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Political leaders did not create any new global treaties at the recent Rio+20 summit. Instead, they acknowledged and reaffirmed their commitments from previous global conferences and emphasized the need for implementation. Implementation, however, can occur when effective institutions are in place, adequate resources are available, and citizens are genuinely engaged.

The institutional framework for sustainable development received significant attention at Rio+20. Discussions focused on two tracks – institutions for environment and institutions for sustainable development – and on two main UN bodies – the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). In the Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want, governments committed to “strengthen and upgrade” UNEP and to abolish CSD and replace it with a High-Level Forum.

UN General Assembly (Photo via Flickr, by tomdz)

In “A New Global Architecture for Sustainability Governance” chapter of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, I examine steps that can be taken to improve UNEP’s effectiveness as the anchor institution for the global environment. Some of the recommendations articulated in the chapter appear in The Future We Want and await approval by the UN General Assembly in September 2012.

UNEP was conceived at the 1972 Stockholm Conference. It was envisioned as the anchor institution that would promote partnership among organizations, nations, and people in order to enhance the quality of life for people while providing stewardship for the planet.

Over UNEP’s 40 years of existence, it has become apparent that the organization is crippled by a lack of resources and a lack of authority. These deficiencies have constrained UNEP from inspiring the broad, catalytic environmental policies its creators envisaged.

In order to increase UNEP’s efficacy in addressing environmental concerns and improving partnerships, governments have proposed several options for reform. One of the most debated suggestions is a plan to transform the UNEP from a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly into a specialized agency. The European Union pushed hard for this to be a major outcome of Rio+20. Many other governments (and analysts) argued, however, that UNEP must fulfill its original mandate by improving its operations without dramatically changing its current institutional form.

The outcome was a decision to “upgrade and strengthen” UNEP by expanding the membership of its Governing Council from 58 countries to universal membership; increasing its financial resources, including contributions from the UN regular budget; and expanding its role in capacity-building and implementation. Governments might also consider creating a smaller, geographically representative board which could be charged with operational management.

UNEP’s authority will ultimately come from within the organization. Increased expertise, connectivity and reach will help UNEP become the “go-to” organization for environmental information, policy guidance, and institutional support for national governments and UN organizations alike. To this end, UNEP could recruit experts that will actively engage in its work. The creation of an independent scientific advisory body could be an important step in augmenting UNEP’s analytical capacity.

Ms. Ximena Prugue filming a clip in India (Photo via Flickr, by Mat McDermott)

UNEP must also enhance its connectivity. UNEP’s limited presence beyond its Nairobi, Kenya headquarters reduces its ability to collaborate with other organizations on key environmental issues. At the same time, UNEP’s distinct location in a growing city in a developing country provides UNEP with a unique ability to engage with other developing countries. Moreover, with improved information and communication technology worldwide, UNEP should increase its global online presence and the use of social media in order to promote its mission and catalyze environmental policies.

Significant increase in UNEP’s financial resources will be critical to its ability to fulfill its core functions. While the lack of funds is often attributed to their voluntary nature, there is no direct causality between voluntary contributions and the size of an organization’s budget. Indeed, the four largest budgets in the UN system in 2010 were of UN bodies with voluntary funding mechanisms: UNDP, WFP, UNICEF and UNHCR. To attract and retain donors, UNEP must build on increased authority and media presence, and consistently demonstrate the important findings of its work. To foster donor trust, UNEP could publish comprehensive financial reports that indicate spending in terms of mandated functions. At the same time, governments should consider enacting a limited system of assessed contributions to support UNEP’s core work. Financial transparency and a hybrid financing mechanism could enhance UNEP’s stability and financial security.

While there is no single solution that will ameliorate all of the challenges UNEP faces, by improving its authority, connectivity, and financial resources, UNEP could enhance its ability to be the leading environmental institution on the global stage.

(Written by Maria Ivanova; Edited by Antonia Sohns; Originally published on CSRwire Talkback as a part of a series on Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity). 

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