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New Signals For A Global Climate Change Accord

 InDepth News 17 May 2019

(Originally published: 03/2010) A landmark conference in Indonesia has rekindled a momentous proposal for the establishment of a World Environment Organisation tabled at the UN General Assembly Special Session some thirteen years ago. (1595 words) - By Kamala Viswanathan

JAKARTA, Indonesia - A landmark conference in Indonesia has rekindled a momentous proposal for the establishment of a World Environment Organisation tabled at the UN General Assembly Special Session some thirteen years ago.

In a historic declaration, government ministers and senior officials from more than 135 countries gathered in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, pleaded for improving "the overall management of the global environment, accepting that that 'governance architecture' has in many ways become too complex and fragmented".

The revived proposal is identical with a key point in the June 1997 "declaration" for a Global Initiative on Sustainable Development issued by Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, South Africa's Deputy President Thabo M. Mbeki, and Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

They said "the establishment of a global environmental umbrella organization of the UN with UNEP (UN Environment Programme) as a major pillar should be considered." That joint Declaration had been spurred by a proposal at a Rio+5 Forum held earlier that year.

While that Declaration did not meet with enthusiasm at the UN Special Session, it energized longtime advocates of such a reform and catalyzed policymakers to acknowledge the need to think more systemically about the defects of global environmental institutions.

In the following four years, governments introduced some new institutions and initiated a dialogue about more fundamental changes. In September 2002 Johannesburg hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which followed up on the Special Session of 1997 and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, popularly known as the Earth Summit) of June 1992.

However, according to Steve Charnovitz, an associate professor of law at The George Washington University Law School, the idea of an international agency for the environment is by no means new. The attention to the environment in the early 1970s led some analysts to propose the establishment of new agencies. In a lead article in 'Foreign Affairs' in April 1970, George Kennan proposed an 'International Environmental Agency' as a first step toward the establishment of an 'International Environmental Authority'.

The most comprehensive proposal, says Charnovitz, was developed by U.S. legal expert Lawrence David Levien, who proposed a World Environmental Organisation modelled on the practice of the International Labour Organization (ILO) which was created in 1919. The establishment of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972 settled the organizational question although some observers at the time viewed it as unsatisfactory.


UNCED


It was not until a generation later, in the run-up to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro that dissatisfaction with UNEP and the seeming institutional change, sparked new proposals for a firmer structure of environmental governance.

The most important proposal came from Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand who advocated new methods of making environmental law, and called for action at the Rio Conference to establish a specialised UN agency for the environment.

Palmer proposed the creation of an 'International Environment Organization' borrowing loosely on the mechanisms of the ILO. He saw an opportunity for a "beneficial restructuring" of the world's environmental institutions, that "would involve cutting away existing overlaps in international agencies."

No such action was taken at the Rio Conference which instead called for the creation of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and for "an enhanced and strengthened role for UNEP and its Governing Council" as manifested in Agenda 21.

Within a few years, new support for institutional change came from a different direction, the international debate on "trade and the environment" which had been revitalised in 1990 and was in full swing by 1993.

Both camps in this debate saw the weak state of the environment regime as a problem. The environmentalists yearned for an international agency that could stand up to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which they saw as a threat to environmental measures.

The trade camp wondered whether a better environment regime might spur the use of appropriate instruments for environmental protection rather than inappropriate instruments such as discriminatory trade measures.


IMPORTANT STEP

Viewed against this backdrop the proposal emerging from the gathering in Nusa Dua is significant.

The wide-ranging Nusa Dua Declaration, agreed February 26 in the closing session of the UN Environment Programme's Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum, underlines the vital importance of biodiversity, the urgent need to combat climate change and work towards a good outcome in Mexico (November 29 to December 10) and the key opportunities from accelerating a transition to a low-carbon resource-efficient Green Economy.

The Nusa Dua made an important step forward in the areas of chemicals, hazardous wastes and human health. Governments agreed at an Extraordinary Meeting to have more cooperative action by the three relevant treaties -- the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions -- as a first step to boosting their delivery within countries.

UNEP executive director Achim Steiner said: "The ministers responsible for the environment, meeting just over a month after the climate change conference in Copenhagen, have spoken with a clear, united and unequivocal voice."

"Faced with the continued erosion of the natural environment, the persistent and emerging challenges of chemical pollution and wastes and the overarching challenge of issues such as climate change, the status quo is not an option and change is urgently needed," he added.

"This change starts with recognition that the way we are managing the environmental dimension of sustainable development is currently too complex and fragmented. Change is needed here and the ministers signalled their determination to realize this through a political process," said Steiner.

"But the ministers also recognized that action towards a Green Economy -- one able to meet multiple challenges and seize multiple opportunities -- is taking route in economies across the globe. Accelerating this is a key element of the Nusa Dua Declaration and one that can direct future action towards realizing the kinds of transitions needed on a planet of six billion people, rising to nine billion by 2050," he added.

The Declaration, the first by world environment ministers since they met in Malmö, Sweden in 2000, will be transmitted to the UN General Assembly later this year. There governments will begin preparations for a landmark conference in Brazil, called Rio plus 20.

Rio plus 20 will be held two decades after the first Rio Earth Summit in June 1992, which gave birth to many of the key treaties, ranging from climate change to biodiversity, which to date have defined the international response to environmental challenges.


LAME DUCK

The 'Nusa Dua Declaration' comes at a point in time when the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) is being threatened by erosion of its global competence because of the marginal outcome of the Copenhagen climate change conference and the surprise decision of the Convention's executive secretary Yvo de Boer to step down on July 1, 2019.

De Boer announced the decision on February 18, two months after the 15th conference of parties (COP15) to the UNFCCC in the Danish capital was wrecked by a conflict of divergent interests of the highly industrialised, emerging and developing economies.

As a result, the UNFCCC secretariat in Bonn has been reduced to a lame duck - and this in run-up to two important negotiating sessions planned in the coming months ahead of COP16 November 29 to December 10 in Mexico.

The first of the two meetings will take place April 9-11 and the 32nd session of the UNFCCC Convention subsidiary bodies from May 31 to June 11.

Obviously keen to correct the 'lame duck' image, the climate change secretariat quoted its outgoing executive secretary in a press release on February 23: "Following the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, this constitutes a quick return to the negotiations."

De Boer, who has expressed his preference for an Indonesia, to take up his job, added: "The decision to intensify the negotiating schedule underlines the commitment by governments to move the negotiations forward towards success in Cancun (which will host COP16). This is further strengthened by the fact that the number of countries that have written to the secretariat with their country communications since Copenhagen has now exceeded a landmark one hundred."

Forty developed country Parties have so far submitted to the secretariat information on their 2020 emission cut targets, with various base years. These Parties represent around 90 percent of emissions from this group of Parties.

Thirty developing country Parties have also communicated information on their mitigation plans. In addition, another thirty-nine Parties have provided additional information regarding the Accord. Together, all these countries represent well over 80 percent of global energy emissions, the statement said.

Nevertheless, UN's climate top official is convinced that a new climate treaty is unlikely to be agreed this year, because there is no time for both rich and poor countries to recover from last December's failed Copenhagen summit.

In a news agency interview, De Boer said more time was needed to set up framework for mitigation steps as well as financial and climate change aid that can persuade developing countries to support a new deal. The main priority is, he added, to rebuild confidence and trust in the process.

Developing countries need to be convinced that "there are incentives that will allow them to act on climate change but also meet national economic development goals", he said. "Only after that, countries can be expected to sign up."

De Boer said the focus should be shifted toward reaching an agreement at the 2011 summit in South Africa, a year before the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012.

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