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Bergen Informal Ministerial Meeting

15 - 17 September 2000

  International Environmental Institutions:  Where from Here?  

Discussion Paper Prepared by Canada


The 21st century will be a century of increasing globalization. This process, entailing economic and social integration as well as the transformation of international relations and institutions, represents a new phase in the ordering of global affairs. A central challenge is ensuring that globalization can become a positive force for all the world’s people and that its benefits are more evenly distributed.

Over the past half-century, in response to post-war realities, we have seen the creation of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Trade Organization and a host of other organizations whose job it has been to bring peace, security and stability to the world and to make multilateral cooperation work. Yet, as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said in his report to the Millennium Assembly[1], “while the post-war multilateral system made it possible for the new globalization to emerge and flourish, globalization, in turn, has progressively rendered its designs antiquated.” In his report, he challenges world leaders to think about how international institutions can adapt to globalization and suggests that the status quo is no longer sufficient. 

When looking at this larger global governance challenge through an environmental lens, one can recall that considerable progress has been made since 1972, when world leaders met, in Stockholm, to address environmental issues for the first time. That global conference led to the creation of environmental ministries throughout the world, established the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), stimulated the creation of a solid body of international environmental law, and led to the birth of a number of non-governmental organizations promoting environmental issues. Looking back over the period since 1972, there is clear evidence that concerted multilateral cooperation has resulted in significant progress toward safeguarding the environment for future generations. The international community should be proud of the gains it has made. There are few other areas of policy making that have achieved so much through international cooperation in so few years. 

In 2002, world leaders will gather to mark several milestones: anniversary of the UN Conference on the Human Environment and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the 15th anniversary of the watershed report “Our Common Future”, and the 10th anniversary of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

At the inaugural UNEP Global Ministerial Environment Forum, held in Malmö, Sweden, in May 2000, Environment Ministers reflected on the opportunities and challenges associated with 2002. One of the key messages emerging from Malmö relates to the capacity of international environmental institutions to meet the challenges of the new century. The Malmö Ministerial Declaration reflects a growing consensus that a lack of coherence and coordination among international agreements and institutions poses a major impediment to global sustainable development. The Declaration states:

 “The 2002 conference should review the requirements for a greatly strengthened institutional structure for international environmental governance based on an assessment of future needs for an institutional architecture that has the capacity to effectively address wide-ranging environmental threats in a globalizing world. UNEP’s role in this regard should be strengthened and its financial base broadened and made more predictable.” (Malmö Ministerial Declaration)

International environmental governance is certain to be central to preparations for Rio +10 given its importance to effective international collaboration and the urgent need to strengthen such collaboration. The time is ripe to take stock of the world’s environmental institutions – their impact, successes and failings – and determine if they should move in a bold new direction. 

This paper provides the basis for a ministerial dialogue on strengthening international environmental institutions. It does not provide a definitive assessment of existing international institutions nor does it analyze potential options for change.

An Overview of the Global Environmental Agenda  

We need effective institutions to support and guide the international community in protecting the global environment and promoting sustainable development into the 21st century. But we must first understand the global context in which countries function and describe some of the realities of international environmental policy. Highlights include: 

  • Environmental problems transcend borders and, therefore, necessitate international cooperation and the establishment of international institutions. 
  • Transboundary pollution and global issues like climate change are threatening environmental and human health. The links between environmental degradation and poverty are evident. 
  • The environmental issues that must be addressed are becoming increasingly complex, such as climate change and genetically modified organisms. The cumulative effects of industrialization and resource consumption are not well understood. 
  • The number and range of international institutions and instruments dealing with environmental issues have grown steadily over the past quarter century. A strong base of international environmental law exists; witness such flagship agreements as the regional seas conventions, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the Montreal Protocol and, most recently, the Biosafety Protocol. The focus now is on challenges to implementation. Compliance and enforcement mechanisms remain underdeveloped and unexplored, undermining the effectiveness of agreements. 
  • Current approaches to global environmental management and sustainability are inadequate. To date, international action has focused primarily on the transboundary movement of pollution (e.g. hazardous waste, ozone depleting substances, etc.) and sectoral issues (e.g. marine pollution, species protection, etc.). We need to move toward a coherent and integrated management framework which addresses individual challenges in the context of the global ecosystem. 
  • The institutional structures which govern international environmental agreements are fragmented. Agreements are often managed independently, with little coherence or coordination. 
  • The role of the non-governmental sector in mobilizing political and policy responses to environmental issues has been invaluable. 
  • Globalization presents new opportunities for development, but also increases the urgency of the environmental problems threatening human health and well-being. In response to the realities of globalization, environmental policy makers are giving greater consideration to issues like the relationship between trade, investment, development and environmental management.

