Disunited Nations

UN environmental governance programs are failing the Earth

UN environmental governance programs are failing the Earth

The fathers and mothers of the international environmental movement all met in Montreux this week to reminisce and relive past exploits of green diplomacy at a conference hosted by the  Global Environmental Governance Project.

The list of attendees reads like an environmental hall of fame: Maurice Strong (he of Stockholm, Rio and Earth Charter fame); the other three  former heads of the UN environmental program; Achim Steiner, the current head of UNEP; William Ruckelshaus, the first and fifth EPA administrator; Ambassador John McDonald, the creator of the UN population program and revered negotiator; Mohamed El-Ashry,  the former CEO of the Global Environment Facility;  Ambassador Peter Mauer from Switzerland; Gus Speth, the dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, a founder of the NRDC and former director of the UN Development Group.

The group also included Jim MacDaniel;  former chair of the International Institute of Sustainable Development;  Julia Marton-Lefevre , the director-general of the world’s largest environmental group — the International Union for Conservation of Nature; and numerous other ambassadors, from Pakistan to Sudan.

With such a truly impressive gathering of enviro legends, I expected the debate to be provocative and hopeful. Depressingly, the discussions were like “Groundhog Day.”

The debates over optimizing international governance have raged for over 35 years with little change. Everyone agrees that the global state of the environment is at crisis levels and will only get worse due to climate change and the global recession. No James Inofe climate change deniers here.

Yet, they may as well have been. All of the old excuses for lack of environmental progress and problems were trotted out again, mutliple times: UNEP is grossly underfunded. UNEP has no effective compliance assurance programs. (Enforcement is a taboo word with these guys).  Nations in the Northern Hemisphere (developed) and Southern Hemisphere (developing) can’t agree on the importance and role of sustainable development in environmental protection.  As a lowly program, UNEP and the environment are a low priority in the United Nations, with heads of state often ignoring environmental issues. No adequate capacity building and project funding in the south.

At the end of the conference, you’d think my biggest question would revolve around what we can do to enhance international governance so that treaties and multinational environmental agreements (MEAs) are implemented in a manner that leads to compliance.

Instead, I wonder how can these same people argue and negotiate over identical issues for over three decades? I’m not sure if it is patience or insanity.

Ambassadors were correcting each other on the sequence of events 35 years ago. I felt like I was watching a dramatic treatment of the Dr. Suess book “Yertel the Turtle.” These diplomats and leaders were rehashing historic hot issues and reasons for the ineffectiveness of global bodies like UNEP. At the end of the discussions, the debates were over control of an ineffective bureaucracy  (like the small pond in the children’s book).

Suggestions to enhance compliace with MEAs by putting in incentives, disincentives and sanctions fell on deaf ears. Enforcement has been stricken from the vocabulary of diplomats because of sovereignty concerns (perhaps just a euphemism for not wanting to spend the money and do the work to comply). Although many agreed with the need for conflict resolution, mediation and management, no UNEP types committed to including compliance assurance provisions to all treaties and MEAs.

Bottom line: The Earth is going to hell and the UN and its systems are not effective players to save it. How depressing is that? Where are the 6.7 billion people on Earth supposed to go to make the necessary dramatic change?

Numerous wondeful agreements have been signed by all of the critical nations, but signing a treaty doesn’t protect the environment. The system shouldn’t allow nations to sign MEAs with no intent to ever comply with requirements.

MEAs like the Kyoto Protocol have no teeth or meaningful enforcement provisions. One of the few MEAs with teeth, the Montreal protocol on CFC reduction, has been effective because it has enforcement provisions, strong monitoring, and incentives and disincentives to avoid compliance. But when asked why UNEP or another entity in the UN system doesn’t modify MEAs to make nations accountable for implementaion requirements, UNEP staff acted like the questioner had sprouted horns and demanded a completely healthy planet by next Tuesday.

Tomorrow: More from Montreux and what needs to be done to fix this mess.



One Response

  1. […] week’s inaction demonstrates again that the UN multi-national environmental agreements seldom work well and often don’t work at all.  For CITES, protection is achieved with a two-thirds vote, not […]

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