Lecture by UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner, at Hertie School of Governance, Berlin Wed, Apr 24, 2013

From issues such the green economy in respect to sustainable development and poverty eradication and a 10 Year Framework of Programmes for Sustainable Consumption and Production to devising a new indicator of wealth beyond GDP, Rio+20's outcome speaks to the governance debate across multiple dimensions and walks of life.

Honourable Delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

I am here to speak on the implications for international environmental governance in the wake of Rio+20 held in Brazil last year and two decades after the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

Rio+20 took place at a unique moment in time when the world was perhaps searching for solutions and transformative pathways on a planet reeling from the economic and financial crisis of 2008-a world where the science of environmental change is becoming ever more sobering.

But also in a world where the geopolitical map is being rapidly re-drawn in respect to leaders and potential leaders among nations.

  • In a world also seeking a new relationship with multilateralism, its purpose in a rapidly changing work and its role and relevance in respect to developing but also developed countries.
  • In a world unsure perhaps how to reform the structures of the past to reflect at a minimum the challenges and opportunities of the present, set aside those of the future.
  • A world also wondering how it will generate the jobs, especially for the young, urgently needed at a time of rising joblessness and tensions over lack of employment opportunities.

Thus in some ways the countdown to Rio+20 was filled with a mood of limitations and contradictions-lowered expectations, no big breakthroughs, real politic the name of the day.

And yet what finally emerged were some potentially significant outcomes and in many ways quite a surprise package in respect to international environment governance if taken from the vantage of where we were only two, three, four years ago.

Upgrading of UNEP

For in the 40th anniversary year of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), heads of state, ministers and heads of delegation meeting in Rio took the remarkable decision to upgrade and strengthen the environment programme of the UN.

Their decision also included granting to UNEP 'universal membership'-in other words from a governing body of just 58 countries, the institution now encompasses over 190 member states making its highest decision-making forum in many ways  as relevant to the United States of America and Poland as it is to Uganda and Uruguay and Papua New Guinea and Peru.

Discussions are underway in New York at UN headquarters and among member states on an improved financial envelope for UNEP from the UN Regular Budget in order to provide some stability and predictability in its funding.

Meanwhile, several rapidly developing economies have significantly increased-or are signaling a significant increase-in their voluntary support including Brazil, China and Russia.

By UN standards, there has been a rapid endorsement of the Rio+20 outcomes in respect to international environment governance both at the UN General Assembly later in 2012 and at the UNEP Governing Council in February 2013.

Governments in February also called for a renaming of the UNEP Governing Council to the UN Environment Assembly of UNEP-a name change will not change the world in itself, but it does signal a different relationship between governments and the environment arm of the UN.

These decisions and reforms are about UNEP-its ability to influence sustainable development through improved and enhanced authority.

But the main importance is in respect to the improved standing, influence and role of the world's environment ministers in terms of empowerment and thus governance-nationally, regionally and internationally.

UNEP, in collaboration with its Committee of Permanent Representatives, is now discussing and defining the nuts and bolts in terms of meetings, engagements and timetables that naturally flow from this new governance landscape and horizon.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Rio+20 and Governance-Not Just About UNEP

Rio+20 was not of course only about UNEP.

From issues such the green economy in respect to sustainable development and poverty eradication and a 10 Year Framework of Programmes for Sustainable Consumption and Production to devising a new indicator of wealth beyond GDP, Rio+20's outcome speaks to the governance debate across multiple dimensions and walks of life.

Meanwhile some of the important and interlocking institutions are also undergoing change as a result of Rio+20.

Member states have decided to reform the UN's Economic and Social Council and to establish a High Level Political Forum to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development as part of further strategies to better integrate environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainable development.

Meanwhile Rio+20 also gave the go-ahead to launch discussions on a post-2015 development agenda to build on the poverty-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are likely to define and direct the sustainable development agenda up to 2030.

If the concept of universality prevails, then the SDGs could bring both North and South into common cause based on the notion that supporting developing countries to eradicate poverty and develop in a sustainable way is only one leg of the challenge.

Developed countries are the other-with their consumption and production patterns also a big factor in whether a sustainable century can be achieved.

Pre-Rio+20-Steps to Streamline the MEAs

Even before Rio+20, some initial steps were taken towards reforming international environment governance and the rather confusing and fragmented landscape of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).

At the end of this month until early May, the three chemicals and wastes convention-Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm-will meet back to back.

It reflects a strengthening of the synergies and secretariat reforms decided upon by governments two years ago.

The parties to the three conventions will also consider whether to make further modifications to the organization of the Secretariat, the programme of work and budget for joint activities of three conventions in 2014-2015.

These closer working relationships between the three chemicals and waste treaties may seem modest, but they do respond to the concern among many governments that the system of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) has become too unwieldy.

There are some 500 MEAs and a punishing schedule of meetings linked to them-streamlining and making better sense of this landscape is part of the current and future challenges for member states not only at the global level, but regionally and nationally.

The developments in respect to the three conventions meeting at the end of this month may offer a pathway towards achieving that coherence and streamlining among other linked and related conventions-time will tell.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Environment Governance-Where Now-

So there has and there is some progress in respect to environmental governance including the potential strengthening of the role and the influence of environment ministers as a result of UNEP's strengthening and upgrading.

But what of the future, where could all this go?

One potentially promising area is found in the rule of law and the role of the judiciary including Chief Justices, Attorney Generals, Auditor-Generals and related fields.

Governments spend often long and punishing periods developing environmental law and treaties, but implementation whether it be on climate change or biodiversity is patchy to put it mildly.

Indeed real accountability in terms of meeting obligations and delivering on what has been agreed is, as many of you will appreciate, wanting.

