Articles Energy & Environment

UNEP: An Environmental Quandary

Image by UNEP (enb.iisd)
UNEP, UN, Environment

Issues pertaining to the globe that transcend boundaries and are cosmopolitan in nature like terrorism, poverty, AIDS etc. require a coordinated response, encompassing all stakeholders, at the global level. Environmental degeneration is also one such issue which warrants a similar response from the international community for the purpose of looking after biodiversity, keeping the seas clean, and bringing down carbon outflows. Since the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972) and generally since the Rio declaration, endeavours have been made at the global level to ameliorate the deteriorating condition of the environment. As a result over the course of time, more than 500 multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) have sprung up, including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). However, the current state of the environment is worsening each day as a consequence of the inadequacy of the seminal organization entrusted with the task of regulating environmental affairs – United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Established in 1972 in Nairobi, Kenya, UNEP was authorized with the ‘power to set the global environmental agenda and to promote a coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations (UN) and the world at large’. The organization’s location (headquartered in a developing country) and structure (universal membership in its governing council) suited both the countries of the developed North and the developing South. While the North was relieved of the concerns that UNEP was created to impede development in the South, the non-binding nature of UNEP’s conventions and policies ensured that future progress in the developing bloc was not hampered. Although, it was agreed at its inception that the agency will be funded via voluntary donations; however, during the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development held in Brazil (2012) the UNEP was given a more firm financial resource base as it was to receive funding from the regular budget of the United Nations to fulfil its mandate.

However, as the agency approaches the 50 year mark, it can be analysed that UNEP has failed to deliver in many respects thereby putting a question mark on its ability to succeed in future as well.

After 46 years of existence, UNEP with its meagre resources and limited authority has achieved a number of milestones including its role in the creation of environmental regimes, institutions and agreements eliciting international action to mitigate the effects of adverse human activities on the global ecosystem e.g. the Montreal Protocol (1987) which helped reduce gasses responsible for the depletion of the Ozone layer by 98 per cent[1]; the International Panel on Climate Change (1988) which is the most authentic body on climate science; the Earth Summit (1992) which gave rise to important legislation on the issues of biodiversity and climate change and the Sustainable United Nations facility (2008) which initiated the Greening the Blue campaign making all UN activities more environmental friendly. However, as the agency approaches the 50 year mark, it can be analysed that UNEP has failed to deliver in many respects thereby putting a question mark on its ability to succeed in future as well. The underlying causes for its shortcomings can be classified into four broad categories i.e. an issue of governance; lack of political will; dearth of a solid funding base and gaps in the agency’s observation and assessment programmes.

With a stingy spending plan of $784.3 million (2018-19) – one of the lowest yearly budgets within the UN framework- and a staff of 300, UNEP’s outreach and its capacity to fulfil its mandate is largely restricted. UNEP is composed of three principle bodies – Governing Council, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) and the Secretariat – which not only sets the global environmental agenda but also oversees UNEP’s internal operations. Such a combined focus, leads to institutional politicization and a preference for individual state interests over unified, long-term policies. Also, most of the members of the CPR, lack expertise and knowledge about environmental matters and the influence that they have on UNEP’s staff and the power to directly intervene in UNEP’s proceedings puts them at loggerheads with the secretariat. The issue of governance is further exacerbated through the presence of separate secretariats for several conventions and protocols, intended to tackle global environmental concerns which makes internal administration more tedious.

In addition, governments both inside and outside UNEP lack the political will to not only reform UNEP but to also resolve issues of resource allocation, land degradation, ocean pollution etc. this can be understood from the fact that UNEP is a part of the overarching UN programme and not a Specialized Agency; hence, it does not enjoy a great degree of autonomy as all choices made by the agency’s overseeing board must be alluded to the UN General Assembly. Moreover, the last major reform agenda for UNEP came in 2012 at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, after four decades of the organization’s inception.  Given the inadequacy of the agency to address major environmental issues, the world cannot wait another 40 years for its appropriate transformation.

Given the inadequacy of the agency to address major environmental issues, the world cannot wait another 40 years for its appropriate transformation.

One reason for the lack of political will can be alluded to the conflict between economic growth and the environment. Ministers of trade and finance in many states have the clout to debate and implement appropriate monetary policies as compared to ministers of environment because of which environmental concerns do not even come to the fore. In fact, numerous stakeholders are not in favour of the presence of a strong environmental organization at the global level as it will ultimately impede their economic progress. Although they are willing to abide by the rules of WTO or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), since they prioritize monetary matters, but giving such an importance to environmental organizations is completely out of question as they consider it to be a less critical issue. Hence, when the members of UNEP themselves lack political will for immediate action on ecological exigencies, how can the organization be expected to succeed on its own.

The next observable issue responsible for UNEP’s inadequacy is the lack of a solid funding base. According to the official website of UNEP, 80 per cent of funding for the institution is generated through voluntary contributions which in 2018 was $41.24 million. The outcome of such a financial mechanism which is to a great extent reliant on the quantity of contributors and the monitory worth of their commitments, has not only diminished the agency’s budgetary foresight but has also made it more vulnerable and incompetent. Many programmes have been abandoned due to financial constraints faced by UNEP such as the termination of the Harmonization of Environmental Measurements (HEM) – a directory of environmental assessment programmes – because of the lack of funds.

Additionally, a plethora of Information exists about the impact of human activities upon the earth; however, data about the status and wellbeing of the earth itself is lacking.

Moreover, UNEP endeavours to assess the global, regional and domestic environmental conditions and trends which it does with the help of the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS), Earthwatch and other similar organs.[2] An analysis of various UNEP databases suggests that the information provided by present observing systems is inadequate for the formulation of appropriate policies by decision makers as such ventures are predominantly science-driven. For instance, far less data is available for marine and unmanaged environments in comparison with terrestrial and managed environments. Additionally, a plethora of Information exists about the impact of human activities upon the earth; however, data about the status and wellbeing of the earth itself is lacking. It is also not surprising to note that modern industrialized states have rich resource databases as compared to their developing counterparts.

In light of the flaws which the aforementioned rubrics highlighted, there is a need to redesign UNEP as a Specialized Agency — a global environmental organization with an expanded budget, greater autonomy, visionary leadership and the political will to morph and implement well planned policies tantamount to the WTO or the World Health Organization (WHO). Such a reformation could help narrow the gap between theory and practice and can address the current piecemeal way of dealing with the environment at the global level. At the moment, it seems as if the challenge faced by the international community to work for the betterment of the environment still remains unmet and will be so even in the future unless UNEP is reformed.

Zarmina Khan

is currently pursuing her MPhil in International  Relations from  Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

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