Global environmental policy

Today global environmental policy is conducted under United Nations (UN) auspices. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, however, environmental protection was not an issue and there is no mention of it in the UN Charter. This is still the case of course, but there is now considerable public awareness of the importance of this issue.

Environmental policy is dealt with by the following UN organs and bodies:

  • the General Assembly
  • the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
  • the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD), a functional commission reporting to ECOSOC
  • the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
  • the Conferences of States Parties to the various UN environmental conventions
  • the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF)

as well as

  • the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
  • the UN regional commissions such as notably the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE)
  • UN specialized agencies (e.g. UNESCO, WTO and WHO).

Reforming international environmental governance (IEG)

The host of different institutions concerned with global environmental policy has resulted in a lack of coordination and clarity as to who does what. There are many multilateral environmental agreements with their own secretariats that work largely independently from one another. That is why the UNEP Governing Council decided in February 2009 to task a group of ministers and high-level government officials with drafting proposals on reforming environmental governance within the UN. The group’s first meeting took place in Belgrade in June. The meeting produced the Belgrade Process, which aims to submit its initial reform proposals to the UNEP Governing Council at its session in February 2010. Germany is working with its European Union partners on reforms designed to strengthen the UN’s environmental sector. The main objectives are to:

  • develop the United Nations Environment Programme into a fully-fledged United Nations Environment Organization
  • strengthen the UNEP’s Governing Council
  • stabilize the UNEP’s financial resources
  • expand membership of the UNEP’s Governing Council to include all UN member countries (so-called “universal membership”)
  • intensify cooperation between environmental conventions on related sectors (so-called “clustering”).

Milestones for global environmental policy

Man-made environmental problems such as forest dieback, the ozone hole, climate change or the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have made environmental protection a key issue on the political agenda. The following milestones were instrumental in creating the whole network of international environmental structures that exists today:

Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment 1972

The most important result of the Stockholm Conference was the founding of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP played a key role in paving the way for a number of major environmental conventions such as the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (WA/CITES, 1973), the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1985). What may rightly be called international environmental policy has existed since 1972.

Brundtland Commission 1983

(formally the World Commission on Environment and Development). Its chair Gro Harlem Brundtland coined the “sustainable development” concept that still defines the terms of the international debate.

Earth Summit in Rio 1992

(UN Conference on Environment and Development – UNCED) The then record large gathering of world leaders representing 116 out of 172 countries brought a breakthrough for the concept of sustainable development, a development model that integrates ecological, social and economic aspects. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), too, made a great contribution to this positive outcome. In a number of important ways the conference pointed the way to the future:

  • the Rio Declaration
    proclaims a set of 27 principles and is the most clear-cut document yet to address global environmental issues
  • the Agenda 21
    sets out in 40 chapters a Programme of Action for Sustainable Development
  • the Rio Conventions on various environmental issues
    (Framework Convention on Climate Change, Biological Diversity Convention, Convention to Combat Desertification)
  • Statement of Forest Principles
  • the establishment of the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD).

World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 2002

This was the culmination and conclusion of a series of world conferences launched at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000. Agreement was reached on a number of important documents designed to lend further momentum to sustainable development:

  • the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, a politically binding document adopted by heads of state and government
  • the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation contains concrete target dates for achieving progress (halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation; achieve, by 2010, a reduction in the current rate of loss of biodiversity; achieve, by 2020, that chemicals are used and produced in ways that lead to the minimization of adverse effects on human health and the environment).

Last updated 27.08.2009

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