Towards an effective system of global environmental governance

The system of global environmental governance is characterised by fragmentation and lack of funding. In order to cope effectively with current challenges the global environmental governance system needs institutional reform and a sound and transparent financial mechanism.

Is the current system of global environmental governance (GEG) fit for purpose? The steady stream of bleak environmental reports would suggest otherwise. And indeed, progress has been slow on many of the most pressing global environmental problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, fresh water, transboundary pollutants and deforestation. The current inability to stop these negative trends is particularly worrisome for the poorest countries and people who are likely to be affected disproportionately by a deteriorating global environment. For anybody interested in international development it is thus justified to take a closer look at the current system of GEG and to look for possible improvements. In the following, I shall briefly outline the main features of the current system of GEG and then present two concrete proposals for change.

Global environmental governance can be understood as the sum of organizations, policy instruments, financing mechanisms, rules, procedures and norms that regulate the processes of global environmental protection (Najam et al. 2006). GEG started to emerge in the late 1960s and has developed rapidly since then. Today the system of GEG is characterized by a broad range of international institutions that are involved in one form or another in the management of the global environment. The United Nations Environment Management Group (UNEMG) counts over forty different organisations as its members. Besides the large number of international institutions concerned with the environment, an ever increasing number of multilateral environmental agreements have been devised to regulate global environmental problems. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP 2001) estimates that currently over 500 such agreements are in effect. Many of these agreements have their own secretariats and funding mechanism, which adds to the institutional complexity of the current GEG system. And of course, GEG suffers from the same problem as many other public goods - the lack of funding. This lack of funding is further aggravated by the absence of a transparent mechanism of financing for the global environment.

The complex architecture of the current institutional framework of GEG and the hitherto inability to reverse many of the negative environmental trends clearly suggests a need for reform. In the run-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 a vivid reform debate has started. One of the most promising ideas in the current debate is the suggestion to establish a World Environment Organization (WEO). Most proponents of this idea suggest building such an organization on the currently weak UNEP (see for example Charnovitz 2005). The purpose of a WEO would be to bring the myriad of environmental treaties and some of the existing international environmental institutions under one umbrella organization. This, so it is believed, would strengthen the coordination between existing initiatives and improve negotiation, decision making and implementation of future environmental policies. Furthermore, such a partial centralization of the currently fragmented system of GEG would strengthen the position of environmental concerns in other areas of global governance such as international trade and development.

The need for reform of the current system of GEG becomes especially salient when we consider the challenge posed by climate change. Climate change now represents the most serious of all global environmental threats. It confronts mankind with two herculean tasks. First, how can we achieve a rapid transition to a low-carbon world economy? And second, how can we assure that the world adapts to the consequences of climate change that can no longer be avoided? The current institutional framework, with the Kyoto Protocol as its centrepiece, is not sufficient to achieve either of the two tasks.

More recently the idea of a global carbon tax as an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol has emerged. Joseph Stiglitz (2006) is one of the proponents of such a tax. A global carbon tax would establish a transparent mechanism for financing the cost of climate change based on the simple idea that we should put a direct financial cost to what is bad for the environment. Like the Kyoto Protocol, a global carbon tax would face the problem that it can only be effective if all major CO2 polluters participate, including the United States and China. The advantage of a global carbon tax over the Kyoto Protocol is, however, that it would generate significant funds. These funds could be channelled towards research into clean technologies and to help developing countries to prepare for climate change. Such an arrangement could win over much needed political support from developing countries to effectively address climate change.

It is clear that tackling climate change and stopping the many other negative environmental trends will need an effective system of global environmental governance and a sound and transparent financial mechanism. Connecting the proposal for a global carbon tax with that of a World Environmental Organization could provide the basis for an effective future system of global environmental governance. A strong WEO directly funded through a global carbon tax might well be the institutional arrangement that is needed to overcome the problems of fragmentation and underfunding that are characteristic of the current system. Of course, many questions about the political feasibility and the practical arrangements of a WEO and a global carbon tax remain to be discussed. But a clear vision for reforming the existing system of global environmental governance is the first step towards change.

Najam, A. et al. (2006) Global Environmental Governance - A Reform Agenda, International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Available at: http://www.iisd.org/pdf/2006/geg.pdf .

Stiglitz, J. (2006) "A New Agenda for Global Warming," The Economists' Voice, Vol. 3, Iss. 7, Article 3. Available at: http://www.bepress.com/ev/vol3/iss7/art3 .

UNEP (2001) International Environmental Governance: Report of the Executive Director, Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environmental Programme. Available at: http://www.un.org/ga/president/60/summitfollowup/010404.pdf .

Charnovitz, S. (2005) “A World Environment Organization,” in Chambers, W.B. and Green, J. (eds.) Reforming international environmental governance: From institutional limits to innovative reforms, Tokyo: United Nations University Press. An earlier version is available at: http://www.unu.edu/inter-linkages/docs/IEG/Charnovitz.pdf

Robert Moosbrugger

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