What environment do we want and what organization can lead international environmental action? On the verge of the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), conceived at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972, many questions remain unresolved. The UN Environment Assembly, which kicked off recently at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, gives us an occasion to discuss what has been achieved in 50 years and try to decide which UNEP we want.
The idea from the onset revolved around protecting the environment by abating pollution and reversing the depletion of non-renewable resources, in order to preserve the natural balance and ensure the continuation of human life. Sustainable development, thus, was not a newly invented concept, but rather rooted in the Stockholm spirit. While unrealistic slogans and far-fetched aspirations were abound in Stockholm conference, the establishment of UNEP created the institutional framework for international environmental action, which was embodied in treaties and agreements that set standards, restrictions, and goals. If countries had adhered to their promises in the seventies and eighties, there would have been no need to set new goals at the Earth Summit on environment and development in Rio in 1992, and add to them yet more goals at the sustainable development summit in Johannesburg in 2002. Failure was not limited to flaws in delivering environmental promises, but development commitments as well.
In the case of rich countries, the delay in putting an end to unrestrained development driven by greed and the desire to inflate numerical growth figures rather than actual real progress and quality of life, in the decades that followed Stockholm, led to continued increase in pollution rates, carbon emissions and waste of resources. But the problem is different in poor countries, where the continued environmental degradation can be attributed to corruption and weak governance on one hand, and the failure of rich countries to honor their promises, on the other. Two years before Stockholm, rich developed countries committed, in a United Nations resolution in 1970, to provide 0.7 percent of their GDP as development aid to poor countries. After 50 years, few countries have implemented this pledge, which resulted in slow implementation of essential infrastructure work, mainly related to electricity plants and grids, fresh and wastewater treatment and networks, education, health services and productive investments that create jobs. This failure to meet commitments has led to persistent poverty; extreme poverty, together with extreme wealth, are the worst enemy of the environment.
Instead of implementing previous pledges, countries decided in 2000 to set new millennium development goals, to be achieved in 2015, only for other goals to be introduced under the flashy title of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with implementation date extended to 2030.
It is worthy to put clear rules linking environment to development, which was achieved at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, based on the fact that natural resources are the tools and raw materials for development. But 50 years after the establishment of the United Nations Environment Program as a defender of the global environment, some still use the slogan of Sustainable Development to place development over environment, and consider environmental protection an obstacle to the advancement of human race. This fundamentally contradicts the concept of sustainable development, as development programs cannot be sustained if they ignore irreparable environmental damages and losses.
The forthcoming meeting of UNEP’s General Assembly will be somewhat subdued, due to corona virus measures; this is certainly not how UNEP hoped to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. The general theme of the meeting is “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.” It focuses on protecting and reconfiguring natural resources to become a powerful tool for development, and embodying UNEP to better contribute to the achievement of the environmental content of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Perhaps UNEPʼs most prominent achievement during its past fifty years has been placing the environment on the popular, governmental and international agenda, and developing a legal framework through dozens of international agreements and treaties, from pollution and waste to seas, desertification, biodiversity and climate change. With the multiplicity of its tasks and organs, it was necessary to enhance its organizational structure and redefine its role and goals; this has often affected UNEP’s original identity and raison d’être.
UNEP was established in 1972 as an international agency within the framework of the United Nations, governed by a Board of Governors of 56 countries chosen in turn, and administered by a secretariat headed by an Executive Director, who is elected by the General Assembly, based on recommendation by the UN Secretary-General, after open nominations and consultations with member states. This differs from the Specialized Organizations, which are independent of the UN Secretariat and are directly governed by Member States, who elect their top executive.
UNEP succeeded in leading international environmental work during the term of its founder, Maurice Strong, between 1972 and 1974, and his successor Mustafa Kamal Tolba, whose term lasted for 18 years until 1992. The fact that the UN Secretary-General proposes the candidate for the position of Executive Director did not constitute an impediment to Strong and Tolba, who considered that their ultimate boss was the UN General Assembly, which elected them, together with UNEP’s Governing Council. Tolba always maintained that being a “program”, not an independent specialized organization, was appropriate for UNEPʼs mandate as a coordinating body for environmental work within the United Nations system. If it were an independent body, other international organizations and programs, responsible for development, health, agriculture, meteorology and education, for example, would reject UNEPʼs interference in their work. Tolba executed his full authority as head of the Environment Coordination Board, which constitutes of international agencies with environmental aspects in their work domains.
The situation began to change with Tolbaʼs departure in 1992. On one hand, the international development agencies began to scoop from UNEPʼs plate, following the Environment and Development summit in Rio. On the other hand, the new Executive Director, who came from an administrative position in the Canadian government, acted more as an employee of the UN Secretariat, rather than the head of an international body elected by states in the UN General Assembly. The two executive directors who came immediately after tried to restore UNEPʼs independence, attempting to turn it into an independent global environmental organization rather than a UN organ. In the absence of sufficient international support for these efforts, a compromise was reached in 2014, when the UN General Assembly approved replacing UNEP’s 56-state Governing Council with the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), which includes all UN member states. However, the policies pursued by UNEP management soon after that change backfired, as it resulted in transforming its image into a sort of a department within the UN Secretariat, instead of enhancing its independence. What accelerated this path was dropping the name UNEP in 2016 in favor of a new one ‘UN Environment’, a hybrid expression which robbed UNEP of its identity and wiped its memory. Recent efforts to rectify the consequences of this disastrous misjudgment were not strong enough.
Galvanizing international environmental action needs to reclaim the dedication, grace and leadership style of Maurice Strong and Mustafa Tolba. This is the only way to protect UNEP from the domination of international development and funding agencies.
Najib Saab is Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine