A world organization for an equitable green economy

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012
One take on a World Environment Organisation logo

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 recognizing 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 recognize 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.

The most challenging issue to be discussed is the creation of the proposed World Environment Organization (WEO) — a new UN body that will anchor global efforts for the environment.

Developing countries disenfranchised

The phrase 'world organization', 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 specialized 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 organization 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 organizations 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 realized that the operators of the system are the global institutions — and they are skewed in favor 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.

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