International environmental governance (IEG) has been the subject of reform for the past two decades. Efforts have taken the form of high-level advisory groups, independent commissions, task forces, UN General Assembly consultations and ministerial consultative groups.
Most recently in 2010, the UNEP Governing Council launched yet another consultative process with Environment Ministers to explore IEG reform options and to transmit recommendations to the UN General Assembly and the preparatory process of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Unfortunately, as with previous reform processes, substantive reform ambition levels remained low and little concrete output was actually generated.
Little advance in the latest reform round
In this latest round, which culminated in a ministerial meeting in Helsinki in November 2010, governments did manage to identify possible system-wide responses such as: strengthening the science-policy interface; developing a system-wide environmental strategy for the entire UN system; encouraging synergies between MEAs; strengthening the funding base for global environmental policy making; and enhancing MEA implementation capacity at the national level. (Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives, 2010)
However, while they were at least able to agree that UNEP should be strengthened and enhanced, they were unable to reach consensus on the actual form that a strengthened environmental authority should take.
As with previous IEG reform efforts, strong divisions remain on the possible reform pathways, such as the possible establishment of a new umbrella organisation for sustainable development or a new specialised agency such as a world environment organisation, or simply enhancing institutional reforms and streamlining existing structures. (Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representative, 2010)
Another important concern with the current reform process relates to the almost exclusive focus on governments and intergovernmental organizations in the IEG system, despite the increasingly important role played by non-state actors in the development of environmental policy solutions. (Advisory Group on the International Environmental Governance, 2010)
The proverbial reform paradox
The results of the latest round reflect the proverbial paradox that has characterised the IEG reform process over the past twenty years. On the one hand, there are increasing rhetorical calls at the highest political levels for a significantly strengthened IEG system. However, during debate and negotiations on the ground (or rather in the conference rooms) the reform process continues to avoid addressing the complex global eco-politics, which continue to exacerbate the democratic and effectiveness gaps in IEG systems.
This is particularly reflected in the current debate regarding a possible new world environmental organisation. While the proposal was reiterated by UNEP’s Executive-Director Achim Steiner at the 2010 Special Session of the UNEP Governing Councils, nevertheless governments continue to be mired in endless debate on such incremental reforms as the universal membership of UNEP’s Governing Council. While symbolically important, universal membership is a “smokescreen” since the Governing Council never decides on the basis of majority voting, since consensus based decision-making is the standard norm. The concern therefore is that if governments are so easily paralysed on such issues of secondary importance, how then will they ever succeed in grappling with the fundamental reforms that are needed to “close the gap between aspirations for environmental sustainability and real-life achievements”, in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
For the whole paper, see attached document.