The General Assembly has just reappointed UNEP's incumbent Executive Director, Achim Steiner, for two more years, following the recommendation of the Secretary-General in March 2014. He thus has the opportunity to implement UNEP’s strengthening as proposed by the “Rio+20” summit in June 2012, and hopefully also to deal with the urgent challenges that remain for international environmental governance (IEG).
UNEP is a central but not the only part of IEG, an umbrella that consists of the set of values, norms, legal instruments, formal and informal institutions, and decision-making processes that govern activities falling under the environmental dimension of sustainable development. This briefing is based on the realization that it is critical for UNEP and the IEG to reposition themselves in today's global setting, which poses three core challenges to environmental protection: the continuing need to fight poverty; the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, which have changed the priorities of even formerly staunch supporters of the environment in the developed world; and the increase in the global population and the global middle classes.
Reaching for the stars – UNEP and Rio+20
In 2006, Achim Steiner began charting a more expansive approach to UNEP’s work, which saw it expand into policy implementation, assessment, and enforcement, functions earlier covered primarily by established multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). It also went into broader sustainable development activities previously undertaken by such developmental organizations as UNDP and the World Bank.
The negotiations for the Rio+20 outcome saw a strong push on the part of UNEP and its main supporters, notably the EU, toward its elevation to a specialized agency of the UN system under the name UN Environment Organization or World Environment Organization. However, they did not manage to carry the day in Rio.
The actual Rio+20 conference did urge the General Assembly to approve the upgrading of UNEP by establishing universal membership in its Governing Council, increase the financial resources allocated to it from the UN’s regular budget and through voluntary contributions, and promote a strong science-policy interface. The General Assembly approved these recommendations in December 2012. As a result, the UNEP Governing Council was renamed United Nations Environment Assembly, bringing together 193 UN member states, and the amount provided by the UN regular budget to UNEP was more than doubled for 2014–2015. This sum, nonetheless, remains small compared to the overall budget, which still depends heavily on voluntary contributions.
The IEG framework remains weak and disjointed. There still are over 500 MEAs and some 20 other competent organizations and international financial institutions operating in this arena. The distinction between environmental protection and sustainable development remains blurred, while there is no single strategic planning framework, which results in policy fragmentation and incoherence. A clearer division of labour is required between UNEP and MEAs, and between UNEP and development agencies.
A more focused and effective UNEP would be a good place to start. Even its staunchest supporters should stop pursuing a change in its form, allowing it to make the most of post-Rio+20 arrangements and fulfill its core mandated functions. The IEG universe desperately needs a strong, legitimate, and authoritative center, a role that UNEP can play even more effectively with the weight of the UN and its secretary-general, as well as of the global environmental community that it can convene.
UNEP should avoid spreading its resources too thin and expanding to areas that it cannot effectively manage itself. It should bring environmental dimensions to the high table at which macroeconomic decisions are made rather than try to set its own table with trivial condiments. And UNEP should not encourage the commodification of nature by attempting to play the neoliberal market game better than international financial institutions and businesses. The major global social problem of unemployment, especially of youth, cannot be solved by promises of “green jobs.”
In brief, UNEP should stick to its role as advocate for the environment and proponent of transformational change to ensure its protection. The challenge is for UNEP to be the conscience of planet Earth, speaking for the environment while duly respectful of social and economic imperatives. Humanity requires a “lean and mean” body of excellence at the very center of the IEG system, fully participating in but not dominating the post-2015 sustainable development framework. That could and should be Achim Steiner’s legacy.
Georgios Kostakos was Senior Adviser and Acting Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability; previously he served in other positions at UN Headquarters in New York, UN field missions, the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), and the University of Athens. He is currently Executive Director of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability based in Brussels.