Towards a Global Environment Agency
Effective Governance for Shared Ecological Risks
by Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen and Arthur Dahl
Two IEF members, Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen and Arthur Dahl, are the authors of a new Climate Governance Commission Report, Towards a Global Environment Agency: Effective Governance for Shared Ecological Risks just published in November 2021 by the Global Challenges Foundation in Stockholm. The following is the Executive Summary.
The increasingly grave set of global environmental problems are interrelated and also entwined with economic and social issues in a complex, dynamic system. A brief analysis of the present challenging state of the planet from a systems perspective, including its root causes, shows: natural systems as complex global public goods; currently insufficient global governance founded on a too-narrow conception of national sovereignty where international laws cannot be enforced; and an unregulated and unbalanced global economy, plagued by widespread corruption and presumptions of wasteful or unlimited natural resource use. Resource exploitation and environmental degradation have reached, if not exceeded, planetary boundaries and the current system of global governance is in no position to respond adequately.
A review of the many global environmental governance institutions, multilateral environmental agreements and reform proposals provides the basis for our proposals to move towards effective governance of the challenges facing the world today. This paper argues that a way to tackle the crises could be a system of polycentric governance with responsibilities allocated across governance levels (from local to global) based on the principle of subsidiarity – with a global level institution – a Global Environment Agency (GEA) or equivalent – that has binding, supranational authority in certain essential areas.
We identify five central functions that are suggested to be incorporated into a Global Environment Agency – or a similar effective governance process or institution at the global level:
- The knowledge provision function would enable the Global Environment Agency to generate knowledge through monitoring and research, collect and assess available knowledge for risk identification and assessment, disseminate knowledge with modern information technologies, make knowledge accessible to decision-makers, and provide evidence-based advice through appropriate science-policy interfaces.
- The deliberative and legislative function corresponds to the role a parliament has at the national level to adopt necessary legislation, supported by deliberation on values and priorities among its members and in the public domain and media. Such deliberation should be inclusive and in the form of authentic dialogue responsive to the needs of all those affected, as well as effective through the introduction of some form of majority voting for the most essential issues.
- The enabling and implementing function should be strong enough, in terms of mandate and financial resources, so that it can adequately support countries to strengthen the implementation of international environmental laws and orchestrate the work of the many other international institutions on cross-cutting issues.
- The trust and justice building function deals with accountability, mediation and dispute settlement, with the ultimate purpose to create trust and build justice among states and with humanity at large. States need frameworks in which they can trust each other to collaborate and create stronger international laws and organisational functions.
- The learning and reflexivity function is a cross cutting function, needed to address the complexity and uncertainty of the future. A viable global environmental governance system needs the ability to reflect on and reconfigure itself to improve its performance, learning from environmental changes and past experience, and adapting to the same.
Establishing a Global Environment Agency
The creation of a Global Environment Agency could build on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), but would involve neither simple reform within its present mandate nor upgrading it to a specialised agency. The role of such an Agency would be more than a simple catalytic or coordination function, but could rather establish a central authority gradually acquiring the mandate to take decisions based on majority voting for the tasks that lower levels of governance (e.g., at the national level) are not able or willing to perform, in line with the principle of subsidiarity. The Agency is proposed to have the authority to adopt the global rules, norms and values to ensure the safeguarding of the planetary environment for the common good, as well as the right to a clean, safe, productive human environment, and should be endowed with adequate supervision authority to ensure necessary rules are followed.
The GEA’s position within the UN system will depend on whether there are wider UN reforms giving, for example, legislative authority to the General Assembly or binding judicial capacity to the International Court of Justice. In their absence, granting such authority more narrowly to the GEA to act on the planetary environmental crises may be more politically acceptable. Within a reformed UN, the GEA could be one of several policy-setting and implementing agencies.
There can be both a long-term strategy and some short-term steps forward towards building this global institution. We make a set of specific, near-term proposals to strengthen global climate governance to, for example, adopt rules of procedure for the UNFCCC to enable majority decision-making; set up an independent global scientific advisory council to support country reflections on their ethical responsibility and highest possible ambition; and support actors to use existing accountability mechanisms (courts, parliaments, audit agencies) for states’ climate obligations.
Such measures could serve as a first pilot strategy for breaking new global governance ground, due to the urgency of the climate challenge and the need for rapid action. It is an issue with widespread support from states and the broader public with a relatively strong legal foundation in the Paris Agreement. However, while climate change is perhaps the most pressing global environmental crisis, climate governance needs to overlap with many other problems and ultimately, they could be tackled together by a Global Environment Agency evolving out of UNEP.
The report is available on the Global Governance Forum website.
Last updated 12 October 2023