Symbolic solution?

In the recent discussion about reforming the international environmental governance structure, there have been calls for a World Environment Organisation

Published: Saturday 15 December 2001

-- During the past years, there have been calls to move the tasks of sustainable development at the international level to a new independent body, often labelled a World Environment Organisation (weo) or International Environmental Organisation. Advocates of weo include academics and expert commissions as well as international civil servants, politicians, and governments. In 1997, Germany -- together with Brazil, Singapore, and South Africa -- spoke out for the creation of an International Environmental Organisation. In June 2000, the French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin made a similar proposal.

The existing international environmental governance (ieg) system -- the sum of organisations and actors in charge of international environmental policy, has failed to lead the world towards environmental sustainability, and no doubt needs innovations. However, a weo might not be the answer. In the lead-up to next year's World Summit on Sustainable Development (wssd) in Johannesburg, the debate on ieg reform is gathering momentum.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (unep) has started an ieg process to bring itself to the centre of global environmental action and to strengthen its financial base. The annual Global Ministerial Environment Forum (gmef) launched in 2000 represents an important step in this direction. The Forum's Malm Ministerial Declaration recommended that the wssd review the requirements for a well-invigorated ieg structure and a strengthened unep. In response, unep established an open-ended intergovernmental group of ministers to discuss the future of ieg. Participants of the forum's 3rd session in September 2001 discussed a revised report on ieg by the executive director of unep and the proposals of the president of the unep governing council, the documents that delegates referred to as the "building blocks" of ieg. Among the ideas provided by these reports is the strengthening of unep by upgrading it from a un programme to a full-fledged specialised agency, in addition to the weo proposal.

First of all, the discussion of ieg reform needs to consider the major challenges that the existing institutional system faces at the beginning of the 21st century.

The ieg system is shaped by a range of institutions and actors with narrow but overlapping mandates, small budgets, and limited political support. unep competes with more than a dozen other un bodies (such as the Commission for Sustainable Development) with environmental responsibilities and much larger budgetary resources.

Considering the state of the world's environment, overall progress has been slow. Decision-making in environmental regimes relies on the consensus principle, rather than majority voting, with a few exceptions (Montreal Protocol, Global Environment Facility). Agreements are often based on the "lowest common denominator", and concessions made to accommodate potentially dissenting countries usually weaken the outcome.

The process of international norm-setting, as well as the subsequent domestic implementation is lengthy, and agreements need to be ratified by a certain number of states before they become binding. Often, implementation is incomplete due to lack of resources or reluctance on the states' behalf.

At the international level, inadequate co-ordination among multilateral environmental agreements can cause various problems. At the national level, there is often poor co-ordination between ministries in response to conventions that require cross-sectoral integration.

Some observers doubt whether the existing set of institutions can be adequately reformed to meet the shortcomings described, and thus call for the creation of a weo .

In his call for ieg reform, Bharat H Desai from Jawarhalal Nehru University (jnu) in New Delhi addresses the lack of political support for international environmental institutions. He expects that " unep 's merger with and becoming the core of a new international environmental entity" will enhance its state and authority.

The weo, according to Frank Biermann from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, "could link the normative and technical aspects of financial and technological assistance and could be strong enough to overcome the fragmentation of the current system". Biermann brings the debate forward by introducing three different models of a possible weo , of which he endorses upgrading unep "to a full-fledged international organisation while maintaining the current system of decentralised, issue-specific international environmental regimes". In the long run, however, a weo should be envisaged, he argues. For Biermann, the mandate of a weo is to co-ordinate multilateral environmental treaties and provide an international organisation that will "assist governments in initiating, negotiating, and implementing these agreements".

Raghbendra Jha, Manoj Panda and Ajit Ranade from Mumbai's Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research analysed the weo proposal from an Asian developing country's perspective. They point out the current lack of coordination in ieg and conclude that since Asian developing countries have significant environmental assets, they should try to link environmental issues to other areas of global concern and to other issues in which they interact with industrialised countries, such as international trade or direct transfers. In order to avoid duplication and conflicts in this linking, they argue, it makes sense to have a weo to co-ordinate these efforts.

But what exactly would be the effect of the mere creation of a new body? Sebastian Oberthr from Ecologic, a non-governmental organisation in Berlin, points out that the establishment of an organisation as such does nothing to address the major problems of ieg . Many existing international organisations do not serve well as models as they face similar problems, he says. Lack of resources and difficulties in ensuring effective implementation and enforcement are, for example, weaknesses of both the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation (ilo). Hence, Oberthr contends that the establishment of a weo cannot substitute for addressing the more substantive problems within the ieg system.

Konrad von Moltke from the International Institute of Sustainable Development (iisd) in Winnipeg, Canada, says the structure of the ieg problem should be analysed before institutional mechanisms to address it are considered. Following this, organisational models in response can be developed. Moltke holds that the proposal to create a weo has taken the reverse approach. Instead, he suggests "a series of modest steps" and a "clustering of environmental activities" as the starting point of reform. Moltke sees "three or four organisations" as an appropriate ieg structure.

But so far, most weo proposals have suffered from a lack of detail and do not seem to address these problems. weo proponents have failed to show in detail, what the effect would be if the weo was, for instance, modelled after the ilo . Oberthr points out that in this case, multilateral environmental agreements would be assembled, but would still be subject to the same decision-making rules as before. If separate decision-making rules are designed for every future agreement, where is the efficiency in reform? It also seems unclear how the mere existence of a weo could enhance domestic implementation, capacity-building, or encourage countries to provide for more funding.

Bharat H Desai acknowledges the fact that the effectiveness of reforms "would depend upon the extent to which states prefer to make the exercise ambitious". This brings us back to the root of the debate about ieg reform: the problem of political will. In the long term, countries will need to address the constitutional question of how much authority and sovereignty for making decisions and implementing them should be transferred to international institutions, irrespective of the establishment of a weo . Without that will, no institutional reform could facilitate our progress towards sustainability.

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