Nature’s Advocate – A Pladoyer(Plea) for the UNEP Upgrade

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Article is co-written by Tim Lehmann.

In the face of global catastrophic climate change, emptying natural resources and worldwide scarcity, the United Nations Environmental Programme needs an upgrade, or so argued Nick Nuttall, United Nations Development Programme (UNEP) spokesperson at Rio+20 (see interview at the bottom). For too long, the environmental and social pillars of sustainable development have tip -toed along behind the economic pillar. The ambition to deliver full sustainable development is still a long way behind reality. One problem is that UNEP lacks universal membership, with only about 30 percent of UN countries involved, which seems to be inappropriate in an era in which we have acknowledged the international scope of environmental problems. Nutall argues that  a stronger UNEP will increase capacity to deliver services to the world’s environmental ministers, with a resultant influence on national economic policy and international trade.

Another major problem is the decision-making authority of the world’s environmental ministers which come together annually within the UNEP assembly. Their decisions are subject to negotiations of the countries delegates of foreign affairs at the general assembly in New York. According to Nuttall, legal reform is needed to empower and improve the authority of the world’s environmental ministers.

After years of deadlock, a sense of change was felt at Rio+20. “Our sense from the negotiations as they stand today is that we will see a strengthening of UNEP, but the jury is still out on how that strengthening will occur,” said Mr Nuttall in an interview at Rio+20 before the final Rio+20 declaration was approved.

The various models on the negotiation floor ranged from modifying UNEP’s legal structure to the establishment of a World Environmental Organization that might operate under a similar constitution as the World Health Organization. Finally, with the recent release of the final document of outcomes from Rio+20, movement forward is at hand. “After some four decades of discussion and calls for the environment programme of the UN to be strengthened, governments agreed on an upgrading of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP),” stated a UNEP’s release. Most importantly UNEP’s Governing Council will gain universal membership.

According to Mr Nuttall, strengthening UNEP falls into our pattern that the world is trying to catch up with the unintended consequences of our decisions we have made in the past. Another example is that we often device technology to solve the problems that were initially caused by the technologies invented ten or 20 years ago.

“We have to stop chasing our tails,” says Mr Nuttall.

After Rio+20 we have to think more deeply about the future we want. Todays’ nature’s advocates strength is their influence on shifting the economy into an environmental inclusive space. Strengthening UNEP is one more way to increase that influence.

See also a previous article about UNEP based on an informal session with UNEP’s executive director Achim Steiner.

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