A Green World Order

Friday, January 22, 2010

By Caroline Boin

Copenhagen failed because one size does not fit all – so the solution promoted by the UK and France and favoured by many EU countries is to create a new one-size-fits-all global authority.

Everyone is blaming everyone else for the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown blames something entirely different: "the lack of a global body with the sole responsibility for environmental stewardship." This idea for getting around pesky governments and voters is shared by many European and some developing countries.

Last September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying: "We must make use of the momentum provided by Copenhagen to make further progress toward the creation of a World Environmental Organization."

But the momentum stopped dead at Copenhagen because not all nations have the same priorities. Those struggling to fight poverty are unsympathetic to Green nagging from Europeans. Before proposing yet another huge international bureaucracy, fans of a WEO should look at the current one and why these different priorities mean global stewardship just will not work.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was set up as "the environmental conscience of the UN system," after the first UN Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm in 1972, to publicise problems and coordinate policy, globally, regionally and within the UN.
But UNEP is a weak institution, with a small staff and budget–just over US$270 million in 2006-2007. That may sound a lot but by UN standards it is paltry. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization gets some US$900 million a year and the UN Development Programme about US$5 billion.
UNEP’s weakness is not an accident: governments do not want an autonomous international body to interfere in politically-sensitive national issues. A great deal of that resistance comes from the developing world, starting at the Stockholm meeting in 1972. Later, they demanded that the Earth Summit in 1992 shift from focusing on the environment to "sustainable development"–a concept that includes economic growth.

The proliferation of "Multilateral Environmental Agreements" introduced by rich countries over the past decades–with over 700 in force today–has put an increasing economic burden on developing countries while they have made clear they want more emphasis on economic and social goals.

A World Environmental Organization would be modelled on the World Health Organization, to coordinate funding, research, new technology and government action. But the USA, Russia, India and China have already made clear they will not join.
It is true that most developing countries jumped on the Copenhagen bandwagon, knowing that a successful deal would grant them more foreign aid and technology-transfer, without requiring emission cuts from them. They had everything to gain and little to lose. But for those economies just escaping mass poverty, such as China and India, the story was very different: they faced demands for massive cuts and refused a deal.

UK climate change minister Ed Miliband denounced after Copenhagen the "impossible resistance from a small number of developing countries, including China, who did not want a legal agreement." But that "small number" will only grow as more developing countries follow China and India down the road of economic growth–the single best defence against present and future climate threats.
Under a WEO these few defiant nations would multiply into dozens. For example, South American nations want credits for forest conservation under a climate treaty but they have always rejected rich nations’ demands to sign up to a global treaty against deforestation. Environmental problems are so diverse that any global diktat will generate endless grounds for complaints, exceptions and disputes, especially from poor countries desperate for growth.

A good thing too. It is not clear why rich states on the other side of the world should have a right over Amazonian rainforests or Pacific coral reefs. Brown says: “Never again should we face the deadlock that threatened to pull down those talks.” But what he calls deadlock is national sovereignty.

No global bureaucracy will overcome the basic problem haunting UNEP, Copenhagen and international cooperation today: political hostility to top-down one-size-fits-all solutions. As US delegate to Copenhagen Jonathan Pershing said: "The UN didn’t manage the conference that well," adding diplomatically, "I am not sure that any of us are particularly confident that the UN managing the near-term financing is the right way to go."

The failure of Copenhagen shows that rich countries need to respect poor nations’ need for growth if they want cooperation for a greener planet. The rich must replace their posturing and restrictions with positive policies for growth and adaptation to climate change.

Caroline Boin is a Project Director at International Policy Network, London, an independent think-tank working on economic development.