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Book Review of Maria Ivanova's
The Untold Story of the World’s Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at Fifty
by Arthur Dahl
Maria Ivanova. The Untold Story of the World’s Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at Fifty. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2021. 329 pp.
For anyone interested in global environmental governance and how the world has faced up to the rapidly accelerating environmental challenges of the last half century, this book is the place to go. From the events leading up to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and its location in Nairobi, Kenya, its leading role in addressing the hole in the ozone layer and emerging problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, land degradation and many other global crises through advances in international environmental law, up to its present status and future prospects, this book is a thorough exploration of its successes and failures. It explains why UNEP was designed as it was, how its mandate has evolved between normative and operational expectations, what practical challenges it faced as the first UN institution located in a developing country, the personalities and impact of each of its Executive Directors, and what needs to be done now to address the interacting environmental challenges of a globalized world that has overshot planetary boundaries.
Professor Maria Ivanova, who heads the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is uniquely placed to write such a book. She has interviewed hundreds of UNEP staff and other experts, including all the Executive Directors of UNEP, combining the academic perspective of a scholar with the practical realities of living and working in an international institution. In exploring why, despite 50 years of concentrated efforts, the global environment is still accelerating towards catastrophe, she demonstrates that the problem is not so much UNEP’s mandate or structure but the larger forces of a world divided between East and West, North and South, and trapped in the paradigm of national sovereignty that places a country’s narrow interests before the common good of all humankind. Since I have myself been part of that trajectory from the beginning, and was one of Maria’s sources, I can vouch for the efforts she has gone to in presenting an analysis of the institution that is both insightful and useful as we consider the next steps forward in global governance. When I was put in charge of coordinating the UN System-wide Earthwatch after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, I was moved from Nairobi to Geneva, since communications were so poor at UNEP’s headquarters that it would have been impossible from there to collaborate with 50 parts of the UN system, the space agencies and the scientific community to create global observing systems, environmental assessment processes, and indicators of sustainable development.
It is clear that the present international system is full of pious declarations of intent and promises to rise to the occasion, but falls far short on performance. Governments are singularly untrustworthy, and there is no system to hold them to account or to sanction them for their failures. National sovereignty has become the screen behind which despots, autocrats, corrupt politicians and powerful vested interests hide their crimes from any interference, and continue to rape and pillage the natural resources of the planet on which our future depends, not to mention the human rights of their populations. The hypocrisy of wealthy countries calling for international environmental action while fostering a neoliberal economy in which private profit and GDP growth were all-important and environmental and social impacts were “externalities”, faced off against the developing countries afraid that any environmental controls would prevent them from profiting from their natural resources to rise out of poverty. It is no wonder that the environment came far down in priorities.
The core financial mechanism for UNEP, voluntary contributions, has been particularly vulnerable, preventing UNEP from meeting the ambitious goals that were set for it to be the environmental conscience of the UN system and the authoritative voice for environmental action. Its budget has become largely donor driven, reflecting donor priorities. Over the decades, global environmental governance has fragmented along sectoral issues: climate change, biodiversity, chemicals, ocean pollution and other issues, but UNEP is the only institution with a mandate to assess the whole planetary system in all its complexity, and could use its broad environmental assessment mandate, bridging science and policy, to inform the world of the dangers already unfolding and the necessary ways forward. We can only hope that books like this will give us the courage to rise to the occasion of the existential threats before us and, building on the lessons learned, to work for the breakthrough that is needed in global environmental governance.
Last updated 16 March 2021