UNEP at 50: what has the world’s ‘environmental conscience’ achieved?

As the UN Environment Programme reaches its 50th anniversary, we review its successes and shortcomings and how to strengthen its role in an era of deepening environmental crises.

A night view of the flags of the UN's member states at the "Allée des Drapeaux" at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Image: UN Geneva, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

The 1960s and early 1970s were critical times for the environment in industrialised countries. The public, and some politicians, had woken up to the global threat of oil spills, acid rain and wildlife extinctions, with 20 million people across the US attending the first Earth Day rallies in 1970. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were formed, and environmental protection agencies were established in the US, Sweden and Germany. 

The UN had taken up the environment as an issue in 1968 with a report by the UN secretary-general U Thant, which warned: “If current trends continue, life on Earth could be endangered.” It called for the UN to hold a Conference on the Human Environment, which took place in Stockholm in June 1972. 

This landmark meeting placed the environment on the global agenda for the first time, with the Stockholm Declaration marking the start of a dialogue between industrialised and developing countries on the link between economic growth, pollution and human wellbeing. 

It also led directly to the formation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with a remit to monitor the state of the environment, inform policymaking with science, and coordinate responses to the world’s environmental challenges. More than 100 countries initially signed up, and membership has since grown to 193. 

Global cooperation 

The organisation got to work quickly: the first meeting of its governing council in 1973 resulted in the Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (known as MARPOL), which imposed strict rules on industry to prevent spills; and the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulated trade in more than 38,000 animals and plants. 

A notable early issue taken up by UNEP was damage to the ozone layer – the thin shield that protects humans and the environment from harmful levels of ultraviolet radiation from the sun – caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration and aerosol sprays. Its work led to the Montreal Protocol, which regulates the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances, and is to date the only UN treaty that all 198 UN member states have ratified. 

The weakness of UNEP is not UNEP. It is the inability of governments to internalise the science really clearly with laser focus to work out what needs to be done and move the dial forward.

Nick Nuttall, director, We Don’t Have Time


As a result, the ozone layer is projected to recover by mid-century, and some 2 million people each year have been saved from skin cancer, according to UNEP. Tackling the ozone crisis is “perhaps UNEP’s most successful achievement”, according to Maria Ivanova, director of the US-based Center for Governance and Sustainability and author of The Untold Story of the World’s Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at Fifty (2021).

In that book she wrote: “The institution effectively deployed all of its functions – scientific assessment, policy development, and coordination of actions across the UN system and across governments – and its leadership committed fully to addressing this global problem. It developed the capacity – human, institutional, and financial – connected to the relevant constituencies, and gained authority as it delivered a solution.” 

UNEP was also responsible, along with the World Meteorological Organisation, for forming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 to comprehensively review the science on climate change and make recommendations for a possible future international agreement to tackle the problem. 

This had not been specifically requested by governments, according to Nick Nuttall, director of We Don’t Have Time, a review platform for climate solutions, and a former spokesperson at UNEP. “UNEP had the courage to say what was needed,” he says. Moments like this show that despite being a small organisation, UNEP has been bold when it needed to be, he adds. 

The IPCC’s process was a “whole new way of doing science”, according to Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund. Through it, working groups of the world’s leading scientists write reports, with politicians allowed to suggest edits for the summary report. Statements on scientific knowledge in the report are given degrees of confidence based on the opinions and research of the scientists. 

“It’s a very clever way of saying that this is as close to capturing the state of scientific knowledge as possible, given that we don’t know everything yet,” says Steer. “The IPCC has been very influential.” In 2012, UNEP established the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to coordinate science on biodiversity loss in a similar way. 

High-quality science produced by UNEP has been the organisation’s major contribution to the environmental campaign sector, according to Paul Johnston, principal scientist at Greenpeace. “It’s been really hugely successful in informing both the scientific community, but also the wider world, and creating that huge environmental awareness in the public consciousness.”

UNEP’s work has led to 15 multilateral agreements on the environment. As well as CITES, these include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

Most recently, governments meeting in early 2022 at the UN Environment Assembly – the successor to UNEP’s Governing Council – agreed to launch negotiations on an international and legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. UNEP’s executive director, Inger Andersen, called this the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015.

The move was a “major breakthrough”, according to Stephen Stec, senior fellow and lead researcher on environment and democracy at the Central European University. However, such big developments are “a little bit few and far between”, he notes. “People talking about the atmosphere when this was announced compared it to the Montreal Protocol, which was now many years ago.”

