Reform of the way the UN handles environmental issues is badly needed, argues Joy Hyvarinen. However, she says, governments may be getting mired in a fruitless dispute that will leave the basic flaws untouched.
The EU and the US are at loggerheads again in the international environmental arena.
UN realities mean drowning in a pile of well-intentioned paperwork
After years of disagreement about climate change, the issue now is whether the UN's environment programme should become a fully-fledged organisation, with more power, money and autonomy.
The international organisations that look after the global environment need reform, but arguing about the institutional format for the UN's main environmental body is not necessarily going to help resolve the problems.
The first thing to understand is that the UN's environment programme is not the only UN body that concerns itself with the environment - far from it.
Scores of UN organisations, agreements and programmes tackle environmental issues.
Looking at the state of the world environment, business as usual is not an option
For example, a tropical forest country that wants to have a say in international decisions about forests should be attending meetings of the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN forest forum in New York, the Montreal-based global agreement to protect natural diversity, and the annual climate change meetings, to name a few.
A major problem with international environmental decision-making is that the various UN bodies are not joined up. Priorities are unclear and there is much overlap and duplication of work.
Another problem has been an explosion of new multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), put in place to deal with the increasing problems that require international cooperation.
There are currently more than 500 of them.
Issues such as fisheries management are enmeshed in too many agreements
International treaty meetings are very complex. For example, the main UN treaty to protect species and ecosystems can require specialist knowledge of issues ranging from shrimp farming and desertification to intellectual property rights and the legal regime for marine life on the deep sea bed, at a single meeting.
Government representatives spend an enormous amount of time at international conferences about issues such as climate change, biodiversity, desertification and wildlife.
A huge number of decisions and recommendations emerge from these meetings; but few will ever be read by those who are supposed to put them in practice on the ground.
Developing countries in particular are struggling with implementation, lack of financial assistance from the international community and the many reporting obligations under various MEAs.
Implementation raises an important question about international diplomatic decision-making and in-country realities.
Nothing will change without greater political will and unless rich countries provide more funding to tackle international environmental issues
The discussions about strengthening international environmental organisations and agreements are taking place at UN headquarters in New York.
It is hard to see how lessons from the ground on what actually works - and what doesn't - can find their way into these discussions.
Now, a new debate threatens to distract attention from the real needs for reform.
The EU wants a UN Environmental Organisation ("UNEO"), which would mean turning the UN Environment Programme (Unep) into a freestanding agency, with its own budget.
The EU's proposal is backed by a group of about 50 countries called "Friends of a UN Environmental Organisation". The US opposes the proposal.
Would a UNEO be more effective than Unep in stemming the rising tide of environmental destruction?
Maybe; but no institutional format will ensure good environmental decision-making, unless the political will is there.
The UNEO would not depend on voluntary funding, as Unep does, which could make a difference; but the EU has not yet presented detailed proposals, making it difficult to assess what the added value of an UNEO would be.
However, it is essential to tackle the problems in the international decision-making architecture for environment. The system of organisations and agreements that we have now is not effective enough to deal with the world's escalating environmental problems.
There is a need to move beyond the stalemate about whether Unep should become a UNEO, with imaginative proposals that make the best of the existing structure and fill institutional gaps where needed.
Following the UN's 60th anniversary in 2005, the UN ambassadors from Mexico and Switzerland have been leading discussions with other government representatives in New York about how to strengthen international environmental organisations and agreements.
Last year the ambassadors presented a set of "building blocks" for further discussion.
The building blocks are issues which governments agree need to be tackled to make international decision-making work better: strengthened scientific assessments, better monitoring and early warning capacity, closer co-ordination and co-operation among UN agencies, and financial assistance to developing countries.
Progress has been slow. One issue to be decided now is whether the discussions (referred to as "informal consultations") could move into negotiations, ie actually making decisions about what should be done to improve international organisations and institutions.
Even if the discussions become negotiations, the Swiss and Mexican ambassadors have noted that the time is not right for decisions about major changes, because states have such different views. The task of the ambassadors is not one to be envied.
Looking at the state of the world's environment, business as usual is not an option. It is time for decisive action to improve international organisations and decision-making.
The world needs UN organisations that are set up so that they can deal effectively with our current problems, monitor the state of the world environment and respond to new threats, and take the lead in ensuring that countries do their bit.
The current world order means sorting environmental issues is a long journey
Last year the UN ambassadors identified "ambitious incrementalism" as a guiding principle for the discussions in New York.
This diplomatic-speak is intended to reflect lofty long-term aims, based on a step-by-step approach, while taking into account that governments do not agree on what the long-term aims should be.
This year, the ambassadors stated that "as for ambitious incrementalism, they now hope to move with speedy circumspection".
