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Some salient challenges for the International Environmental Governance and the road to Rio +20 (2012)

Speech by Christophe Bouvier: Regional Director, UNEP Regional Office for Europe (ROE)at the Place Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs and Development Cooperation, Brussels


Monday, June 28, 2010 (Brussels) - Thank you for inviting me to give this lecture, the subject of which environmental governance, is core to the United Nations Environment Programme's mandate, to be the leading global environmental authority. It is of course directly relevant to our global future and how we choose to govern the planet's rich and diverse environmental resources - an increasingly complex challenge.

In our globalised world of interconnected nations, economies and people, the ability to manage environmental threats and challenges, particularly those that cross political borders such as air pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss require new global, regional, national and local responses involving a wide range of stakeholders.

We will look at the process so far and where it may take us on the road to Rio+20 which takes place in Brazil in 2012. This meeting is also known as the next Earth Summit. The first Earth summit was in 1992 when more than 100 Heads of State met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to address environmental protection and socio-economic development. The assembled leaders signed the Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, endorsed the Rio Declaration and the Forest Principles, and adopted Agenda 21, a 300 page plan for achieving sustainable development in the 21st century.

What is environmental governance at its most basic level?

To start at the beginning - environmental governance comprises the rules, practices, politics and institutions that shape how humans interact with the environment. It sounds deceptively easy, until we look at the controversy surrounding the process that has been going on for more than a decade, and the fact that there are currently more than 500 environmental agreements, disengaged institutions and bodies, and unsupported commitments that are relevant to and influence the global environmental agenda.

To look at the importance and scale of environmental governance, almost half the jobs worldwide depend on fisheries, forests or agriculture. Non-sustainable use of natural resources, including land, water, forests and fisheries, can threaten individual livelihoods as well as local, national and international economies. Natural resources are the basis of subsistence in many poor communities. In fact, natural capital accounts for 26 per cent of the wealth of low-income countries. Up to 20 per cent of the total burden of disease in developing countries is associated with environmental risks.

The fisheries sector, for example, plays an important role in material well-being, providing income and food security in many parts of the world. Fish is an important protein source, especially in the developing world, providing more than 2.6 billion people with at least 20 per cent of their average per capita animal protein intake.

The complexity of the environmental sector, with its multiple interrelations to key economic activities, as well as key social sectors, has resulted in the fragmentation of the environmental regime, causing multiple overlaps and gaps - all of this leading to a higher cost burden too.

Why do we need reform of the Environmental Governance system?

At the last UNEP Governing Council in Bali, Indonesia (a little like a Board of Directors representing Environment Ministries steering UNEP activities and reviewing its performance) environmental governance was an important subject of debate.

In looking at ways to communicate this, UNEP came up with a series of messages and posters. These worked by comparing everyday activities to the way we run the planet. The catchphrase used was "if you ran your (restaurant, farm, shipping, transport etc), the way we run the planet" and then set against chaotic and topsy, turvy images e.g. Rusty nails on a plate and cutlery back to front in a restaurant, a farm scene and a flock of sheep chasing a dog, another showing a surfer pulling a boat along and a traffic light showing red, green and amber simultaneously. This may sound somewhat flippant and the poster series certainly did evoke some laughs, but the real message behind the humour was clear. We can no longer afford to manage our natural resource base, the very foundation of all life on Earth in such a haphazard and incoherent fashion.

The current IEG system is being reviewed, as it has not proved sufficient in guaranteeing that the environment, as the foundation for human wellbeing and development has been and continues to be sustained. On the contrary, increasing challenges to countries' water and food security; the consequences of unsound chemicals management and movement of hazardous wastes; the impacts of climate change on human - and in some cases - national security show the close links between the environmental and the economic and social spheres. The livelihoods of developing country populations are directly dependent on a healthy environment.

The dependence of economies and societies on natural resources, including ecosystem services and the imminent risk to countries' impeding economic and social development, are not the ideas of hardcore environmentalists, but have been proven in many scientific and economic studies.

Eminent economists have recognised the importance of attributing an economic value to environmental services. The result of this can be seen, amongst others, in a detailed study about the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity, the TEEB report. The TEEB report seeks to establish methodologies for attributing an economic value onto ecosystem services and biodiversity. Apart from establishing the case for valuing ecosystem services and biodiversity, it also provides detailed policy recommendations.

The report gives many examples. One example estimates that annual losses as a result of deforestation and forest degradation alone may equate to losses of US$2 trillion to over US$4.5 trillion alone.

For an annual investment of US$45 billion into protected areas alone, the delivery of ecosystem services worth some US$5 trillion a year could be secured.

In Venezuela, investment in the national protected area system is preventing sedimentation that otherwise could reduce farm earnings by around US$3.5 million a year

Planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves in Vietnam costs just over US$1 million, but has saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over US$7 million

Another prominent example is, of course, the Stern report on the economics of climate change.

However, putting a price on the environment alone cannot ensure its sustenance and hence there is also a need for a functioning governance system which guarantees sustainable use of resources, complimenting an awareness and respect for their intrinsic as well as economic value.

What is wrong with the current system?

Looking at the meaning of 'system', one finds definitions such as 'an assemblage of objects arranged in regular subordination, or after some distinct method, usually logical or scientific'; or 'a complete exhibition of essential principles or facts, arranged in a rational dependence or connection'. If we compare these to the current IEG 'system', we see little rationality, methodology or connection between the various parts.

There are several reasons that explain the evolvement of this system, elucidation of all of which would go beyond the scope of this lecture. One fundamental reason is the complexity of the environmental sector itself with its multiple interrelations to key economic activities, such as agriculture, forestry, industry, energy and trade as well as key social sectors, including health, transportation and leisure.

