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Perspectives on Rio+20

A.H. Zakri

Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia

In June leaders from around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro to mark the 20 year anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, a summit that was largely responsible for setting up the global governance architecture for environment. High among the priority issues is recognising the grim reality that the current governance arrangements for environment have failed to meet expectations; indeed, have not reversed or even contained the decline of the environment over the last decades. Hence, today leaders must face facts that taking the modest and incremental approach they took in Rio 20 years ago is not enough and that only a major overhaul of the governance system will heed the reforms needed to address the challenges of environmental sustainability.

The most sensitive issue that will be discussed is the creation of a World Environment Organization (WEO) to anchor the global efforts for the environment. Almost instinctively, the words “world” and “organization”, when heard together by developing country diplomats, makes them react, “We are against it, it would be another World Trade Organization (WTO) and that’s the last thing we need.” It’s a deeply embedded and suspicious view expressed time and time again in New York’s diplomatic circles.

The reality is that there is a serious need for a WEO and that proposals for it look nothing like a WTO. Most United Nations specialized agencies actually are not like the WTO at all. Most, such as the WHO, FAO or UNESCO, are organizations that provide consultative and facilitative functions and assist countries to meet the global commitments derived from mutual agreements. They are not at all regulatory, like the WTO, which sets standards and reduces barriers to trade.

A WEO is the kind of organization we need now badly; more than ever. Right now environmental issues are governed internationally by a hodgepodge of institutions spread across the UN. In fact, there are more than 40 different UN agencies with environmental programmes. Over the years the international community also has adopted hundreds of multilateral environmental agreements, all with their own secretariats and administrations. Last year there were more meetings than there were calendar days in the year. The last five years of meetings from only a fraction of these agreements have produced over 5,000 decisions that countries are supposed to act upon through national efforts

The system has become insanely complicated and virtually impossible for developing countries to participate in meaningfully. The only countries that cope with the system are the richest countries of the world, while the poor developing nations are becoming disenfranchised.

There must be change. Developing countries need to think clearly about their needs for the environment and get over this stigma that the “environmental agenda” is only for the rich. Environmental issues are paramount for the poorest nations. The environment goes to the heart of development and livelihoods and the well-being of all of us. Moreover, there is a growing economy based on market niches in green technology, and green goods and services. A market opportunity that Malaysia and many other Asian countries are quickly realizing.

History has shown that most of the global organizations that we have today were actually designed and negotiated by the developed world while developing countries have stood on the sidelines and watched it all take place. We have been too busy pushing for more financing and development, which of course are needed, but we haven’t realized that the operators of the system are the global institutions and they are skewed in favor of the North.

We have to change this approach when it comes to redesigning a new environmental governance system; it must have a development focus and be better aimed at responding to developing countries’ needs. This means a WEO must have certain and distinctive priorities. It must be a democratic body with universal membership where each country has one vote, not weighed voting as in the case of the many financial assistance agencies where donor countries have more votes compared to recipient countries.

Developing countries need implementation support, especially technical assistance, capacity building and technology support. A WEO therefore must have an implementation arm to respond to developing countries’ needs. Right now implementation support falls through the cracks in the UN system as no one agency is responsible for this within the environmental sector, meaning that in the end it is developing countries which are losing out. This is especially the case for multilateral environmental agreements where there are many promises of support but only a few mechanisms and no clear institution to help countries implement their commitments.

Science must be at the heart of the WEO as many of the emerging environmental issues are coupled with development therefore requiring innovative and progressive approaches in dealing with them. The science must also be inclusive with wider participation of developing country scientists and universities.

We need a WEO that will help develop new ideas, share experience and assist countries to make a transition to a Green Economy. We have to help the poorest nations become partners in a Green Economy and not create a parallel development track, one for the haves and one for the have-nots.

A WEO must be the anchor that can rationalize current environmental governance and ensure that developing countries are equally represented and able to participate in the system within their own financial means.

If we agree that these are the elements of a new system then we need to engage in the debate and form a proposal that takes our needs as developing nations to Rio+20. Malaysia, as an advanced developing nation, has a lot of experience it can bring to the table. It should lend its experience to lead developing nations to form a position around their needs.

Otherwise, let’s not complain if we end up with yet another global organization that is established without our needs in mind, or worse, with the status quo which is marginalizing the developing country’s brothers and sisters.

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