History sometimes speaks loudest in silence, as on June 5, 2022, in Nairobi. Across continents, riverbanks cracked with thirst from unprecedented droughts, glaciers crashed into heaving oceans, and at dusk, the sun descended on another day of muted climate catastrophe. Outside the United Nations’ offices, the wind’s quiet sighs fluttered a legion of flags, only a few UN delegates marking the 50th birthday of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Founded in 1972, UNEP has achieved far beyond what could have reasonably been expected of it. One of the UN’s most sparsely funded programmes (500m USD per annum), the organisation has led the way to crucial environmental successes such as the Montreal Protocol and Minamata Convention. With the climate crisis a far greater beast than imagined fifty years ago, it’s time to transition to something greater.
Currently, no overarching international organisation manages and enforces climate commitments. While much work is being done in environmental politics, it is generally ad hoc, uncoordinated, and with few penalties for non-compliance. A World Environment Organisation (WEO) is required for many reasons. Primarily, WEO is needed to combat one of the greatest deficiencies underpinning our global environmental failure: coordination.
Although greater international and cross-sector collaboration is called for at almost every climate conference, environmental policymaking remains task-specific. Indeed, there are many benefits to combatting the environmental crisis through targeted mechanisms focused on key, specialised issues. For a political problem as technical and multifarious as climate change, a one-size model cannot work. However, while issues are located within distinct boundaries, e.g., biodiversity, climate change, etc., the significant overlap between crises requires consolidation of efforts. A WEO could combine existing efforts under one mandate, allowing for knowledge sharing and collaboration to the extent impossible under current decentralised models.
Frequently, stagnation occurs not because of a lack of political will but institutional obstacles. At the Berlin Climate and Security Conference I attended in early October, experts repeatedly insisted that structural barriers are preventing essential work from being completed. Sibi Lawson-Marriot, a Senior Regional Advisor to the World Food Programme in East and Central Africa, noted that food insecurity in many areas she is working in is caused by climate change. However, her organisation is unable to work on mitigation. For example, Lawson-Marriot recently applied for a UN grant to combat deforestation in Senegal that was rejected because deforestation falls under the jurisdiction of development, not climate. With deforestation playing a critical role in carbon absorption, biodiversity protection, and other evident climate change spheres, its relegation to sectors with other, often contradictory institutional priorities means that the necessary work isn’t happening. This and many similar situations indicate a system unable to facilitate environmental governance.
Climate change prevention has yet to be unified into one institutional structure, meaning that efforts in adaptation, prevention, and associated challenges rely on the residual funds of other (often cash-strapped) sectors like humanitarian aid and development. Environment-specific organisations, like UNEP, are not structured to cope with these issues. Unlike organisations such as the Global Environmental Fund (GEF), a WEO could integrate climate change efforts into the international legislative architecture, taking a position among the top global governing bodies.
A World Environment Organisation could harmonise these efforts under one dedicated umbrella, enabling cross-sectoral coordination, clear pathways to climate financing, and systemisation of effective solutions. In the medium term, organisations like UNEP, the GEF, and others could be streamlined into a WEO with superior powers, coordinating the knowledge and expertise they have developed over the decades.
This will not be easy. In a multipolar world, with sparking tensions between large countries vying for power, it is often argued that the kind of collaboration necessary to pull something of this scope off is impossible. Arguments against the creation of WEO are invariably founded on this one position, that an entity of this calibre cannot be pulled off. I admit that a project of this ambition contains many substantial challenges that will be difficult to overcome. Collaboration among nations, especially today, is difficult, as is enforcement. These are among the reasons UNEP has been insufficient. At the same time, it is only the most cynical among us that conflate the question of can we with must we. The answer to the latter to be clear, and the former must follow accordingly. Moreover, I am dubious of the reservation that creating a workable World Environment Organisation is too mighty a task for our international system. For all its flaws, moral misgivings, and veiled reproductions of power, the course of international institutional history has largely been positive. We must not gamble our future on anaemic imaginations and the misgivings of cynics.
Sinéad is a Master of Public Policy student at the Hertie School, who served as the Governance Post’s editor-in-chief in 2021-2022. Working in the climate security sector, she is interested in post-colonial studies, gender equality, and the relationship between climate change and conflict. Sinéad holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Philosophy from Trinity College Dublin, where she specialised in creative writing. Sinéad has worked as a freelance journalist since 2018 and loves reading, music, and wearing very large earrings.
Views expressed by the author(s) do not represent the Hertie School.