EU leaders eye stronger UN role to police the environment

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European leaders on Friday (2 March) could throw their weight behind a plan to convert the relatively powerless UN Environment Programme (UNEP) into a world body with the muscle to oversee treaties and protect the ecology.

European Commission and EU member state officials yesterday mapped out their goals for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development taking place in Rio de Janeiro in June, 20 years after the landmark Rio Earth Summit.

The European Parliament’s environment committee, which organised the hearing, is keen to give the EU a resonant voice – and a united one – on shaping the agenda at Rio.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the opportunities that we have,” said Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch liberal MEP who is the panel’s vice president. “A lot of international environmental negotiations are paralysed, and this is the right moment … to really make some steps ahead and try to seriously improve the international institutional framework.”

“The coming European Council is a huge opportunity for the European Union to show that it takes Rio+20 extremely seriously,” Gerbrandy said of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The conference takes place 20-22 June.

Push for a world environnmental organisation

Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik backs a move – supported by French President Nicolas Sarkozy – that would create a global environmental organisation, with greater firepower to oversee and enforce ecological treaties.

The reforms would put the current agency on par with bodies like the World Health and World Trade organisations, although the proposal is nothing new – the UNEP was created 40 years ago as a compromise to a more far-reaching organisation.

The draft conclusions for this week’s summit of EU national leaders do not specifically refer to the UNEP, but call for a “strengthened global institutional framework for sustainable development which should include a strengthened environmental dimension.”

In October, the Council of Environment Ministers also said the Rio outcome “should include a green economy roadmap with specific goals, objectives and actions at international level as well as a  package of reforms, which includes the upgrading of UNEP, leading to a strengthened international environmental governance.”

One Brussels diplomat told EURACTIV that Europe's ambition at Rio was to adopt "a timetable" for setting a UN environment agency, with wider powers than the current UNEP.

The agency would watch over all existing environmental treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol, the Montreal Protocol and other international accords.

"There are 500 of them. Not all have a secretariat but there are 500 legal bases and a large number of structures," the diplomat pointed out. "So there should be more consistency between these various agreements."

One of the suggestions is to streamline the various bodies advising the UN on environmental matters – such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) on biodiversity.

A 'voice for the planet'

"We have worked for years to establish a kind of IPCC on biodiversity but we will not repeat this for every subject matter," the diplomat explained, saying a number of cross-cutting analyses could be done by a single UN scientific panel.

"This would allow having a complete view of the environmental situation in each country," the diplomat said. "It would also allow identify synergies or contradictions between different environmental objectives."

Europeans are hoping that the rationalisation of UN bodies will appeal to countries like the United States or Canada, which are among the most sceptical when it comes to environmental issues and international organisations. In turn, the new UN agency and its scientific panel could be given more resources "precisely because it would bring savings elsewhere," the argument goes. 

This would give environmental issues more credibility and legitimacy at global level – a so-called 'voice for the planet'.

No easy ride to Rio

But even if EU leaders bless the idea, the proposal faces a very uncertain road ahead.

Brazil's chief negotiator at Rio+20, André Corrêa do Lago, told journalists in New York recently that his country would not support a world environmental organisation.

And it is unlikely in a heated election year that President Barack Obama would warmly back such a move. He would face almost certain resistance from opposition Republicans, who have traditionally taken a dim view of the United Nations and last year sought to block money for the UN’s scientific body on climate change. The US provides 22% of the UN’s budget.

At the European level, not all member states show the same level of enthusiasm for setting up a reinforced world environmental organisation.

The diplomatic source said Britain, Sweden and Denmark have shown the greatest reluctance to the idea. Their fear is that a new, more inclusive UN body with broader responsibilities on issues such as technology transfers would redistribute the balance of power between industrialised countries and the developing world.

African countries, for their part, are seen as broadly favourable, partly because the new UN agency is likely to be based in Nairobi, Kenya – the current UNEP home – and partly because they see their own interest in terms of international aid.

"There are a hundred countries now favourable to the idea, which does not mean the remaining hundred will be easy to persuade. But we are no longer a handful of rich European countries asking for this," the diplomat said.

Broader EU agenda

Meanwhile, Europe hopes to move ahead with other topics at Rio, including backing initiatives to prove universal energy access through investments in renewable energy, and pumping more development aid into ensuring water access.

There is also emerging consensus on pushing other nations to set targets on resource efficiency and waste reduction.

In addition, the European Commission is proposing a realignment of development assistance to boost renewable energy and sustainable growth that are amongst the focus topics on the emerging Rio agenda.

Positions

“The European Union position has been that the environment pillar of the sustainable development governance is weak and fragmented, and that the United Nations Environmental Programme should be upgraded into a fully fledged United Nations Institutions,” said Timo Makela, head of international affairs at the European Commission's environment directorate.

Speaking before the European Parliament’s environmental committee, he also said other organisations - including financing - need to be revamped to address the need for sustainable development.

The European Council of EU heads of states underlined its support for an ambitious outcome at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in draft conclusions for the 1-2 March summit. It stressed the need for a strong participation from the private sector and civil society at the Conference, and it set out some key principles that will guide the EU in its preparations, according to draft conclusions: 

  • “The Conference should advance the global transition towards a green economy, thus promoting environmental protection, contributing to poverty eradication and stimulating low carbon and resource-efficient growth;
  • "It should work towards clear operational targets and concrete actions at national and international level within agreed time frames;
  • "It should promote a strengthened global institutional framework for sustainable development which should include a strengthened environmental dimension;
  • "It should advance the work on global and coherent post-2015 goals for sustainable development, also having regard to the review process of the Millennium Development Goals.”

Background

The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development - or 'Rio+20' – is being held exactly two decades after a landmark international conference in Rio de Janeiro.

Nicknamed the 'Earth Summit', the 1992 conference agreed a plan of action (Agenda 21) and a declaration setting out the principles underpinning sustainable development.

A follow-up meeting 10 years later in Johannesburg recognised that fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume were essential to achieving global sustainable development. All governments were invited to promote sustainable consumption and production and a plan to reinforce the implementation of the Agenda 21 was adopted.

Hosted by Brazil, the 2012 summit will seek to secure a renewed commitment to sustainable development and assess progress made over the past two decades.

Timeline

  • 1-2 March: EU leadership summit
  • 9 March: Environment Council to flesh out EU stance for Rio
  • 20-22 June: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
 

Further Reading

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