While this has on the one hand led to the establishment of many environmental departments and units in organisations with a primary focus on non-environmental subjects, it has also resulted in the fragmentation of the regime, causing multiple overlaps and gaps, as well as additional costs and overstretching of human resources, specifically for developing countries.

This is increasingly leading to the disenfranchisement of developing countries from international environmental governance, including their under-representation in international for a, which are vital to their populations.

It is clear that the existing IEG structure has failed and should seriously be scrutinised and made fit to serve governments in effectively managing their national environments as well as the global environment (in a broad sense) as the basis for economic and social development and wellbeing.

Recent developments

A Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives on IEG, comprising of 2-4 representatives of each UN region and open to any other interested government, held two landmark meetings last year.

The first was in Belgrade, Serbia in June 2009 and a second in Rome, Italy in October 2009. Delegates from 39 governments attended the first meeting and 43 the second meeting.

Two important choices were made by the group:

- That incremental changes to international environmental governance can be considered alongside other more fundamental reforms; and

- That the debate should be addressed in the broader context of environmental sustainability and sustainable development.

In its outcome document, the group presented five objectives and associated functions for reform:

The five objectives were:

a) Creating a strong, credible and accessible science base and policy interface.

b) Developing a global authoritative and responsive voice for environmental sustainability.

c) Achieving effectiveness, efficiency and coherence within the United Nations system.

d) Securing sufficient, predictable and coherent funding.

e) Ensuring a responsive and cohesive approach to meeting country needs.

The majority of options identified in the set of options relate to incremental changes, which are to a large extent within the mandate of UNEP. However, the group in Rome also felt that while incremental reforms could further enhance the international environmental governance system, there was also a need to reassess the adequacy of the existing international environmental governance system through addressing broader reforms.

Options to be included for consideration were:

i. enhancing UNEP;

ii. a new umbrella organization for sustainable development;

iii. a specialized agency such as a World Environment Organization;

iv. possible reforms to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Commission on Sustainable Development; and

v. enhanced institutional reforms and streamlining of present structures.

What is happening now? - The new consultative group on broader reform.

The UNEP Governing Council decided to establish a new Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives, this time consisting of 4-6 representatives from each UN region. The co-chairs that have been informally nominated are the ministers of Kenya and Finland. The first meeting of this group will take place from 7-9 July in Nairobi, Kenya.

A second meeting of the group is planned for November in Helsinki, Finland, after which the group will present its work to the Governing Council at its 26th session, in February 2011.

Challenges ahead and how will this contribute towards Rio+20?

As mentioned, UNEP is currently undertaking a consultative process on the reform of International Environmental Governance, as one of the pillars of sustainable development to identify paths for improving the complex and fragmented system of Multilateral Environmental Agreements and environmental financing to better support the overall process of sustainable development. This needs to come to firm conclusions on a way forward.

During the first meeting of the preparatory committee for the Rio+20 Conference a month ago in New York, governments repeated their request that work contributes to the institutional framework for sustainable development. In response, the group, and the UNEP Governing Council will focus their work on the environment, albeit as an essential part of sustainable development as a whole.

Efforts are also underway to show the direct links between IEG and a Green Economy. In times of financial crisis and instability, it is imperative that we continue to articulate how a modern 21st century Green Economy and smart market mechanisms, fiscal policies and case studies are giving the concept of the Green Economy shape and meaning in developed and developing economies alike. A challenge will be for governments and institutions not to view the two as separate parts - but to look at the whole and how by integrating a Green Economy within national and global parameters, environmental governance and long term environmental and economic stability are served.

UNEP, as one of the agencies whose knowledge and lessons learned have been specifically requested by governments to be incorporated into the Rio+20 process, is ready to support and contribute the work of the consultative group for an intercessional meeting in the run up to the Rio meeting.

So far, the work of the consultative group so far has been characterised by its openness, transparency and inclusiveness. A challenge is to encourage further and wide participation of governments which will be vital for the success of the process.

Let us not be under any illusions that this process has been going on for a long time. However, with Rio+20 it has received a constructive timeline to be brought to a solution. Three issues need to be remembered as Governments discuss the reform of international environmental governance:

1) As all recent studies have shown, the environment is vital for humans' economic and social development and wellbeing. Developing countries, whose citizens depend to an even greater degree than developed countries on the environment, have a particular stake in this. There is an urgent need for reflecting economic variables and solutions in environmental governance.

2) This also means that governance of the environmental pillar is a crucial component of governance of sustainable development.

3) Governments have declared that the status quo is not an option. Current governance arrangements are inadequate and have led to the continuous degradation of the environment. Considerations for a reformed regime are indispensable and must take into account the economic and social benefits of preserving the environment.

To build a bigger picture and to gear the International Environmental Governance system towards a 21st century one, we need to be able to meet the original aspirations which gave birth to environmental instruments in the first place - namely realizing a healthier, more equitable world where challenges are met and decisively overcome. That is one where the basic needs of the vulnerable and the poor are paramount and equal to those of the few and the rich.

I will leave you with some thoughts and questions before we open the floor to a general question and answer session.

What if States could craft environmental policies based on up-to-date, accurate information on emerging issues and the state of the global environment? What if environmental sustainability was an integral part of all national development planning, helping to reduce poverty and increase long-term security for vulnerable populations - What if States could cooperate effectively on the global stage, developing international agreements that moved us closer to a sustainable future? And what if States could enter into lasting and effective strategic alliances with major groups and stakeholders to achieve common goals and objectives?

The world could be a very different place.

Thank you

End note: All documents can be found on UNEP's website under 'Environmental Governance' - IEG Reform - Governing Council decisions 25/4 and SSXI/1 respectively. This includes lists of nominated countries and list of participating countries.




Further Resources

UNEP's Environmental Governance website

International Environmental Governance Presentation


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