The proposed UN World Environment Organisation is badly needed to give poor countries a strong voice in green policy, says Zakri Abdul Hamid.
The United Nations will be convening in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, next June to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, held in the same city. The Rio+20 conference will assess progress since 1992 and aim to secure renewed political commitment to sustainable development.
One of the priorities is recognising that current governance systems to protect the environment have failed to meet expectations — indeed, the health of our environment has taken a turn for the worse over the past decades.
World leaders must recognise that taking the modest and incremental approach they took in Rio, 20 years ago is not enough. Only a major overhaul of the governance system will drive the reforms needed to address the challenges of environmental sustainability.
This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20
The most challenging issue to be discussed is the creation of the proposed World Environment Organisation (WEO) — a new UN body that will anchor global efforts for the environment.
Developing countries disenfranchised
The phrase 'world organisation', when heard by diplomats in developing countries, often elicits an instinctive negative reaction that "it would be another World Trade Organization (WTO) and that's the last thing we need".
But the proposals look nothing like the WTO. While the WTO sets standards and tackles barriers to trade, most UN specialised agencies, such as the WHO and FAO, provide a consultative and facilitative function, helping countries to meet global commitments derived from mutual agreements.
The WEO is the kind of organisation we need badly, now more than ever. Environmental issues are governed by more than 40 UN agencies in addition to the UNEP (UN Environmental Programme). Over the years, the international community has adopted hundreds of multilateral environmental agreements, all with their own secretariats and administrations.
In 2010 alone, there were more meetings than there were days in the year. And in the last five years, meetings related to only a fraction of these agreements have produced more than 5,000 decisions that countries are called to act on.
The system has become incredibly complicated and virtually impossible for developing countries to participate in meaningfully. While rich countries can cope, poor nations are becoming disenfranchised.
Focus on green development
Most global organisations that operate today were designed and negotiated by the developed world, while developing countries stood watching on the sidelines.
Poor countries have been busy pushing for more finance and development, which of course are needed, but perhaps they have not always realised that the operators of the system are the global institutions — and they are skewed in favour of the richer nations.
Redesigning a new environmental governance system is an opportunity to change this. The WEO must have a development focus and be better aimed at responding to the needs of developing countries.
And in the process, developing countries must start to take ownership of green economic policy. They need to think clearly about their needs and shake off the thinking that the environmental agenda is only for the rich.
A healthy environment on which the ecosystem depends is not only paramount for the poorest nations, it is also an opportunity for economic growth by targeting the market for green technology, goods and services.
Agenda for the WEO
To respond to developing countries' needs, the WEO must have certain priorities. It must be a democratic body with universal membership, where each country has one vote — not weighted voting, as in the case of many financial assistance agencies where donor countries have more votes than recipients.
The WEO must also have an implementation arm to respond to needs for technical assistance, capacity building and technology support.
As things stand, support for implementation falls through the cracks in the UN system. No agency is responsible for such support in the environmental sector, and developing countries are losing out.
This is especially the case for multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) where there are many promises of support but only a few mechanisms, and there is no obvious institution to help countries implement their commitments.
For example, one of the MEAs signed at the Earth Summit in 1992 was the Convention on Biological Diversity. One of its lofty targets, adopted in 2002, was to reduce biodiversity loss by 2010. The target was not met due to implementation difficulties.
We need the WEO to help develop new ideas, share experience and help poor countries become partners in a green economy — and not create a parallel development track, one for the haves, another for the have-nots.
In fact, the definition of a green economy, and the steps needed to achieve it, have already been outlined by the UNEP. But its constrained budget and limited capacity for country programmes raise serious doubts about the prospects of success.
The WEO must be the anchor that can rationalise current environmental governance and ensure that developing countries are equally represented and able to participate in the system within their own financial means.
If developing countries agree that these are the elements of a new system, then they need to engage in the debate and support the proposal — already introduced in the preparatory process — that takes our needs to Rio+20.
Zakri Abdul Hamid is science advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20.