Nice turns of phrase, but they risk describing plain old business as usual. Perhaps what is needed now is something like "courageous reform".
The bottom line is that nothing will change without greater political will and unless rich countries provide more funding to tackle international environmental issues.
Without that, restructuring the international environmental decision-making architecture will simply be a diversion.
Joy Hyvarinen is director of Field, the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development, an independent subsidiary of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Joy Hyvarinen? Does reform of the UN's environmental institutions really matter? Is it deflecting attention away from the real issues? Or do international problems such as biodiversity loss, climate change and fisheries collapse need an effective international forum?
Yes, 'environmentalism' does need some reform. Stop the 'targets' which don't apply to the biggest polluters (China, Indonesia). Stop the tokenism - banning plastic carrier bags while you buy bottled water from 1000KM away in France really isn't going to save the world. Stop blocking realistic alternatives to fossil fuels such as nuclear and bio-fuel (from local biomass or rubbish). Stop pretending that the only alternative to 'global warming' is de-industrialisation and a return to the dark ages. etc etc Come up with some realistic SOLUTIONS rather than operating as a branch of anti-capitalist politics. What they do or don't do at the UN is as irrelevant as the whole UN.
The author writes "The UNEO would not depend on voluntary funding," So UNEO would depend on COMPULSORY funding, ie "an international tax". I am opposed to that. The world is full of "do-gooders" who have a vision of a "perfect sustainable unchanging fair-to-all world". All they need is everybody else's money to do it. "No thanks!" I am pleased to learn that the USA opposes the EU UNEO proposal.
Frank, Chicago, Illinois USA
The decisions taken by the UN's Environmental institutions matters to some extent.The most important part is people across the globe should be educated enough to deal with this challenge right from the primary school level.The recently held G-8 summit at Japan has fixed the targets for 2050.That is to far to deal with present challenges.The current targets must be focussed.The internatinal community should not blame each other.Instead common areas must be explored and with a sense of certainity this challenge must be faced.Country wise targets must be implemnted with concrete rules.Initially transformation may give some bitter reactions but I strongly believe that this challenge may be solved through education,moderate will,mutual trust and consistent steps
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India
We're talking about each and every person on the planet taking intellectually mature and objective decisions to (a) consume less, (b) live different lifestyles (c) aspire to different lifestyles, and (d) have no or fewer children. Do you think the populous are capable of this? When the majority of people still cling to religion? If not, do you think that global capitalism can solve the problem? If not, then serious thought needs to be given to alternative governance. Let's stop worrying ourselves with petty historic fears about commies and start worrying about basic survival. And I don't mean survival of the richest. I mean survival of everyone currently on this planet. Survival of a species. It is that serious.
N. D., Wales, UK.
As a frequent participant in international environmental negotiations it seems to me the real problem is that each country first and foremost looks after its own national economic interests. Since decision can only be made by consensus, the outcome is inevitably the lowest common denominator of national priorities, which must then be mediated through all the other sectors of a particular society before some of what has been agreed internationally is finally implemented on the gound at home. A unified UN environmental body with legally binding decision-making powers might help, but such a scenario is extremely unlikely to be accepted by all countries, given current international realpolitik. One possible solution is to take all major international environmental decision to the UN General Assembly, where they can be put to the vote, so that the spoilers and hold-outs can be clearly identified for who and what they are, and all the world can see what they are doing to the global environment.
Pierre du Plessis, Windhoek, Namibia
The establishment and rule of any such kingdom in the name of a 'higher power' has throughout history served only to excacerbate the problems currently to be found worldwide environmentally. If many of these organisations actually implemented any of the initiatives needed, rather than keep establishing further organisations to rehash the same issues, then we may - slowly - improve globally.
Anon, Sheffield, UK
Other than to observe; these UN organizations have evolved piecemeal, and they reflect the "lagging" side of the equation; people have already gone off and done the "whatever it was" before it needed to go to the UN to sort it out; it seems to be an inherently reactive posture. There is too much human activity on the planet; in 5 - 10 years those human activity levels will double; as bad as that, as soon as then; this is no longer a "50 year" problem; it is a 5 - 10 year problem, and the effect will simply implode like a time bomb beneath all of us; all 6 billion people . . . to "react" then will simply be too late. As the other person closed "Good night", Cheers Steven
steven walker, Penzance
It should be remembered that prior to the industrial revolution,the U.K. could only support 8 to 12 million people. We are approaching the end of fossil fuels!
len cowling, swansea
This is a good article. Implicit in it are all the problems that underpin the stagnation or environmental inaction that we see from the majority of governments around the globe. There are a number of problems, all of which would undermine a UNEO just as they currently undermine everything that currently exists:
1. The environment is a cross-cutting issue. This means that it is the responsibility of every government, organization (multilateral or otherwise) , company and individual. Most, however, push it aside stating that it is someone else's business. In fact, making it the responsibility of an empowered, richer and autonomous organization will only make it easier for all these groups to push it aside and to point fingers at this organization's inevitable failures.
