U.N. Summit Will Push for a More Powerful Global Environmental Agency

May 24, 2012 - 4:10 AM

U.N. Environment Program

The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) has its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: UNEP)

(CNSNews.com) – Ahead of a mammoth United Nations sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro next month, the Brazilian government has signaled a new push to get the U.N.’s top environmental body upgraded – a push long opposed by the United States.

Brazil wants to breathe new life into an initiative -- vigorously promoted since the 1990s by European leaders -- to replace the 40 year-old U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) with a full-fledged “specialized agency,” dubbed the U.N. Environment Organization (UNEO).

Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira told a press briefing last Friday that the issue was a priority for her government, but she acknowledged that “there is no consensus in international organizations on the proposal to create an environment agency” during the summit, known as Rio+20.

“We are working hard looking for the best way to achieve this,” she said.

In what the U.N.’s Division for Sustainable Development says will be the biggest conference ever organized by the U.N., around 50,000 people, including some 135 heads of state and government (or deputies) will take part in the June 20-22 event.

During an earlier briefing, Brazilian Rio+20 organizer Luiz Alberto Figueiredo said his government believed that “UNEP should be strengthened as an environmental pillar, because in its present condition it is incapable of adequately carrying out its task.”

A pre-Rio+20 report this year by a global sustainability panel set up by U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon included among its 50-plus recommendations one calling for UNEP to be strengthened – “an idea that has gained support in recent years, accompanied by a number of institutional options.”

“One option is the possible transformation of UNEP into a specialized agency of the United Nations. A strengthened UNEP could enhance coherence between relevant multilateral environmental agreements, and better integrate its work with the activities of development institutions, especially the United Nations Development Program,” it said.

A “program” is a lesser entity than an “agency” in the U.N. hierarchy, with the latter enjoying more power, more autonomy – and more funding.

Specialized agencies – such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – are funded through “assessed contributions” by member states, calculated based on factors such as national income and gross domestic product. The U.S. is assessed at 22 percent, by far the biggest share. (The second and third biggest contributors are Japan and Germany, at 12.5 and 8.02 percent respectively.)

In contrast, programs like the Nairobi-based UNEP rely almost entirely on “voluntary” funding.

According to the most recent Office of Management and Budget report to Congress on U.S. contributions to the U.N., American taxpayers accounted for $22.9 million directed to UNEP in 2010 – or 9.8 percent of its total funding. That sum included “voluntary” contributions from the Departments of Commerce, Interior and State, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA.

UNEO proponents argue that UNEP is weak, underfunded and underperforming. “It was created in 1972,” then French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a 2007 speech, “in a very different context from today’s.”

Opposing the European-led drive, the U.S. has long argued that the focus should be on improving UNEP rather than upgrading it to specialized agency status. Also, the Bush administration in general opposed U.N.-mandated restrictions on nation states of the type likely to emanate from a more powerful global environmental agency.

“We remain firm in our view that the principal responsibility for environmental governance should lay with national governments, not with a supranational authority,” U.S. diplomat Michael Snowden told a U.N. meeting on the subject back in 2006.

In a 2007 appeal called the “Paris Call for Action,” Chirac called for “massive international action to face the environmental crisis,” including the creation of a UNEO.

“We are coming to realize that the entire planet is at risk, that the well-being, health, safety, and very survival of humankind hangs in the balance,” he said.

“We call for the transformation of the UNEP into a genuine international organization to which all countries belong, along the lines of the World Health Organization.”

Chirac said the initiative was supported by 46 countries, mostly European but also developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia (The number has more than doubled since.) They excluded the U.S., Russia, and major fast-developing economies China, India – and at that time, Brazil.

Chirac was speaking in the context of the release by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of a series of reports declaring that global warming was “very likely” man-made and that its effects would continue for centuries.

(The IPCC, which was itself established by UNEP and another U.N. body in 1988, was later forced to retract an assertion in its 2007 reports stating that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035.)

Last year the Obama administration signed up to another new environmental organization, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Although it is not a U.N. agency – yet – IRENA members’ contributions are based on the same formula used to fund the U.N., so U.S. taxpayers provide 22 percent of the budget.