There is no doubt that the environmental agenda of the 1960s and 1970s has expanded and grown in complexity. Today, it can be argued that the most crucial challenge to achieving environmental results is integration – integration of the environmental science and policy agenda itself as well as integration of this environmental perspective into the larger agendas of sustainable development and economic globalization.

Existing Institutional Machinery

The existing institutional machinery for international environmental matters consists of various elements, most notably:

  • the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), created in 1972 following the UN Conference on the Human Environment. Originally conceived as a small UN secretariat to serve as “a focal point for environmental action and coordination within the UN system”, UNEP has grown to be the cornerstone of the current international environmental governance system. Its mandate was most recently reviewed and renewed in 1997 in the the Nairobi Declaration[2];
  • development and expansion of environmental programs and activities within other UN bodies, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These programs and activities are complemented by environmental work carried out by regional commissions such as the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC);
  • the establishment of autonomous UN secretariats to manage a number of multilateral environmental agreements[3]. These have been created to carry out the decisions of their respective Conferences of the Parties; 
  • the Global Environment Facility (GEF), created to provide new and additional financial resources to address global environmental issues in developing countries and economies in transition; and 
  • the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), created in 1992, to ensure effective follow-up to the UNCED.

Rationale for Strengthening International Environmental Institutions

International environmental institutions are staffed by committed professionals. It is through international institutions that information is shared, negotiations are conducted, norms and standards are elaborated and common action plans can be pursued. However, despite its many achievements, the existing machinery remains fragmented, often with vague mandates, inadequate resources and marginal political support. Competing for scarce funds and political commitment, existing institutions are frequently torn between competing priorities which are driven by overlapping and unfocused demands. Weak support and scattered direction have left institutions less effective than they could be, while demands on their resources continue to grow. 

With the dawning of the era of globalization, many people point to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the kind of powerful, authoritative organization upon which to model international environmental institutions. However, it is important to recall that when the WTO was born, the trade agenda had been maturing for 50 years or more. Today, the WTO’s great strength lies in the fact that it is an umbrella for international trade agreements and features compulsory and binding dispute resolution mechanisms. Even still, the WTO faces many challenges, particularly concerning the interface between the trade agenda and other areas like environment, labour and culture. To meet these challenges, the WTO is reaching out to stakeholders and making its operations more transparent. Clearly, however, environmental policy is not a core competence of the WTO. A strong and effective international environmental regime is essential to ensuring that environmental policies and considerations are integrated into the trade agenda.

Given the expanding environmental agenda and the fragmented approach to international action, the international community needs to consider whether the existing international institutional machinery can confront the challenges of the 21st century. Building on the UN and UNEP reform efforts since 1997, should we also consider a more fundamental restructuring of existing governance mechanisms and institutions, including the creation of a centralized environmental authority? 

The basic premise for charting a new course for institutional strengthening is that existing institutions do not (or will not) adequately address current and future needs. The following questions may help to determine whether the existing machinery is adequate: 

  • Does the existing machinery have the political vitality, profile and voice in crucial debates where decisions are taken? Is its influence being felt in the climate change debate, the development of a world water vision, the forests debate, the evolution of international environmental law or at the WTO?
  • Does the machinery have enough sustained political influence to be not only relevant but credible in setting the global environmental agenda? Is the machinery strong enough to counterbalance the predominance of international economic institutions and shift the policy balance in favour of sustainable development?
  • Is there a venue to provide holistic strategic guidance to counter the fragmentation of the environmental debate resulting from the growing number of specialized environmental conventions and their autonomous governing bodies and secretariats?
  • Who is driving the effort to make the system of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) more effective in terms of their implementation and the adequacy of targets and commitments to achieve environmental results? 
  • Does the machinery have the financial wherewithal to respond to environmental emergencies, natural disasters, conflicts and new and emerging trends? 
  • Does the machinery provide support (financial, analytical, etc.) that empowers action at the regional, national and local level? 