Environment Law-Enforcement and Accountability

In Rio last year, UNEP convened the World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability to gather the views and devise pathways forward.

Regarding principles for advancing justice, governance and law for environmental sustainability, the Declaration that emerged recognizes that:-

Environmental laws and policies should be non-regressive and that environmental sustainability can only be achieved in the context of fair, effective and transparent national governance arrangements and rule of law.

  • It underlines that this must be based on several key elements including:- public participation in decision-making, and access to justice and information
  • Accountability and integrity of institutions and decision-makers; accessible, fair, impartial, timely and responsive dispute resolution mechanisms, including developing specialized expertise in environmental adjudication, and innovative environmental procedures and remedies
  • Recognition of the relationship between human rights and the environment; and the use of specific criteria for the interpretation of environmental law
  • The Declaration also highlights the value of effective regimes that address locus standi and collective access to justice, participatory decision-making and the protection of vulnerable groups from disproportionate negative environmental impacts

UNEP has been tasked by the senior legal and auditing community who attended the Congress to take this whole field forward which at its heart offers a range of opportunities on the governance front including strengthening enforcement and compliance at the international and national level.

It is gaining expression in the field of illegal wildlife trade.

Currently the illegal killing of elephants and rhino are returning-if they have not already-to the shocking numbers of the late 1970s.

Indeed there is abundant evidence that criminal networks-many connected with other illegal activities such as drugs and human trafficking-are cashing in on the high ivory and horn prices in some parts of the globe as well as exploiting timber resources via this illegal trade.

UNEP is exploring a response by convening not only the established wildlife groups and biodiversity related treaties such as the Convention on the international Trade in Endangered Species, but also national enforcement officers, judges, consumers, transit and producer states.

Civil Society, Business and Access to Information

In respect to access to information and the engagement with civil society, UNEP is also drawing up an access to information policy and exploring how best to integrate the knowledge, skills and views of NGOs and major groups into its work and its decision-making fora.

In a world where corporations are also major drivers of environmental change and where some corporations have bigger turn-overs than nation states, engaging the private sector and business must also be a focus of the governance landscape.

A point that was brought into sharp focus as a result of deregulation in many economies and the shudder that hit profits and people in 2008 with the economic and financial crisis.

The push towards more wide-spread and more detailed corporate sustainability reporting-an initiative being led by Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa with support from UNEP and the Global Reporting Initiative is one route.

Another is to put the hard facts concerning 'externalities' from sectors on the table as a way of prompting improved governance by the public sector.

But also as a way of opening the eyes of corporations to the risks they run in terms of public acceptance and exposure to shocks.

A week ago the consultancy TruCost released a report requested by the TEEB for Business Coalition in which the UNEP Finance Initiative is involved.

The report calculated the top 100 'externalities' by sectors ranging from coal-fired power generation in Asia and North America to cement making, steel milling, natural gas and crude oil extraction and cattle ranching in Latin America.

The estimate-$4.7 trillion a year in terms of greenhouse gases to impacts on public health from poor air quality.

Ladies and gentlemen,

International environment governance is currently undergoing reform and refreshment-is it enough, no.

But after years-some may say 40 years-actions are being taken to try and make sense of the bewildering structures that have been put in place to address sustainable development.

Rio+20 has also in many ways signaled that perhaps the imbalance of the past-in which the economic dimension of sustainable development strode forward leaving the environmental and social dimensions tip toeing behind-could be coming to an end.

Globalization has in many ways triggered productivity gains by squeezing labour in the developed world and developing world alike-the social consequences are in part lower and lower pay for some, unemployment for others and worries by states that the social fabric could be ripping apart.

The challenge now is to evolve a governance structure that squeezes resource use-one that assist in decoupling economic growth from increasing consumption of water and fossil fuels to land and biodiversity while generating jobs and cutting humanity's pollution footprint.

It is going to require a governance structure that makes increasing sense of the instruments and treaties we already have so they are all pulling and delivering in the same direction.

A structure too that ends the siloed thinking of the past where each challenge was addressed in a reactive way.

Towards governance that better sees the risks ahead and acts in advance-the precautionary principle-and supports a far more inclusive direction in terms of wealth generation beyond the narrowness of GDP.

The green economy is one expression of that desire by nations to be far more joined up in their actions, far more smart about real wealth and more encompassing in their responses and planning.

It is also going to require a governance structure that ensures everyone has a chance to participate and contribute including the legal and related fields; civil society and business.

It may also require a deeper reflection on the future role of the United Nations in terms of how it catalyzes sustainable development among poor but also richer nations.

The ball is rolling on international environment governance in the run up to, during and post Rio+20.

The next test will be perhaps the SDGs and whether the will fully reflect the three dimensions of sustainable development.

The biggest opportunity here is to build a landscape of goal setting in which the responsibilities of all nations for staying within planetary boundaries are reflected-indeed the future of sustainable development will be predicated as much on eradication of poverty and progress in the global south as it will be changing course in the global north.

But I am optimistic that there is real determination at least at the national level of many countries to make environment governance more central-from China's latest five year plan with a likely $1 trillion to be spent on broadly green sectors to the actions by Brazil on deforestation to a country like Kenya legislating in favour of a renewable energy future.

Meanwhile at the global level, steps have and will be taken-only time will tell how far this will go and whether it will add up to what is needed.

Currently almost every dial on the global sustainability dashboard is heading further into the red with a few notable exceptions-the phase-out of ozone layer damaging chemicals for example.

Nevertheless there is a palpable change of direction in the air which is signaling that many sectors of society and many governments now recognize that sound and solid national and international environment governance will be key to the future of this and future generations.

comments powered by Disqus