the right to bring charges must also be given to non-state actors representing the public interest.
In his article The unbalanced world of global governance, Stephen Clarkson points out that international economic authorities such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) have powers to enforce their rules on national governments, whereas environmental standards are ignored with impunity.
Through its tribunals, the WTO has become the de facto arbiter on environmental issues even though from its trade perspective, the Earth is largely viewed as a commodity to be exploited rather than a resource base to be managed and conserved.
Some feel in order to counterbalance the predominance of the trade-oriented bodies at a time of multiple crises relating to food, energy and water, and when a number of planetary boundaries have been breached, environmentalism needs a stronger international presence. A binding dispute settlement mechanism is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the WTO. The world’s environmental institutions need to be similarly empowered.
History of UN Environmental Programs
Unfortunately, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), set up in 1972, has remained one of the smaller UN programs with annual funding equivalent to the cost of one Boeing 737 jetliner.
As a consequence of its structure as a program rather than as an agency, the UNEP has had little authority over other sections of the UN that are senior to it. Furthermore, Nairobi, Kenya was chosen for the headquarters of UNEP, a political decision that isolated the new organization and made it difficult to attract and retain professional staff.
UNEP's authority has also been undermined because a host of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEA) have been created through treaties, each having its own Conference of Parties, Secretariats, and headquarters, acting independently of UNEP.
In 2000, the world's environment ministers through the Global Ministerial Environment Forum recognized that "...the environment and the natural resource base that supports life on Earth continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate," and called for "a greatly strengthened institutional structure for international governance."
During the 2005 UN Reform Summit, the UN also began to review its "system-wide coherence" and to undertake a management audit for environmental work.
In 2009, the Governing Council of UNEP established a regionally representative committee to make recommendations on options for environmental global governance. Such governance would be science-based, provide early warning assessment, set policy agendas, monitor compliance, and help settle disputes efficiently with adequate and predictable funding.
Earth Day a Good Start but Not Enough
Earth Hour and Earth Day are important symbols that can lead to better environmental consciousness. But significant change will also require strong institutions that can help negotiate treaties, help implement their terms, help settle disputes, and help with the finance and technology that will make them work.