Specific Areas of Emphasis for Institutional Strengthening

A number of critical areas require strengthening, namely, the international legal framework, the financial framework, the accountability framework and policy capacity. The question of political will and influence also needs examination. Each of these areas is discussed below. 

International Legal Framework 

The international community realized long ago that multilateralism was essential to protecting the environment. Today, hundreds of agreements and cooperation arrangements to address environmental problems exist. They constitute a body of international law that, in theory, governs countries’ domestic activities as well as international relations, facilitating cooperation and sound environmental management within and across borders. Yet there has been minimal effort to take stock of current MEAs and little consideration of how the “next generation” of MEAs might emerge. At least four issues concerning the effectiveness of MEAs could be examined as part of overall international institutional strengthening

  • Coherence – MEAs should be mutually supportive. A coherent international environmental agenda must be embodied in a comprehensive set of legal instruments and policy directions for environmental protection and conservation. How can we make the system of MEAs more effective in terms of their implementation and the ability of targets and commitments to achieve environmental results? Is there potential for greater synergy between key agreements through policy research and legal analysis? 
  • Coordination - A disproportionate amount of energy and attention is spent on political issues such as where convention secretariats and institutions are located or which piece of the institutional puzzle does what. Is there scope for eliminating duplication and promoting shared agenda setting, information sharing and common approaches which will lead to a more efficient use of time and resources? A debate on coordination issues related to conservation agreements (i.e. Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat[4], Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on Migratory Species and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is under way. Is there a need for political direction in this regard? Under whose auspices should such a debate be occurring?
  • Compliance – If MEAs are to be effective and credible, countries must comply with, and implement, them. What, if any, assessment is being done to compare national action to international commitments? In the absence of enforcement mechanisms or penalties for non-compliance, are MEAs little more than moral obligations or “agreements on paper”? What efforts are needed to examine common barriers to compliance? Can these barriers be overcome? Is there interest in establishing appropriate and enforceable compliance regimes? If so, how can they be developed and under whose auspices? 
  • Capacity building – Many countries lack the financial and technical resources to implement the basic requirements of global conventions. Some MEAs have formal mechanisms for capacity development while others do not. Those countries who can offer assistance by sharing expertise, technologies or funding must do so. Is there a role for an international focal point to identify gaps and needs? What is the future course for international environmental capacity development? What analysis has been done to better understand the related issues of capacity development and compliance?

Financial Framework 

Total resources to support the existing environmental machinery have grown since the late 1980s, particularly with the creation of the Global Environment Facility, the Multilateral Fund for the Montreal Protocol and the emergence of conventions on climate change, desertification and biological diversity. During this same period, particularly post-UNCED, the resources dedicated to UNEP (primarily through its Environment Fund) began to decline. Do governments understand the funding situation of the international environmental machinery? Is the total amount of spending adequate? How does UNEP compare with other international organizations? Is the existing voluntary funding arrangement for UNEP adequate? Are countries ready for an assessed scale of contributions for the Environment Fund? Are monies being invested in the appropriate activities? Is there value for money?

Accountability Framework

Effective management, information, finance, human resources, and communications systems are essential to organizational life. Does institutional strengthening offer opportunities in this regard? Are the appropriate governance structures in place for reporting on financial and program results? Are the existing accountability and reporting mechanisms sufficient and responsive?

Governments have a role to play but are no longer the only actors in global environmental affairs. What is an appropriate role for civil society, the business community and other international actors? How can these roles be accommodated?

Policy Capacity 

Recalling the realities of globalization, there is a need to systematically improve laws, agreements, policies, economic instruments, standards and institutions. Where are the knowledge gaps in international environmental policy? How can they best be filled? Is international environmental policy relevant to national policy makers?


International institutions, operating in an arena in which the primary actors are sovereign states, have the authority and influence which national governments give them. Financial resources and a sound institutional structure, while important, do not determine the effectiveness of a given institution. Is there a desire to create a single forum for dispute resolution on environmental issues? Is it reasonable to expect that strengthened environmental machinery will shift the policy balance in favour of sustainable development and counterbalance the predominance of economic institutions?

Options for Institutional Change

Varying degrees of institutional strengthening and change are possible, some much more ambitious than others. In essence, the debate concerns the relative merits of further centralized governance and decision-making through the creation of a new organization – which some have identified as a World Environment Organization (WEO) – versus a decentralized but strengthened system similar to that which currently exists. While much has been written about strengthening the existing UN system, particularly in the context of UN and UNEP reform[5] there has been no detailed analysis and assessment of alternative options like a WEO. 