2. Democracy - and particularly capitalistic democracy - undermines environmental action. We only need to see how people react to small increases in fuel costs to see that. Democracies also function in (general minimum) four- to (loose maximum) ten-year cycles. The environment requires long-term planning - well beyond these cycles - further undermining any government's willingness to deal with environmental issues.
3. As a consequence of the above point, governments do two things: i) wash their hands of it, saying that people should act individually and ii) write fabulous policies that are never implemented.
4. Finally, the UN is an old lion with no teeth. The US has been thumbing its nose at the UN for decades and will continue to do so … Many other countries tolerate it only slightly as a mechanism for their virtuous policies. Governments are the actors in today's nation-state dominated world. It is up to them to see environmental actions through.
Ms Hyvarinen is absolutely correct that arguments over the institutional housing distract from actions that should be being taken.
Nor is it entirely about power, autonomy and/or money. It is about getting governments to overcome the above, conflicting points; it is about people realizing that if they wish to continue live in a world that can support them, governments will have to make some decisions and take actions that will, in the short term, be uncomfortable but, in the longer term, will allow our children and grandchildren to continue to live in a world that we recognise, are happy in and are proud of.
stuart, maputo, mozambique
All the 'real issues', poverty, famine, disease, and war, are inexorably linked with each other and the environment. When more people are living in an area or consuming more goods than the ecosystem can support, there will be shortages in supplies. When people go without food, water, medicines and basic sanitation, there will be widespread disease epidemics. When the population is impoverished, diseased, and desperate, there will be armed conflicts. What started as a local supply versus demand balancing act can rapidly escalate into an international debacle. The environment and wildlife are the only the first to suffer because we exploit them for our basic survival and they can't fight back when we make stupid and irresponsible choices. Logically, the international agencies are trying to avoid dealing with environmental issues because ultimately it will require that member countries re-evaluate social policy, lifestyle choices, industry, and long term economic goals. If we have any hope of preserving the environment for the future, then we need to start addressing overconsumption and overpopulation now. However, in the developed world, we are addicted to the fossil fueled lifestyle and in the developing world, people don't have the resources or the desire to evolve their traditional cultural practices to meet changing global needs. Maybe instead of investing billions of dollars in forums to decide if we are really destroying the environment, we should start investing in social reform.
Anonymous, Philadelphia, PA
Human population level - that's the problem that is being dodged left right and centre.
Marshal Jim Duncan, Dundee
The problem needs a solution. Not words. Goodnight.
Inevitably (and soon) human population will fall back, either to a sustainable level, or to extinction. The decline will be either controlled, or catastrophic. The problems of human impact on climate, if not solved now, will be solved then! I often think how much we resemble the microbes in a vat of wine; they eat and multiply until they pollute their environment with so much of their waste, alcohol, that they all die. Are we no different?
r e brining, monticello, in. usa
The problems the international community are facing on envirenmental issues,require swift and co-operative action world wide,the need for a new international forum,in which all nations are equally represented and American and western nations do not have an unfair share in the decesin making proccess,a sitionation that slows down progress on these issues in their favour and economic interests,
Gemma Lefebvre, LLANFYLLIN,POWYS,WALES
In an age when every human economic activity has industrialized globally, it is particularly urgent that environmentalist activity needs to be aggregated and rationalized into global forces, because there is only one planetary ecosystem. At the moment, the plethora of small NGOs who compete against each other are as vulnerable as species in the Borneo Forest. On the other hand, to assume that the process can only be achieved through the United Nations is to limit yourself to a political institution that has ceased to evolve. Is there such a thing as a Global Political organization that has a mission and constitution of protecting, conserving and restoring the planetary ecosystem. Can there be?
I agree with the sentiments expressed by Joy Hyvarinen that reform are only relevant if they leads to actions for change, otherwise it is only a diversion. This would also apply to any international forum (or even national, council or town initiatives). What has to happen is for governments especially those in better positions to commit (nationally and internationally) to investing what is needed in the short and long term to make the changes that will make a difference and reduce or eliminate loss or damage or that allows sustainable development to occur locally and globally. And then industry and ordinary people have to play their roles in producing and buying or using appropriate 'sustainable' products that are environmentally friendly, and socially just. A tall 'caring, sharing, giving or serving' order in the context of many selfish and narrow minded people, businesses or governments. It points to the solution and answer proclaimed by the God of the Bible - we need a higher government authority, the establishment and rule of the Kingdom of God where men's hearts are ruled by the power and love of Jesus Christ!
Dr Ronald Slyderink, Toowoomba Queensland Australia