Can The UN Regulate Domestic Environmental Policy?

The United Nations Headquarters in New York City. (United Nations Photo/Flickr)

During a recent speech to the World Trade Organization, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that sustainable development will be the United Nations’ top priority during his second term. What have been the United Nations greatest contributions to the area of sustainable development under Secretary General Ban Ki-moon? What steps can the organization take to better address the variety of issues surrounding sustainable development, such as climate change, food security, alternative energy, and water?

Christine E. Boyle is a research fellow at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon pledges the United Nations to prioritize sustainable development, it is important to consider how this pledge aligns with the UN’s stated mission and, in this vein, to evaluate its effectiveness in accomplishing such goals.

Under the United Nations charter, the stated purposes of the organization are four-fold:

  • To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
  • To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
  • To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
  • To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

As a first point in exploring the Secretary General’s motivation to make this declaration, one can see that although sustainability and environmental protection are not included outright in the UN mission statement, one does not have to connect too many dots to make the case that the cross-border and intra-nation environmental catastrophes in the developing world threaten security and put missions of human lives at risk.  From toxic rivers, to deforestation, to nuclear contamination, the effects of unchecked industrialization, in the developing world in particular, pose enormous threats to human health and livelihoods. 

Recognizing the connection between environmental pollution and human health, in 1972 the United Nations held its first Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. The conference aimed to “collectively tackle environmental challenges and create the international architecture for addressing global environmental problems."  This meeting resulted in the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to be headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. The solutions to the litany of environmental problems ran into a wall faced by many multilateral organizations on environmental problems (think of current climate change negotiations!). That is, why would a member state, holding its national interest as its top priority, ever agree to follow the mandates of an international environmental organization that may limit domestic policy choices?

Since its creation, the work of the UNEP has been besieged with setbacks and institutional barriers to achieving any sort of verifiable environmental improvements. Early commentators called UNEP ‘‘an experiment that has largely failed’’ (Speth 2004, p. 2).  The limited institutional power of the organization, limited funds, and its location far from the United Nations power brokers, rendered the UNEP crippled as a multilateral organization with little resources or power to carry out environmental protection.  

Other critiques of global environmental governance argue more broadly that the UN and its umbrella of organizations, including the UNEP, fail to solve human and environmental problems due their dual mandate to aid development, while also protecting human welfare. Where economic development is pursued, environmental priorities are laid aside for the more urgent task of creating jobs and providing direct humanitarian assistance. The heart of the argument is that the road towards development is littered with environmental degradation. Developing countries have a shared interest in ensuring that environmental protection is not prioritized at the expense of what they perceive as the right to development. This move was enshrined as international policy at the 1992 Rio Earth Conference.

Given the complex set of barriers the UN faces, when Ban Ki-moon discusses sustainable development, especially at a World Trade Organization Forum, the irony of espousing a sustainable path while speaking directly to the arbiters of highly unsustainable economic development mandates for the developing world, speaks to the dubious abilities of the United Nations to manage global environmental problems. This organization with no teeth to regulate national environmental policy either needs to consider new means to effectively achieve global environmental governance, or incentivize some other organization to do the job.