UNITED NATIONS -- Beefing up global political oversight with a world environment organization has emerged as a top priority for Europe heading into this summer's sustainable development conference in Brazil, but with the host nation and the United States not necessarily on board, selling the concept might be difficult.
The idea, years in the making and pushed initially by France, is to strengthen the Nairobi, Kenya-based U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) in a manner that would give the agency a more explicit mandate to guide global environmental concerns. That would convert what many regard as an underfunded, backwater agency into a more robust traffic cop to watch the commons.
A European diplomat close to negotiations in the lead-up to the Rio de Janeiro conference, called Rio+20, said in an interview that more than 100 countries are prepared to vote for the agency. These include the entire European Union, the African Union and many middle Asian countries, he said.
The diplomat, who asked not to be identified by name, added that the agency would not be moved from Nairobi, shooting down rumors that it would be based in Paris. "This rumor that France wants to have it on its own territory, it's complete baloney," he said.
But the United States and Brazil are likely to resist in any event. An official in the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently told U.N. officials during a meeting on Rio preparations that the United States supports the current framework, while Brazil's chief negotiator at Rio+20, Ambassador André Corrêa do Lago, told reporters yesterday that the concept as crafted by Europe is not supported in Brazil.
Asked point-blank if he would back a "WEO," or a supposed World Environment Organization, Correa do Lago bluntly said, "No."
"We think that we have to have a debate in the preparation for Rio and in Rio," he said, explaining that Brazil believes such an agency should not isolate environmental concerns from economic concerns. "This idea ... is a proposal mostly from European countries."
Corrêa do Lago went on to suggest that the problem is that such an agency would see environmental concerns as a higher priority than economic concerns. Developing nations would like to see the latter take precedence, in a way that advances green technologies for all countries.
"It is to go backward to isolate again the environment with the World Environment Organization," he said. "We think we have to [not] create an isolated structure."
The European diplomat acknowledged the opposition and agreed that the political environment in the United States is such that a WEO would have little chance of getting ratified in Congress. He said Europe is working with U.S. officials to address key concerns.
"We understand that this is a major difficulty for our U.S. counterparts," he said. "The main question is to decide whether this organization needs an international treaty to be set up."
UNEP on steroids?
A closer look at the actual proposal from Europe describes the new agency as a kind of UNEP on steroids. It would have the same charter but more money and staff, as well as the centralized ability to act as "the U.N. voice for the environment."
What this means in U.N.-speak is that the WEO would become a specialized agency with more heft in the U.N. system. UNEP, the European proposal declares, is "a body too low in the U.N. family to exert its influence."
So the new WEO would be elevated to the level of organizations such as the International Labour Organization, the World Meteorological Organization or the World Intellectual Property Organization, the proposal says.
To the European eyes behind the proposal, the current system fails when it comes to coordinating U.N. agencies and international financial institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Communications among agencies and between agencies and the business community "are very complex but nevertheless often lack coherence," the document says.
"Over the last 4 decades, well over one hundred multilateral environmental agreements have been concluded and around 50 U.N. bodies have the environment as part of their remit," the document says. "They are also resource-heavy: it was estimated by the U.N. Joint Inspection Unit that the cost of the international environmental governance system in 2006 was $1.6 billion."
So the WEO would theoretically help solve all that, to operate "on an equal footing with other U.N. specialized agencies," the European document argues. Still, a look at the general objectives of the WEO reveals an organization that would play a largely advisory and coordinating role with nations that have the real sovereign authority to enforce environmental rules.
The document is largely worded with language such as this: The super UNEP, Europe says, would be given enhanced authority in order to have "better positioning to help developing countries reinforce capacity and environmental policies."
It would give policy advice, in other words, and help to guide countries on policy it favors. It would also be charged with building "strong links between science, policy and decisionmaking to support evidence-based and coherent decisionmaking inside and outside the U.N."
The agency would also be asked to provide technical assistance in line with the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action. And the WEO would help to "identify and bring new and emerging global environmental issues to the political agenda so as to be responsive to challenges as they arise," the Europeans argue.
"For example, it is not enough to focus international action solely on climate change-related issues: Swift responses are also needed to problems such as loss of biodiversity, land degradation and sound chemical and waste management, management of natural resources or disaster-risk reduction," the document reads.
The document is less clear on funding. The proposal argues that "widening of the funding basis to include other sources is essential," but does not advocate any new funding structures to bankroll UNEP, which spent $85 million in 2011.
Push-back from developing countries
Caught within the political back-and-forth on governance issues is an old argument pitting developing nations against developed. Corrêa do Lago hinted at the difficulty of that persistent fight in his comments to reporters yesterday.
Corrêa do Lago said the approach to sustainable development from developed nations is much like their approach to regulating climate change, which is also reflected in the WEO idea. In other words, the idea that Europe could direct a country like Brazil to "have a green economy from now on," even though developed nations benefited from resource extraction and fossil fuels, rubs him the wrong way, he said.
"This is interpreted very negatively in developing countries," he said.
Corrêa do Lago added that the developed world has to look at itself first and not assume the developing world should "exclusively" pursue sustainable development from here on out. Those sorts of issues would have to be resolved first, before agreeing on international governance, he appeared to be saying.
"If developed countries' middle class are [behaving] unsustainably, then our middle classes will be unsustainable," he said.
This kind of haggling perhaps explains why a WEO may not have much chance to fly in Rio. Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he wants Rio+20 to get past the same fights that bogged down U.N. climate conferences in South Africa, Mexico and Denmark.
"NRDC wants this Earth summit to be different and focus on action and accountability and not arguments over abstractions," he said. "WEO is an interesting idea, but it would take years to implement. We don't have the luxury of time anymore."
Scherr, an attendee at the first Rio summit in 1992, said NRDC is instead pushing a "cloud of commitments" to result from Rio.
"Restructuring the U.N. is not adequate to speed the transition to a low-carbon green economy," he said. "We need to 'rewire' the international system and use the power of connectivity to stimulate action by countries, corporations and communities."
Sullivan is based in New York.