Ideally, debates on form (i.e. institutional and financial matters) should follow discussions on function (i.e. mandate and authority). Questions about mandate and authority should precede any debate about institutional structures themselves. 

To help shape the discussion on the strengthening of international environmental institutions, issues have been grouped into two broad categories: mandate and authorities; and institutional and financial matters.

Mandate and Authorities

  • Does this institutional challenge fall under environment or sustainable development? Should we continue to look at environment as an independent sector – with an independent organizational framework – and have sustainable development be a cross-cutting issue handled by a different non-operational, monitoring, policy-setting body? Would this be a genuine strengthening of environment?
  • Is international environmental governance spread across too many institutions with diffuse, conflicting or weak authorities?
  • With regard to the international environmental legal framework, is there a desire to form a central body? Its function could be to strengthen the existing framework and fill in gaps with coherent and consistent international environmental agreements and broad covenants for national, corporate and individual action.
  • Is one of the primary purposes of institutional strengthening to balance the overwhelming authority of well-established economic institutions like the WTO?
  • Do the other UN agencies fulfill their environmental mandates? Would a more centralized approach help them?
  • What is the role of the non-governmental sector? 
  • What is the role of science in the institutional strengthening effort? 
  • Would the institution engage in capacity development and local country-level projects?
  • Would the institution's role be limited to international legal frameworks, standard setting and policy or would it also carry out operational programs? What would be its niche?

Institutional and Financial Matters 

  • How close is the existing institutional machinery to meeting governments' demands?
  • Can the legal framework be made more coherent within the existing machinery?
  • To what extent is UNEP fulfilling the role of global environmental authority? Could UNEP's capacity be enhanced without a major institutional reform?
  • Is there support for elevating UNEP’s institutional status from a programme to an organization or specialized agency? What would be the impact on other UN agencies? How would such an institution relate to the UN system? How would it be governed?
  • Is there political will to create a new organization to assume responsibilities for the environment from other UN agencies (e.g. the WMO, the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and the International Hydrological Programme of UNESCO)? 
  • What should be the role of the Conferences of the Parties to international agreements?
  • What regional presence does the global environmental machinery require?
  • What would be the role of non-governmental actors in a new model? 
  • Would membership be universal?
  • As for financial matters: 
  • How can contributions to international environmental institutions or processes be rationalized? 
  • How can UNEP mobilize the financial resources it needs to carry out an expanded set of authorities? 
  • Is there support for an assessed scale of contributions for UNEP? 

Conclusion – Looking Ahead to 2002

Placing this topic on the agenda for the Bergen Informal Ministerial Meeting suggests that there may be a desire to explore institutional strengthening as part of the Rio +10 process. If this is the case, it could be helpful to consider the next steps needed in terms of process and substance. 

From a process perspective, countries have to commit themselves to an open and transparent discussion of the issues. It would be helpful to identify an appropriate intergovernmental forum for organizing and convening the debate. Alternatively, there may be merit in avoiding a bureaucratization of the debate and instead pushing to keep it at the ministerial level. As well, every country should make a commitment to put all issues on the table if we are to move from political to practical solutions. 

With regard to substance, there is some urgency to carrying out a gap analysis, determining weaknesses and needs, and proposing solutions. It might be helpful to examine the experience of other centralized governance bodies, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Labour Organization (ILO). With regard to international legal frameworks, further analysis is needed to determine future needs and the costs and benefits of a more coordinated approach. The issue of compliance requires further elaboration, as do financial issues, including the financial implications of various institutional options.

If international environmental governance is to be central to preparations for Rio +10, much dialogue, analysis and consensus building is required. The Bergen Ministerial marks an important first step.

[1] We the Peoples The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century, Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, April 2000. 

[2]The Nairobi Declaration states that “UNEP is to be the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, that promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the UN system and that serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment.” 

[3]Examples include the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Wildfowl Habitat, Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer.

[4]Also known as the Ramsar Convention

[5] Examples include Report of the UN Secretary-General on Environment and Human Settlements (UNGA/53/463) to 53rd Session of the General Assembly on matters related to UN reform as well as Report of the UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements, 1998.