The World Summit on Sustainable Development, or WSSD, begins at the end of August amid chaotic preparations and dire predictions of failure.
Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, environment and development problems have steadily worsened. More than 8 percent of children in developing countries die before the age of 5, and in some of the poorest countries, one in five children die before their first birthday.
In many developing countries, poor health conditions prevail as a result of contaminated water, poor sanitation, severe air pollution, malaria and other infectious diseases and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Seventy-five percent of the world’s energy comes from burning fossil fuels, increasing carbon-dioxide emission levels by 1 percent each year, despite reduction commitments being established since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol.
The 14 hottest years since 1860 have all occurred in the past two decades. The loss of 2.5 percent of forests globally each year, along with the threat of extinction to 24 percent of mammals and 12 percent of birds, leads experts to the estimate that we are losing one major drug every two years that could have come from such species. If this continues, biodiversity will be threatened on up to 74 percent of the land area by 2032.
In the meantime, we see a proliferation of organizations created to improve environmental issues and sustainable development. But why is it that, with the increasing level of international cooperation and institutional responses, we still do not see better indications of improvement? The answer is simple — the institutions we have crafted to address these problems are weak and, to a certain extent, inconsequential to solving sustainable development problems.
Strong institutions are a precondition for building any kind of international cooperation. Yet, in the sustainable development world, global institutions are perhaps among the weakest and most poorly coordinated. There are over 500 environmental treaties that address highly interrelated issues in the natural ecosystem, such as water, soil, atmosphere and forests, but the secretariats of these treaties are spread around the world, cooperate only superficially and governments implement these treaties separately at the national level. The Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Program, which is supposed to be the premier United Nations body on the environment, is still not a full-fledged U.N. agency and has a smaller budget and staff than most national ministries of environment.
The concept of sustainable development stresses the notion of balancing environment, economy and society, but in reality there is no overall framework for these sectors to cooperate effectively. And so economic organizations like the World Trade Organization end up having differences with environmental treaties or there is lack of coordination with social institutions like the World Health Organization. No one organization is obliged to cooperate for sustainable development as each has its own mandate and contracting parties.
The U.N. regional institutions, which one would expect to be able to work on the ground at a more practical level, are also weak. The U.N. coordinates its environmental action through U.N. social and economic regional organizations that were created in the late 1940s, long before the environmental movement began.
For example, with over 60 members, the Economic and Social and Commission for Asia Pacific represents nearly two-thirds of the world’s population. This group of nations has some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth and, through ESCAP, are supposed to cooperate regionally to address shared environmental problems. Yet how are mountainous countries like Nepal supposed to share environmental priorities with some the world’s lowest lying countries like Tuvalu? How can countries rich in biodiversity such as Malaysia find common environmental priorities with arid countries like Mongolia?
In 1945, when the U.N. Charter was signed, the environment was not even a concern. Out of the necessity to solve environmental issues that know no boundary, U.N. organizations and treaties evolved and were created in an impromptu manner. Now we have hundreds of institutions working on the environment within a weak and ineffectual global organizational system. Serious reforms are needed.
In a new report, experts in the advanced studies division of the Tokyo-based United Nations University examine how changes in international institutions — and better coordination among them — can help improve environmental quality and promote development.
There is an irony that scientists routinely conduct environmental assessments on the ozone layer or climate, but there has never been a major assessment of our sustainable development organizational framework.
Strong institutions are key to solving the world’s most pressing sustainable development concerns. WSSD will be a strategic meeting where progress on these issues could be made. But before considering major reforms or creating yet another weak organization, the WSSD should call for a comprehensive and independent assessment of the current sustainable development governance framework and how it could be strengthened.
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