U.N. Global Environmental Program Gets a Boost at ‘Rio+20’ Conference

By Patrick Goodenough | June 19, 2012 | 4:25 AM EDT

The Rio+20 conference is attracting demonstrations by activists drawing attention to a range of issues, like these Brazilians protesting their government's environmental policies, in Rio de Janeiro on Monday June 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

(CNSNews.com) – A push to strengthen the powers of the U.N. Environment Program may be a key accomplishment of the United Nations sustainability conference underway in Rio de Janeiro this week.

The move appears, however, to fall short of upgrading UNEP from a “program” to a “specialized agency,” a promotion up the U.N. hierarchy long proposed by European countries but opposed by the United States. Specialized agencies wield more power and receive more funding than programs do.

As host government of the “Rio+20” event, Brazil has taken the lead in efforts to hammer out a consolidated text, to be endorsed when heads of state arrive later this week for the high-level segment of the conference. (President Obama is not attending; the U.S. delegation will be led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

Briefing the media, Brazilian foreign ministry spokesman Luiz Alberto Figueiredo said the future of the Nairobi, Kenya-based UNEP was “one of the areas that has advanced the most.”

“We have a text which, if not totally agreed upon, is almost there,” he said, speaking through a translator. “It talks about how we, collectively, want to strengthen UNEP.

“There is a description of the functions of UNEP and the [financial] means that it will have,” he said. “With that, we are collectively sending a very strong signal that UNEP is going to evolve.”

Figueiredo said it remained to be seen whether the evolved UNEP would become a U.N. agency.

But the text, he said, “deals with what is important – which is the strengthening of UNEP. In case in the future we decide to create an agency, the text adopted here is totally pertinent – as it deals with things that are valid for UNEP as a program, or as an agency.”

As a U.N. program, UNEP relies on “voluntary” funding. Specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization, like the U.N. itself, are financed through “assessed contributions” from member states, with the U.S. contribution set at 22 percent of the total budget, the highest of any country by far.

U.S. taxpayers in 2010 accounted for 9.8 per cent of UNEP’s total funding, in “voluntary” contributions channelled through the Departments of Commerce, Interior and State, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA.

The text drafted in Rio calls for UNEP’s financial situation to be strengthened, although it is unclear at this point exactly what this will entail.

“We agree to strengthen the capacity of UNEP to fulfill its mandate by establishing universal membership in its governing council and call for significantly increasing its financial base to deepen policy coordination and enhance means of implementation,” the draft reads.

(The other part of the proposal would open the UNEP’s governing council to all member states, Currently it has 58 members, elected by the U.N. General Assembly for four-year terms.)

Since the 1990s, European governments have been pushing to have the 40 year-old UNEP turned into an agency, which proponents have dubbed the U.N. Environment Organization (UNEO). When he launched the drive in 2007, then French President Jacques Chirac warned that “the entire planet is at risk … and very survival of humankind hangs in the balance.”

Rio+20 – so called because it marks the 20th anniversary of the U.N. “Earth Summit” in the same city – has breathed new life into the campaign. A report by a “global sustainability” panel, set up by U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to pave the way for the conference, included UNEP upgrading among its recommendations.

“One option is the possible transformation of UNEP into a specialized agency of the United Nations,” the report stated. “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.”

The U.S. has long opposed the European-led initiative, pushing for UNEP to be improved rather than promoted to specialized agency status.

A Bush administration diplomat told a U.N. meeting on the issue in 2006, “We remain firm in our view that the principal responsibility for environmental governance should lay with national governments, not with a supranational authority.”

This week’s gathering in Rio is the latest in a long string of environment-themed mega-conferences organized by the U.N. around the world, and drawing tens of thousands of participants. Others include climate change conferences in Durban, South Africa last year, in Cancun, Mexico in 2010, in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009 – and going back each year to Berlin, Germany in 1995 – as well as “Rio+10” in Johannesburg, South Africa a decade ago.

On Monday, Rio+20 spokeswoman Pragati Pascale told a briefing Monday 34,901 passes had been issued for the conference thus far, including 9,422 for delegations and thousands more for non-governmental organization representatives, media and others.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow