World Environment Organization

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Facing global environmental problems with increasing frequency there is the general call for a reform of the institutional global environmental policy or even more for a global environmental organization. What exactly is this reform-process about, what kind of institution is needed and is there a chance for a World Environment Organization in a foreseeable future?


At the latest since the disappointing United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen[1] in December 2009 it became obvious that we are living meanwhile in a world risk society without an answer to environmental challenges- neither in form of an acting global community nor a promising world environment organization. On the other side we are facing more and more environmental challenges. These environmental problems can be distinguished in three kinds (cf. Rechkemmer, 2004, p. 7; Biermann & Simonis, 1998, p. 3): in regional, local and global environmental problems. Regional phenomena are caused and occur just in a small, limited space for example the imissions in a lake through the local industry. Local problems, e. g. the contamination of a river flowing through different countries, affect more than one country, but do not have an impact on the whole world. The last kind of phenomena are global problems, for example the famous climate change[2], the global loss of biodiversity[3], erosion of the earth’s surface, pollution of the sea etc.. These global problems are characterized by different aspects:

  • There is no longer a direct link between the area where they are caused and the places where the effects occur.
  • No direct link between small effects and the dimension of the “reaction”- especially tipping-points[4].
  • Almost all global environmental problems affect global public goods.

In which way these global environmental problems are directly caused by globalization is discussed in other texts[5]- but they do have and will have a real impact on globalization and the world risk society. Therefore it is important to face these problems- fast.

To face these problems it can be focused on a horizontal (e. g. civil society or diffusion of environmental pioneer-activities between national-states) and a vertical dimension (cf. Rechkemmer, 2004, p. 23). However both dimensions do have a real importance, this article focuses on the vertical dimension and the institutional structures for it.

Because of the characteristics of these global environmental challenges there is the need for a global environmental policy or as it is often called: “Global problems need global solutions”. Even if lots of global environmental problems need to be solved locally there is still the need for a global institution - for organization, research, coordination and financing of these solutions. But right now there is no political frame-institution - the success and the speed of an unorganized conference/policy depending on the willingness of national-states was shown in Copenhagen. Other needs for a global environmental organization are the increasing globalization of the economy, the complexity of the bio-chemical and physical connection between cause and effect, the potential irreversibility of the results, the number of political actors, the contradictory interests and the differences between the potential to act of different actors as well as the global asymmetry of knowledge (cf. Elliot, 2004, p. 172).

The following article will give an overview to main points of the current reform-debate and show the characteristics. Therefore it points out in a first step the situation of institutional global environmental policy right now and the need for a reform more specific. In a second step different attempts for a reform will be shown and the necessary characteristics of such an organization will be pointed out. Finally there will be a conclusion and an outlook to the reform process in the future.

Current Global Environmental Policy

The current environmental policy is characterized by a high fragmentation, especially after Rio the coordination on environmental issues become increasingly confused: More than 30 years after the first global environmental conference in Stockholm the principal players include the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF)- but special organizations are included in managing environmental problems as well e. g. FAO, IFAD, UNESCO, UNDO and the World Bank. Beside that sectional environmental conventions and a huge number of interstate committees and work teams are involved. There were more than 900 multinational agreements (cf. Elliott, 2004, p. 102). In total there are less organizations pursuing cross-sectional purposes (cf. Rechkemmer, 2004, p. 5). Only the UNEP calls itself in the Nairobi-Declaration: “The leading global environmental organization […] within the United Nations system and that serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment.”

Problems in general

It seems like an uncoordinated, ineffective system of autonomic processes with a number of overlapping, contra-productive single decisions, with unused synergies. For the developing countries this system is unwieldy and because a lack of resources they cannot keep up in the conference-marathon. Furthermore, as Copenhagen has shown, there is the need for consensus-decisions. And even if there are agreements there is still a lack of implementation of the decisions (cf. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 2008, p. 72). In total Elliott calls the system “ineffective in providing a lead in environmental governance, […] unwieldy, unresponsive and underfunded, characterized by demarcation and duplication of responsibilities” (cf. Elliott, 2004, p. 102).

Problems in the UNEP

Facing the UNEP as the main organization for environmental problems of the UN it has no fixed financial basis, it depends on the willingness of the members; there is no universal membership; there are only 800 employees (for example the German Federal Environmental agency has about 1300 employees) and it has in contrast for example to the WTO no legal entity, the main environmental institution of the UNEP is only a programme (cf. Rechkemmer, 2004, p. 15) - to give just a few examples for the weakness the UNEP.

Facing this lack of environmental policy the need for a reform becomes clear. The following text will focus of this reform of global environmental policy- but is has to be seen against the backdrop of the reform of the UN in general and the problems there[6].


There is a global agreement for a reform of the political environmental system- but how this reform should look like outlines Rechkemmer who distinguishes about four theoretical attempts (cf. 2004, p. 21). In the following text the approaches will be characterized and the reform processes of the last few years will be presented.