UNEP’s influence

Commentators’ praise of UNEP is tempered by acknowledgements that, despite its achievements, the world’s environment has continued to be degraded at an alarming rate. However, many believe this is more down to the failure of governments to act on UNEP’s scientific findings and advice than a failure of UNEP itself. 

Politics is still very “schizophrenic” on environmental issues, Nuttall says, pointing to how governments can simultaneously work on decarbonisation targets and boost fossil fuel production. 

“The weakness of UNEP is not UNEP. It is the inability of governments to internalise the science really clearly with laser focus to work out what needs to be done and move the dial forward,” he says.

Ivanova mirrors this view in her book, saying: “With the dichotomy between economic growth and environmental protection deeply lodged in the outlook of individuals and governments worldwide, UNEP has been close to powerless to change behaviour considerably, and its achievements have been hard-won.”

Some believe that UNEP was set up to be weak from the start, in particular with the choice of Kenya for its headquarters. The East African nation had lobbied strongly to host the new organisation on the basis that the developing world needed a stronger voice in UN activities. 

At the time, its win had been seen as a major coup, as the first time a developing country would host a UN organisation. However, many believe that the lack of reliable connectivity in terms of communications and infrastructure limited its effectiveness in the early years. 

These constraints in turn led to difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff, according to Ivanova. As a result “its visibility suffered, and its credibility diminished”, she wrote. Furthermore, the location did not by itself lead to greater input from developing countries, with only 36 per cent having diplomatic missions in Nairobi, even 50 years after UNEP’s creation, she noted. 

Nuttall believes that developed countries that did not initially want to see UNEP created would have been “pleased as punch” when it was located on the east coast of Africa. Though Kenya’s communications infrastructure has vastly improved in the past 20 years, “it was really tough at the beginning for UNEP to really have any impact”, he says. 

UNEP’s budget has also constrained its effectiveness. The bulk of the organisation’s finance comes from a mixture of contributions by governments based on the size of their economies, known as UNEP’s Environment Fund, and donations for particular projects or “earmarked contributions”.

Over the years, the proportion coming from the Environment Fund has declined. In 1972, the fund was expected to receive US$100 million a year, and grow over time, according to Ivanova’s book. However, in 2021, it received $78.5 million, representing 15 per cent of UNEP’s total income, according to UNEP itself. More than 90 per cent of this came from 15 countries, with the Netherlands, France and Germany the organisation’s top donors. 

Though UNEP’s budget has increased overall, the fact that most of it comes from donors that have particular projects in mind – with strings attached ­– has made it challenging for the organisation to set its own priorities, and increased unpredictability year-to-year, Ivanova says. “This is not an institutional design issue, rather it reflects the changes in global attention to environmental concerns,” she writes. 

In its medium-term strategy to 2025, adopted last year, UNEP acknowledges that securing higher contributions to the Environment Fund, as well as funding that is “only softly earmarked”, will be “indispensable” for UNEP to bring about tangible results on its priorities of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. 

Future vision

UNEP’s 50th anniversary, which will be marked by a two-day event in Stockholm, Sweden, prompts the question of what its next 50 years could hold. 

Stec believes that UNEP could have a role in promoting better global standards on corporate behaviour and accountability in terms of the environment, in the same way as the UN Human Rights Council has on human rights. 

The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) could also have a role in holding member states to account for their treatment of the environment, with UNEP acting as a secretariat to gather information and compile reports to refer to UNEA to take action. 

Nuttall would like to see member states step up more resources for UNEP to overcome the limitations caused by short-term politics and funding. UNEP undertakes pilot projects, such as on renewable energy generation and ecosystem restoration, and could achieve much more with larger finances, he says. It could also spread its regional presence and strengthen the case made to governments of the links between the environment and economies, he says. 

He also believes that the legal structures created through UNEP will be increasingly tested through the courts with the rise in environmental litigation by campaign groups and citizens. “The legal route will be perhaps one of the most effective,” he believes. 

Steer says the world is moving into a new period of history where coalitions of governments, businesses, scientists, campaigners and citizens work together to solve problems. For this, he believes more modern governance will be needed. 

“It will be interesting to see at the UNEP+50 event whether there’s any appetite for institutional strengthening of UNEP. If you went back to 1972, they were quite ambitious about the role of UNEP, and Maurice Strong, its first executive director, had great expectations,” Steer says. “If he was still alive and could be asked if he felt his dream had been fulfilled, I guess he would say it’s been a mixed story, that they’ve done their best given the resources.”

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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