Effective ecology

Article published on June 5, 2007
Article published on June 5, 2007
World Environment Day is on 5 June - a day which has drawn attention to certain ecological imbroglio since 1972. Too many institutions, not enough time

‘The environment's condition is the only real judge in how effective our programmes and politics are.’ The ecological reality is looking ugly. Klaus Töpfer, former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), attests to a continuous halo of ambivalence which seems to envelope the entire domain of environmental protection.

For three decades, the UNEP-organised World Environment Day on 5 June has certainly honoured nature's protection. But it also forces us to acknowledge how incapable we are of ending the process of destruction on our planet: the environment is degrading at a rapidly growing pace. Meanwhile, biodiversity is threatened, the extinction of species is ever-accelerating plus intensified global warming.


The fateful irony is that the situation continues to degrade, despite the explosion in the number of institutions, programmes and organisations responsible for the protection and management of environmental resources.

This paradox seriously questions the nature and role of the international governance of the environment, but equally questions the UN’s capacity, or incapacity, to ensure its mission.

According to researcher Adil Najam, ‘managing global processes without a global authority is a particularly difficult way of organising things.’ It’s clear that if the World Trade Organisation governed international commerce, or if their mandate recovered the health sector, the governance of the environment would not remain so chaotic.

In 2006, UNEP counted more than 500 multilateral agreements on the protection of environmental resources.

We have to take other organisations apart from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) into account, such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) – the official representative on climate change-, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (CCNUCC) or the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). Included in this haze of acronyms are a litany of specialised conventions including: The Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

Guilty inefficiency

It’s unfortunate to learn that all these organisations compete to collect funds from donators, principally from member states. It is even more astonishing to observe their mutual blindness of one another; ecology’s key actors have scarcely any knowledge of their respective activities. Furthermore, their mandates often trample on each other’s flower beds.

With the goal of making-up for the all encompassing disorganisation, the UN has created a group, the Environment Management Group (EMG), which reunites several dozen environmental actors susceptible to the distilling of information, put in co-operation with the efforts and lead consulting activities.

This approach is certainly laudable, but is only a perfect illustration of the absurdity of the system. By introducing yet another umbrella structure, the UN further complicates the governance. The absence of a centralised authority restrains the coordination of the efforts and makes for an uncertain effectiveness. Is the Kyoto Protocol permitting the abatement of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions? The worst to come is when we realise the leaders’ absence of a long term vision.

Europe's green thumb

Under these conditions, the question of reform of environmental governance is not a whim of several international functionaries, but a crucial issue for Earth's inhabitants. It is also a unique occasion for the European Union to bring a reform project to confirm their leadership with regards to environmental questions.

Take Germany and France for example. The former is the uncontested leader of renewable energies. The latter, along with several NGO groups, also militates for the creation of a World Environment Organisation (OME), in order to endow the UN with an environmental tool suitable to unite goodwill - a kind of unique interlocutor at the Earth’s bedside.

Is this project sufficient? Sufficient to soften the position of the United States or Australia, who are so reticent about the idea of a structure they judge as being expensive and potentially ineffective? Is it sufficient to influence China and India, who judge their right to development as a priority?