The main idea of the Global-Governance-Approach is that environmental policy is no longer a question which could be answered by (national) policy itself or which is concentrated on one policy field. It highlights the rising importance of nongovernmental actors as players in the field of global environmental policy: NGOs, transnational cooperation, trade unions and the epistemic community are the most prominent actors amongst them. Therefore a WEO must integrate and involve these other actors. In the reality of the reform-process this model does not play an important role- merely the scientific model of a World Environmental and Development Organization by Biermann and Simonis presented later in the text includes this approach.


Since the term sustainability was coined firstly in the Brundtland-report in 1987 and moreover translated into international policy practice in Rio 1992 there is the idea of the integration of social, economical and ecological attempts. Furthermore the worldwide power is situated in the economical entities like WTO, World Bank and IMF. Because of these two aspects the interest of this approach is to integrate the environmental policy into these other organizations- “greening WTO”. It is important to separate environmental issues no longer because it is already a cross-section task. With a single environmental organization there would be a further separation of environmental issues, moreover it would be not as powerful as other economical organizations are. Therefore a systematic integration of environmental issues into these organizations is needed. Similarly as the Global-Governance-Approach the Mainstream-Approach does not play a considerable role in the reform-process either. The idea has been pushed only by several NGOs and academics over the past few years.


The aim of this approach is to strengthen and to consolidate the UNEP as an already existing “global player” in the field of the environment. Therefore different changes need to be made: the financial system of the UNEP should be changed from a trust-fund-principle to a core budget sum; the personal capacities should be increased and a universal membership of all UN-members should be installed. To reach higher compliance, the power to enforce decisions and the ability to provide firm political guidance UNEP has to be improved by raising the priority of environmental concerns to ministerial levels. The cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) should be intensified and through a conversion of the inner organizational structures and management the assertiveness should increase (cf. Elliott, 2004, p. 105). This model could be colloquial called as “pimp UNEP” and it represents the position of the UNEP itself and some of nations, for example China and India – this approach has mainly characterized the reform-process of the last 10 years.

In 1998 the Secretary-General appointed a Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements, chaired by UNEP Executive Director Klaus Töpfer because “the institutional fragmentation and loss of policy coherence […] had resulted in a loss of effectiveness in the world of the UN in the area of environment and human settlements” (cf. Elliott, 2004, p. 103). This conclusion was assumed by the General Assembly and a Global Ministerial Environmental Forum (GMEF) was tied to UNEP. The same resolution approved the Secretary-General’s proposal for an Environmental Management Group (EMG) (cf. Elliott, 2004, p. 104). Since then different working groups are acting, conferences were held, Plans of implementation were made and very often it the importance of strengthening UNEP was stressed- but nothing really happened. Still because unanimous decisions are needed- this is approach is probably the most realistic proposal.


The aim of the last approach is to get an legal entity for environmental issues - the environmental policy of the UN should no longer be hosted in a programme- there should be a special agency designed in the same way as the WTO or the WHO. A variety of models have been proposed for such an organization, ranging from a hierarchical and centralized body with considerable power to a more loose form of clustering of MEAs and their secretariat. Discussions are about rule making, stand-setting and enforcement; its relationship with existing Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs): whether it should be part of the UN or excluded of it; whether it would advantage or disadvantage the interest of developing countries. But all models do have some advantages in common: The financial system and the personal situation would be reformed anyway but mainly it would provide a counterweight to the power of the WTO and what is seen to be the increasing dominance of trade principals over environmental protection (cf. Elliott, 2004, p. 104).

Different models were developed: For example the hierarchical world environmental organization was developed by the Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung (WBGU = German Advisory Council on Global Change)[7]. Another scientific model was developed by Simonis and Biermann: The World Environment and Development Organization as a new specialized agency of the United Nations. The World Environment and Development Organization would integrate UNEP, the CSD and the relevant convention secretariats. As well it includes a high participation of non governmental organizations. Moreover to achieve the greatest possible acceptance the decision making process would similar as a North-South parity process (Biermann & Simonis, 1998, p.3).[8] But both models did not have a high impact on the real reform-process. However there is one model in reality in accordance with the specialized-agency-approach: The United Nations Environment Organization (UNEO)-Initiative. It was formed in 2005 by Jacques Chirac as an international working group. The idea of an UNEO bases on the former reform process of strengthening UNEP: All of the ideas are integrated in this initiative. But the aim is the forming of an independent environmental entity itself. Compared to the WBGU-Concept this idea is not a hierarchical one: The UNEO would be an umbrella organization- for all the other initiatives but without disbanding them. It has been argued that a UNEO should help to systematically pool the scientific knowledge on environmental issues and help to define in a democratic process global environmental strategic guidelines to promote coordination and synergies. But mainly a UNEO would have a greater prominence and a greater political clout than UNEP (cf. Meyer-Ohlendorf & Knigge, 2007, p. 137). The governance, the financing structure, location and lessons for the UNEO-debate are discussed more detailed by Ivanova.[9] Right now there is a group of more than 50 countries: “Friends of the UNEO” (cf. Meyer-Ohlendorf & Knigge, 2007, p. 137). But this initiative does not achieve a real success either.


