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The UN Environment Program, Influential but Lacking Power


A sandstorm in Kabul.
The United Nations Environment Program works on disaster reduction scenarios, among other prevention programs, worldwide. Here, a sandstorm sweeps Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

BERLIN — The history of the United Nations Environment Program is illustrative in two respects: it reflects the changing importance of environmental issues within the UN system and it demonstrates that dedicated people in a UN organization can master the difficult task of implementing an ambitious mandate without sufficient political status, funds and personnel and that competes with a large number of other UN organizations fishing in the same pond for resources.

When the UN was founded in 1945, environmental problems were of no major concern, with the term “environment” not even appearing in the UN Charter. Thus no environment-related UN agency or program was established in the ensuing two decades.

Yet in the 1960s, there was an increasing awareness that economic growth was likely to cause severe problems to the human environment. That is why the General Assembly, noting “the continuing and accelerating impairment of the quality of human environment,” decided in December 1968 to convene the UN Conference on the Human Environment in June 1972.

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Upon the recommendation of the conference in Stockholm, the General Assembly decided in December 1972, with Resolution 2997, to create a distinct environmental institution, the UN Environment Program, or UNEP, with the main tasks “to promote international co-operation in the field of environment”; “to provide general policy guidance for the direction and co-ordination of environmental programmes within the United Nations system”; and “to keep under review the world environmental situation.”

So far, so good: the establishment of UNEP, which is based in Nairobi, constituted a pioneering venture in UN environmental protection. Yet as industrialized countries and developing countries feared that a powerful environmental institution might provoke conflicts with their own national plans on economic growth, they intentionally created a powerless agency. It was endowed with a “small secretariat,” per Resolution 2997, and set up as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly without independent political authority. Its secretariat staff was financed by the UN’s regular budget. But its program activities depended on a fund of voluntary contributions from governments. All in all, this arrangement expressed the political will of the UN member states that the agency should do its work but should not become too strong.

Indeed, it was not a favorable framework for a UN program. But given its tiny resources and its weak authority, the agency nevertheless became a remarkable success in two of its main fields. It proved to be successful in promoting international cooperation in the environment arena by leading negotiations of numerous groundbreaking multilateral agreements, including the Rio conventions on biological diversity and climate change. This key role is attributed to the fact that the former and current executive directors of the agency, Klaus Topfer and Achim Steiner, respectively, were skillful diplomats and steadfast advocates of UN environmental protection.

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The UN Environment Program turned out to be most effective in another main task, monitoring the state of the environment by supplying excellent data for scientists and politicians, thus providing an empirical basis for many scientific and political initiatives for improving protection of the environment.

Yet the agency turned out to be ineffective in its third main task, providing “general political guidance for the direction and co-ordination of environmental programmes within the United Nations system.”

Since the agency’s foundation in 1972, an increasing thicket of environmental institutions developed in the UN system. A large number of distinct legislative bodies — the conferences of parties to the various environmental conventions — have been established that created norms and standards in many different areas of environmental governance without coordination through the UN Environment Program.

In addition, most of the specialized agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, have begun their own environmental programs independent of each other and with little policy coordination between them or with the UN Environment Program. There is no clear global authority in UN environmental policy; in cases of overlap or competition, none is likely to cede responsibility to UNEP, a situation fostering inefficiency and often-contradictory policies.

To blame this unsatisfactory state of affairs on the UN Environment Program is unjust if not political camouflage: those critics want the public to overlook the fact that UN member states have intentionally not equipped the agency with the status, mandate, money and personnel it needs to manage UN environmental policy efficiently.

Attempts to improve the situation have failed so far: all coordinating bodies that have been established either within the UN system — such as the Environment Management Group, handling interagency coordination, or the Global Ministerial Environment Forum for policy coordination at the intergovernmental level — have not been successful, since they lack legal authority and political clout.

Whereas a large group of UN Environment Program experts view its coordination problems as a reflection of the diversity of UN member states’ environmental interests, other experts and the majority of European and African politicians think that the agency, with an improved status, such as a specialized agency with an independent mandate and more funds, might be better equipped to manage the coordinating role.

As a result, the European Union and the African Union pushed at the 2012 Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development to upgrade UNEP to a specialized agency.

Their proposal, however, did not summon the necessary majority. It was opposed by the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan and some members of the Group of 77 countries, who all find the fragmentary nature of international environmental governance in their best interest, as it allows for less responsibility and the ability to selectively engage with environmental institutions with weak enforcement mechanisms. In other words, “forum shopping.”

Yet the Rio+20 conference agreed on some reform: it recommended that the General Assembly enlarge the agency’s governing council from 58 members to universal membership and provide more funds and more personnel. The General Assembly accepted this compromise, which represents a certain gain in political status for the UN Environment Program.

It is difficult to imagine that these minor institutional changes will really make the UN agency more effective in the bureaucratic sense of the word. But that is not what counts: with regard to effective environmental progress, the UN Environment Program has proven that dedicated people in a UN organization with a courageous and staunch director in the top position can achieve a lot in a powerless institution by taking a clear standpoint and thus influencing public opinion worldwide.

This is the last essay in a series focused on UN programs and agencies. 


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (

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