A Second Charter
Imagining a Renewed United Nations
Global Governance Forum 2023-2024
The Global Governance Forum has issued a Statement A Second Charter: Imagining a Renewed United Nations that makes significant proposals to include the environment and the common good of the Earth System explicitly in a revised United Nations Charter. Some IEF members have contributed to this effort. The environmental sections are quoted below.
Excerpts from the Executive Summary
Virtually all of the major global catastrophic risks we face today are linked to the inability of the human institutions that were created out of the chaos and destruction of World War II to adapt to the demands of a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world. This is a key driver of virtually all of the major global catastrophic risks we face today. Stakeholders from around the globe–including scholars, government officials, civil society organizations and young people–are calling for a renewed and more equitable United Nations that can address these broader threats to global security. A UN Charter Review conference to ensure that the organization remains relevant and effective in the 21st century, leading to a Second UN Charter, is now both feasible and necessary.
The Charter embedded the “promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples” as a responsibility of the international community, and UN agencies have played a prominent role in contributing to a sharp increase in life expectancy, a doubling of literacy rates worldwide, bringing millions out of poverty in some regions, and ensuring more opportunities for women and girls. However, the reality of our world since the UN’s founding is that the consumption of resources is pushing the earth systems beyond planetary boundaries, the world’s biodiversity is in substantial decline, extremes of wealth and poverty have widened, a combination of greed and unsustainable debt burdens threatens our integrated global economy and financial system, and human rights and social cohesion are fracturing. Both human and planetary systems are frighteningly close to tipping points of irreversible changes and accelerating breakdown.
The upcoming UN Summit of the Future in September 2024 is an opportune moment to advance UN Charter review, and to put forward serious proposals on ways to modernize the UN. Some insist that revising the UN Charter is politically impossible, but the alternative is unacceptable. The enormous suffering likely to result from the perpetuation of the status quo - deepening inequalities, accelerating climate catastrophe, and the insatiable acquisition of more and deadlier weapons of war that increasingly put our future at risk.
Management of the Earth System
One of the most significant gaps in the UN Charter is the absence of any reference to the environment. While it was not a security issue in 1945, environmental crises including climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and waste have become existential global challenges today. Our essential needs for food, water and shelter are in danger. For example, rising seas from climate change pose unthinkable risks to billions around the world, creating new sources of instability and conflict, with profound implications for security, international law, human rights and the very fabric of societies, with ever- fiercer competition for fresh water, land and other resources, as low-lying communities and entire countries disappear forever, with mass population exodus on a staggering scale. All these problems are interrelated in a single Earth system. Urgent action is needed to address such loss and damage. Fortunately, solutions exist, and the means are there; it is the political will to implement what has already been agreed that is lacking, with no real accountability and liability for those most responsible. The world must rapidly adopt system-wide transformations to secure a sustainable, climate- resilient future.
A renewed UN Charter must recognise Earth system management as a fifth pillar of the UN alongside peace and security, human rights, rule of law, and social and economic development, and extend global governance to meaningfully cover these issues. The complex planetary system that we call the biosphere—including all life and the physical conditions that make life possible—provides ecosystem services and common goods that are beyond national jurisdiction and not valued in the economy. Maintaining a climate optimal for human existence is one of them. A materialistic society where production for profit drives a culture of consumption, combined with rapid population growth, have pushed human impact far beyond many of the scientifically established planetary boundaries for continued survival, undermining the natural capital upon which we depend for our very existence, as well as our human right to a healthy, clean, sustainable environment.
Regarding these threats, the biggest governance gap today is at the global level, where the environmental risks of catastrophe are the most threatening and the least managed, despite a multiplicity of multilateral environmental agreements, all essentially voluntary and without enforcement. The best efforts of motivated countries are neutralized by those defending vested interests or who prioritize the short term over the existential threats to the Earth system. Experience demonstrates that this area, as much as any other, requires that we give the UN the capacity to pass binding legislation to protect our planetary environmental system and the common goods it provides, with the necessary enforcement and dispute settlement mechanisms.
In a world where non-state actors including multinational corporations are major drivers of resource extraction, unsustainable production, and unlimited pollution and waste generation illustrating the tragedy of the commons, such legislation should extend to all contributors to environmental degradation. Multi-stakeholder approaches are needed involving all those willing to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable future.
Science should be the basis for policy-making in this area. It has defined the urgency to make a fundamental transformation in the many dimensions of our economy and human society, before we are overwhelmed by the climate crisis or other catastrophes. Only through empowered, conscientious global governance mechanisms based on science, in the spirit of true global solidarity, can we hope to make the necessary changes to save our planetary home. These might include a global environment agency or a Global Resilience Council. There will also be a role for a dispute settlement and justice mechanism, as illustrated by the recent Vanuatu-led request to the International Court of Justice.
Given the urgency of action to address the rapidly growing impact of climate change, a possible first step towards the acceptance of binding global legislation could be to give the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) with its universal membership the authority to legislate to protect planetary boundaries as defined by science. It would set the planetary limits for greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and equitably allocate responsibility to countries and other entities for emission reductions to return to and remain within those limits. The same could be done for other planetary boundaries, such as biosphere integrity, land system change, excess use of nitrate and phosphorus, and plastic and other novel entities. A scientific advisory mechanism for the Earth system as a whole would need to be created. Since the UNEA is an existing body, no Charter revision would be required.
Last updated 24 August 2023