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Global Environmental Politics 7.3 (2007) 1-12

Evolution of Global Environmental Governance and the United Nations
Mukul Sanwal

The defining feature of global environmental governance has been the development of multilateral environmental agreements catalyzed by the United Nations. Research attention has consequently focused on institutional design of environmental regimes. It has recently been claimed that ossification has occurred in global environmental policy-making and no new learning is taking place.1 In fact, new policy approaches are emerging from multilateral environmental agreements, our understanding of the issues has deepened and broadened based on the experience of the past three decades, and underlying economic and social changes worldwide provide the opportunity to catalyze innovative ways to galvanize capital markets. These trends need to be brought together in a new paradigm to drive implementation, with the United Nations acting as a node of interactive clusters of driving forces supporting environmentally sustainable global economic growth.

Reframing the Environmental Concern

The current impasse over how to achieve sustainable development is largely the product of the way the agenda has been framed in global efforts to link environment and development. The adoption of an issue-based approach, with social and economic dimensions treated as ancillary to the environmental problem, led to reliance on multilateral environmental agreements to promote international cooperation.2 As environmental degradation has continued unabated, it has been argued that endless international negotiations and treaties have only created the illusion of progress on global environmental threats and the current approach to dealing with global environmental problems is inadequate.3 In this [End Page 1] article I argue that in fact multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), by providing forums for regular dialogue, have achieved significant results in terms of problem solving by refining and deepening understanding of the problems. This process has shaped not only the way the issues are framed, but also how the problem-solving strategies are defined and how the results are evaluated. This is evident in at least six policy areas, as described below. These policy shifts focus on areas of convergence, which are very different from the way the agenda has been framed in the past—an approach which focused on responsibilities, rights and obligations of states, and the tensions inherent in burden and benefit sharing.

1. Arrangements that consider the environment as a distinct and separate policy issue are not suitable means to deal with longer-term transitions that require mainstreaming into national economic development strategies and private sector investment decisions.

There are numerous examples where the importance of economic development has been recognized as integral to addressing environmental problems. The Delhi Ministerial Declaration on Climate Change and Sustainable Development, adopted at the eighth session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Climate Change in 2002, links climate with energy and sustainable development, sees climate change as largely an economic challenge, and recognizes the development priority of access to energy services. It also stresses international cooperation for the development of new technologies, through private sector involvement, investments and supportive public policies.4 A review of its first ten years conducted by the sixth session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2002, found that the nature and scope of the measures for implementation require making complex and integrated policy choices that call for coordination and strong political will at the national level. It also found that the Convention will succeed in ensuring sustainable use and level of conservation that benefits everyone only if its importance is recognized in the wider context of economic development and global change, and that mechanisms for engaging the private sector in implementation need to be identified.5 A further example is the Convention to Combat Desertification, which has been characterized as a multilateral instrument for development cooperation.6

2. New approaches to global environmental governance incorporate strategic planning, outlining future goals, rather than merely describing what could happen.

Strategic planning has been adopted in a variety of forums, from governments, to regional bodies, to international treaties...


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