The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the principal intergovernmental body for environmental projects, needs to slim down and focus on scientific activities, says a report from the United Nations University in Tokyo.
Emerging Forces in Environmental Governance was launched in New York on 3 June along with a sister study, Reforming International Environmental Governance. The report says UNEP is "overstretched, with a large mandate, but relatively little funding and personnel". It suggests that the agency should instead use its limited financial resources to provide assessments and early warnings on environmental threats, and help to coordinate science advice across UN agencies.
Such an idea will find some support inside UNEP. The agency recently proposed setting up an international panel of scientists that would periodically survey the state of the world's environment (see UNEP gets mixed reaction to environment panel idea).
That suggestion has divided members of its governing council, but the agency is understood to be considering pressing ahead – possibly by taking charge of the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment when its mandate ends next year.
The UN University report also calls for the establishment of a global environment watchdog, which would 'name and shame' countries that are breaking promises to protect the environment. Such a body would be similar to Amnesty International, the global human rights group, says Peter M. Haas, Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and one of the report's co-authors.
"It would be a watchdog organisation so that when governments don't comply [with environmental commitments they have signed up to], they get embarrassed in front of their voters," says Haas.
The two reports come at a time of mounting concern that more effective ways are needed to protect the world's environment. Despite the existence of more than 500 international environmental treaties and conventions, threats such as climate change and biodiversity loss show no signs of abating.
UNEP, which was set up in 1973, helped to establish many of these treaties, but has neither the political mandate nor the finances to enforce them. Its existing annual budget of around US$100 million, is less than that of an average natural history museum in the developed world.
The governments of France and Germany, in particular, are openly discussing proposals to set up a new global environmental organisation, with powers to monitor and enforce countries' compliance with environmental treaties. Much of the discussion focuses on whether such an organisation should be a part of UNEP, or if it needs to be independent of the agency.
Many developing countries remain nervous of talk of a new world environmental organisation because of fears that their development needs may be overridden by richer countries more interested in protecting the environment. They are also concerned that a new organisation might result in UNEP being moved from Nairobi in Kenya – it is the largest of the UN agencies to be based in a developing country.
Haas's solution effectively amounts to a third way. He says that his report recognises that UNEP "will not go away" and that the agency should stay in Nairobi. But that it should play to its strengths by providing scientific assessments of environmental issues and leave the watchdog role to a new organisation.