Environmental global community celebrates these days the United Nations Environmental Program’s (UNEP) 50th anniversary. Global environmental governance system, regardless of all positive intentions, still lacks necessary strengths and capabilities to deal properly with one of the most complex and urgent problem. Some comparisons between the UNEP and EU on these issues can help to visualize pros and cons in approaches and solutions both globally and regionally.
On the wave of rapidly increasing global public attention to environmental and nature protection problems inspired in, e.g. in 1960s by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and in 1972 by the study on “The Limits to Growth”, to name just a few, the UNEP’s creation fifty years ago was a logical outcome of the world-wide “early greens’ appeal” and popular drive towards environmentally-safe patterns of a modernized socio-economic development. Presently, the UNEP is being intervened into a more complex international agendas then it was fifty years ago, including sustainable growth, geopolitical tensions, energy and climate crises…
UNEP in action…
The UNEP has performed several vital functions during last fifty years: a) inspiring states around the world to attract attention to human environment (the goal followed by adoption in numerous states environmental protection laws and creating specific state bodies); b) coordinating environmental-type activities among the UN system; c) producing scientific assessment of the state-of the-global-environment” with technical and policy analysis; d) preparing a significant legal background for a new aspect in national governance called “political ecology”.
Suffice it to say that UNEP collaborators guided by six past executive directors managed to produce over 500 international environmental agreements (with a speed of about ten per year!), as well as a considerable number of conventions. No wonder, the present UNEP’s staff increased from a couple of hundred to over a thousand presently…
UNEP’s mandate has been to provide leadership in environmental protection, deliver science and research, as well as develop solutions on a wide range of corresponding issues, including climate change, rational use of resources, biodiversity, sustainable forest management, etc.
The UNEP’s governing body is the UN Environment Assembly, which was created in 2012 to replace the Governing Council; UNEP currently has 193 members and meets every two years.
The main UNEP’s deficiency in history has been the “reconciling problem” of the “program’s” normative, operational and implementing facilities; thus designed as a normative “program”, it lacked concrete liabilities’ instruments to enforce environmental legislation’s implementation in the states. Misunderstandings abound about UNEP’s “lifeless bureaucracy”; some of such arguments do hold water, as e.g. national environmental activities projected on a global level remain largely inefficient. Hence, the UNEP is broadly known only to academics, policy researchers, government officials and journalists…
European environmental policy: comparisons
In line with the UNEP’s goals in legal activity, the EU environmental legislation, however, is much bigger –totally several thousand legal acts were adopted in the constantly enlarging EU since 1957. But the differences in approaches do exist: for example, the EU “topics” under eco-regulations are more both dispersed and cross-sectoral including environmental issues in several sectoral economies’ issues, as well as human environment (waste, water, air and noise), circular economy and associated nature protection and resources’ issues (such as soil and land, marine and coastal environment), biodiversity, dangerous wastes (including chemicals), climate change, research and innovation.
The UNEP and EU comparison could be interesting in analysing positive and negative sides of the international cooperative effects in environment. The differences between the two abound: both quantitative – there are 27 member states in the EU and 193 members in the UNEP, and qualitative – seven major fields of activity in UNEP (such as ozone depletion, marine pollution, desertification, chemical and hazardous waste, climate change, biodiversity and forests) and much more varied and complex regulatory approach in the EU.
There is a set of complex socio-economic and nature protection direction in the EU environmental policy, such as agriculture and industry, transport and energy, circular economy, cities, waste, air and noise; besides, there are nature protection issues:, e.g. soil and land, water, marine and coastal environment, nature and biodiversity, as well as chemicals and climate change, research and innovation.
Thus, the EU’s environmental policy – within the regional integration process – is based on “shared responsibilities”, i.e. the goals to reach are formulated by the EU institutions (in close cooperation with the member states and final agreement on details) but implementation mechanisms are within the member states’ governance with a consequential legal control over the process. Besides, marine and biological resources are within the “exclusive EU competence”, i.e. the rules adopted by the EU institutions (mainly, by the Parliament, Commission and the Council) are compulsory for implementation by the states.
In this regard, the EU’s concept could be partially emulated in striving for a more efficient global approach to eco-environmental issues, if UNEP is going to survive through modern challenges…
The EU environmental strategy is being closely connected to the SDG’s implementation. Thus, from the EU cohesion policy’s funding (the EU’s multi-annual budget allocates about € 392 billion for the regional cohesion measures for the next five years) two goals are most important: a) the SDG 8 -decent work and economic growth – allocates about 27 percent of funding to contribute to investing in SMEs’ competitiveness and networking, entrepreneurship, access to employment and youth integration in the national and European-wide labour markets; and b) SDG 9 – industry, innovation and infrastructure – funding allocations address diverse developmental needs of European regions, with another 27 percent of budget allocation in cohesion. Allocation for these two goals totals over half of the EU cohesion support for sustainability.
