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Institutional Outcomes: Reforming the Institutions for Environment and Sustainable Development

The United Nations was created in 1945 without an environmental body. Almost 30 years later, in Stockholm, governments established UNEP as the anchor institution for the global environment, and, another 20 years later, they created the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. Ultimately, however, the need to reform the institutional architecture for environment and sustainable development became a political priority, as “ever-growing concern over sustainable development and the proliferation and fragmentation of environmental initiatives eroded the embracing mandate of UNEP for environmental governance.” Institutional reform was one of two top agenda items at Rio+20 and one of the conference's most signifi outcomes.

Rio+20 concluded a 15-year reform effort that had contemplated the need to change UNEP's institutional status from being a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly to being a specialized agency. UN specialized agencies—such as the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization—are autonomous bodies set up independently and linked to the United Nations through special agreements in accordance with Articles 57 and 63 of the UN Charter. They are established through the adoption and ratification of intergovernmental treaties, and membership is universal, meaning that any country can join. Specialized agencies do not receive any funding from the UN regular budget, and their budgets instead include mandatory financial contributions assessed according to a particular scale.

In contrast, subsidiary organs are created under Article 22 of the UN Charter to address emerging problems and issues in international economic, social, and humanitarian fields. They have various formal designations— programmes, funds, boards, committees, commissions—and governance structures. They are created through a UN General Assembly resolution, and membership is limited and geographically representative. Funding comes exclusively from voluntary contributions, although some subsidiary organs may receive a small portion of funding from the UN regular budget. Subsidiary organs work directly through the United Nations, which gives them access to UN administrative and security services as well as a direct relationship with other UN offices and subsidiary organs.

Although governments decided at Rio+20 to retain UNEP's formal status as a subsidiary organ, they did create a new institutional structure that combines some key attributes of a specialized agency while preserving the flexibility and advantages of a subsidiary organ. This approach offers several key advantages with regard to membership, mandate, financing, and delivery of services to stakeholders:

First, changing UNEP's governance structure gave it greater formal authority. With the creation of a new governing body comprising all UN member states—the United Nations Environment Assembly—UNEP became the only subsidiary organ in the United Nations with universal membership. Although, legally, UNEP always had the authority to engage with the UN system, governments, and civil society on environmental issues, in practice it had not always marshaled the clout necessary to command political attention and financial support, due in part to a legal mismatch in membership. With a limited membership of 58 states, UNEP faced challenges in claiming authority over global environmental conventions related to climate, biodiversity, etc. whose legal bodies, the Conferences of the Parties, comprised nearly all UN member states. Expanding UNEP's membership was a logical, feasible, and potentially effective legal measure to upgrade UNEP's institutional structure and authority.

Second, preserving UNEP's status as a subsidiary body allowed it to access greater, and more predictable, resources from the UN regular budget. One of the main arguments for transforming UNEP into a specialized agency was that this would help bring greater stability and predictability of financial resources. Rio+20, however, resulted in an innovative use of an existing financing source to serve the same function. Affirming the need for “secure, stable, adequate and predictable financial resources for UNEP,” the Rio+20 outcome document and subsequent General Assembly resolutions committed contributions from the UN regular budget to UNEP's core operational needs, in a manner that adequately reflects UNEP's administrative and management costs. Governments also acknowledged that the budgetary resources that UNEP receives should correspond to the scope of its program of work and pledged to increase their voluntary contributions.

Third, the review of UNEP's functions and mandate led to a recognition of the need to expand UNEP's role. Governments recognized that UNEP's engagement on the ground needed to be expanded so that it can play a greater role in helping countries build capacity and implement environmental commitments. Through these reforms, UNEP's role in global environmental governance evolved from a primarily normative role to an implementation role, as countries requested more comprehensive on-the-ground programs and greater regional and sub-regional presence from UNEP.

Fourth, UNEP was mandated to improve its delivery of a range of measures beneficial to diverse stakeholders. These measures, as outlined in the outcome document, included: promotion of a “strong science-policy interface” in order to allow for scientific input and assistance during global decision-making processes; dissemination of environmental information and raising of public awareness; delivery of capacity-building and technology access to developing countries; and engagement with nongovernmental actors (called “major groups and stakeholders” in the UN context) in a more effective, meaningful way.

All of this was accomplished without a lengthy treaty negotiation process that would have been required for changing UNEP's status to a specialized agency. Although a fair assessment of the effectiveness of these reforms can be undertaken only in the future, the reinforcement of UNEP's role as the leading global authority for the environment, and the political legitimacy conferred by all member states, are indicators of an improved, revitalized institution.

In the sustainable development fi ld, institutional reform resulted in the abolishment of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). The CSD fell short in fulfi ling its mandate to review national plans for sustainable development and to set an integrated agenda for the UN system, and it was unable to engage all UN agencies and bodies in considering environment and economic issues, as was envisioned at the 1992 Rio Summit. Analysts criticized the CSD as a “talk shop” that delivered few sustainable development outcomes. UN agencies and civil society observers noted that “the Commission progressively lost its lustre and its effectiveness” and that the CSD itself was unable to follow up and implement its own decisions.

Ultimately, the CSD failed in its core mission of integrating the three dimensions of sustainable development and did not produce the effective and timely global responses that were necessary. Through the CSD, however, multi-stakeholder dialogues became accepted UN practice, as the annual two-week sessions in New York brought together government officials and numerous other stakeholders to deliberate on issues such as forests, energy, water, and oceans. Although these sessions attracted mostly environmental officials rather than the envisioned cross-section of development, trade, environment, agriculture, energy, and foreign affairs ministers, they created a culture of engagement with civil society. As some observers point out, “without the Commission, sustainable development would not be at the stage of maturity where it is today” and the CSD was “instrumental in launching initiatives and introducing new topics into the intergovernmental debates.”

At Rio+20, governments decided to replace the CSD with a High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. The purpose of this new entity is to build on the work of the CSD and to follow up on the implementation of sustainable development. Starting in September 2013, the Forum aims to convene heads of state and government every four years at the UN General Assembly, as well as to convene ministers annually under the aegis of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The Forum's main goal is to provide political leadership for the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development. To this end, it is intended to work with UN agencies to support implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and to productively engage major groups and stakeholders.

Three main innovations characterize the new High-Level Political Forum: universal membership, greater visibility, and improved accountability. The Forum involves heads of state and government of all countries in the design and approval of sustainable development policies across governance levels. Starting in 2016, the Forum will conduct regular reviews of implementation of sustainable development commitments taken by states and UN agencies. Given that it is a newly established institution, the Forum's effectiveness and relevance will become apparent only in the next few years as it demonstrates its ability to engage member states to take action nationally and sister UN entities to take more coherent action internationally. Ultimately, the Forum will be judged by its successes in reducing the UN system's current fragmentation of environmental governance and in avoiding duplication of effort. More importantly, the Forum will have the important task of turning the principle of sustainable development into an actionable, concrete, and specific policy agenda.

The close relationship between the High-Level Political Forum and ECOSOC is not an accident: ECOSOC is one of the main bodies in the UN system tasked with shaping the economic and social development agenda and coordinating the activities of numerous agencies and funds. Although ECOSOC's involvement in the environmental field has not been very clear, at Rio+20, governments committed to strengthening its role in coordinating social, economic, and environmental policies across different institutions, thereby making it an important environmental player. The end result of the strengthening process of ECOSOC and the role of the Forum in helping it to advance the sustainable development agenda is not yet clear, and cooperation with environmental institutions such as UNEP will be key to providing a more coherent set of objectives and policies in the future.

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