Of course these four different approaches cannot be separated in the reality perfectly. Rather every idea, reform-process and compromise is a conglomerate of aspects of these approaches. And of course there are lots of critical aspects the realization is influenced by. Some critics are the following:

  • The debate reflects the global governance problem - posibilities of action on global level versus state of democratic debate – or distribution of power.
  • The complexity of the current environmental policy is an appropriated answer to the complexity of the problems- a centralization could endanger their solution even more.
  • A huge institution needs a huge organizational apparatus; therefore important human resources and financial resources would be needed for this and cannot be used for facing concrete environmental challenges.
  • Facing the national sovereignty “at the end of the day… [a WEO can] do no more than its member states allow it to do ore give the resources to do” and “[…] if governments wanted to make UNEP stronger now, they could do so” (Elliot, 2004, p. 110). This idea raises the important questions about whether a world environment organization would fare any better.

Current Debate and Outlook

Since then there were different debates, the most important one to link the two main ideas of the reform process in reality was presented on the World Summit 2005: In the final-document §169 it means to create a: »more tightly managed entity in the field of environment«[10]. Beside this in the end of June of 2009 in Belgrade a further step of the very slow reform-process was taken: A next step of the discussion called the Belgrade-Process. Probably right now nobody can say when this process comes to an end. Maybe the decision will be taken under scientific and urgency aspects or economical and power interest will win-for both directions there are different examples in the history of the UN.

From my point of view, facing the advantages, a special agency is needed- therefore the UNEO model is the most attractive- integrating other reform attempts, being a counterweight to other organizations but still more an umbrella organization than a hierarchical one. But beside the aspect how the current environmental policy is reformed the main point is that there must be a reform- fast. Moreover I hope this decision is made under urgency aspects - with respect to a fair balanced process. Rio+20[11] can be a chance for the reform process: The world-risk-society gets after Copenhagen a second chance to give the global environmental policy the attention and the action which are needed right now.

Further Information

  1. More information about the conference can be found under United Nations Climate Change Conference
  2. More scientific information and prognosis can be found under IPCC
  3. Further reading to this loss under Convention on Biological Diversity
  4. More information Tipping points
  5. For example by Geoffrey Heal
  6. More information about the reform of the UN can be found for example on the UN-Website and on an External political Website
  7. The model can be found under WBGU-model
  8. More detailed information about this model can be found in the literature by Biermann & Simonis listed in the following
  9. You can find this text by the Yale scientist ‘here’
  10. You can find the document ‘here’
  11. More information about 'Rio+20'

List of References

  • Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (2008). Informationen zur politischen Bildung Nr. 287. Umweltpolitik. Bonn.
  • Biermann, F. & Simonis, U. E. (1998). A World Environment and Development Organization. Functions, Opportunities, Issues []. Policy Paper 9, Bonn: Development and Peace Foundation.
  • Elliott, L. (2004). The global Politics of the Environment. New York: University Press.
  • Meyer-Ohlendorf, N. & Knigge, M. (2007). A United Nations Environment Organization []. In Swart, L. & Perry, E. (Ed.), Global Environmental Governance, Perspectives on the Current Debate (pp. 124-141). New York: Center for UN Reform Education.
  • Rechkemmer, A. (2004): Globale Umweltpolitik 2005. Perspektiven im Kontext der Reform der Vereinten Nationen [1]. Berlin: Stiftung Politik und Wissenschaft.
  • Simonis, U. E. (1996). Weltumweltpolitik. Grundriss und Bausteine eines neuen Politikfeldes. Berlin: Edition Sigma.

Further Reading

  • Biermann, F. (2004). Global Environmental Governance, Conceptualization and Examples. Global Governance Working Paper No 12 []. Amsterdam, Berlin, Oldenburg, Potsdam: The Global Governance Project.
  • Biermann, F. (2007). Reforming Global Environmental Governance: From UNEP Towards A World Environment Organization []. In: Swart, L. & Perry, E. (Ed.), Global Environmental Governance. Perspectives on the Current Debate (pp. 103-123). New York: Center for UN Reform Education.
  • Rechkemmer, A. (2005). UNEO- Towards an International Environment Organization. Baden Baden: Nomos.
Creative Commons Author: Jule Kathinka Plawitzki. This article was published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. How to cite the article: Jule Kathinka Plawitzki. (25. 09. 2021). World Environment Organization. VCSEWiki. Retrieved 03:17 25. 09. 2021) from: <>.