The guiding EU environmental body –European Environment Agency situated in the Danish capital- is a “slight replica” of the UNEP in the sense the it provides scientific assessments of the state of European environment.
UNEP at “post-fifty”: melancholic mood
Environmental perspectives seem quite deem for UNEP’s legacy producing little hope for a perspective future nether for in a wider geopolitical context, nor among heavily competing international organisations.
The “UNEP-50” legacy delivers a crucial reminder to the global community: amorphous, mildly said, approach to the “environment concept” is still too far from ordinary human essential needs, except some “quality issues”, like air, water, soil, wastes, etc.
Practical UNEP’s ideological transformation during fifty years and adaptation to changing global circumstances has been rather modest and not really radical. As some experts noted, “nobody knows what really the UNEP is going to look like in the near future”. Besides, the geopolitical aspect played its damaging role in UNEP from its origin: the expert community is unanimous –UNEP was “deliberately designed to be weak, that industry and governments saddled UNEP with its form, function and financing in order to incapacitate it”.
Note and citation from: Simonis Udo E. UN Environmental Program -50th Anniversary, In: E-paper by Deutschen Umweltstiftung. May 2022. www.deutsheumweltstiftung.de.
The debate on necessary reforms in UNEP, as U. Simonis noted, has been quite intense with many radical proposals, but they were not implemented rigorously.
UNEP’s perspectives in sustainability
A general “recipe” for a perspective UNEP, as well for resolving numerous modern crises could be a so-called “3+3 solution”. In the mid-point of reaching the UN-Agenda 2030 ultimate goals – the SDGs – there is only one feasible “mega-instrument” in the modern arsenal of global governance. As soon as the SDGs do not “stand alone” in the Agenda-2030 and the reaching the desired outcomes appeared to be much more complex, there is a feasible and seemingly simple solution to assist enhanced environmental quality, “save the UNEP” and resolve looming modern crises: it is the 3+3 recipe.
The first three are “inside the SDGs-factors” being vital for national governance: i.e. politico-economic, environmental and social strategies to reach the Agenda-2030; the second three are “outside the SDG-factors”, i.e. dealing with the present geopolitical, climate and humanitarian crises. It is true: some countries in the world do compete for resources and geo-political importance, the fact that hampers both the global stability and the states’ abilities to reach SDGs. The SDGs are not the only single framework for emerging from present crises; the SDG implementation is only part of the whole complex picture.
Perspective European Parliament’s resolution (EPR) this June assessing the SDGs implementation by the EU-27 would hardly make any difference: first, it is only one of the three legislative institutions (and it is doubtful that two others would agree), second (most important) is that the EU states are not only in different socio-economic positions in reaching SDGs, but not all the states are prioritizing all SDGs in their national strategies. Hence, possible “concrete EPR’s” would be at best a sort of follow-up of already existing Eurostat reports and the EU-SDG Strategy outcomes, while generally just follow some known inefficient approaches.
See more, e.g. in: https://www.integrin.dk/2022/06/09/global-progress-in-sustainability-sdsn-assessment-report/, and/or https://www.integrin.dk/2022/06/07/sustainability-in-the-european-priorities-cohesion-policy-and-business/.
It seems that only in this century the global community aspired to make a stronger push towards necessary reforms in “environmental governance” by suggesting turning UNEP into genuinely universal organisation modeled on e.g. the world health and/or meteorological organisations, and moving UNEP’s headquarters from Nairobi in Kenya to one of the modern “power centers”. For example, UNICEF, a special UN organ “to save children” has an annual budget of about 5,5 billion US$, ten times the UNEP budget.
There is no global policy consensus about the UNEP’s “real performance”: numerous calls for transformation failed due to the lack of a concise definition concerning “specific environmental goals” among global elites, as “environment” has been historically cross-sectoral and closely intervened with politics, economics and social issues; the “puzzle” that was broken by the SDGs in the UN-2030 Agenda in 2015.The UNEP is hardly in a position to lead the new sustainability’s trend in modern transformative growth patterns; however, as the UN Secretary-General noted recently, the necessary ecological consciousness for an innovative initiative existed.
Regardless of suggested changes in UNEP at least one vital question remains: what exactly can global community and the states do to protect and enhance environmental quality? It seems that the EU can provide for some good emulation’s stimulus for future reforms.