UNEP: High hopes and slender means

Written by  //  October 29, 2007  //  Environment & Energy, United Nations  //  Comments Off on UNEP: High hopes and slender means

Oct 29th 2007
A UN agency struggles with climate change
NAIROBI is the third base of operations for the United Nations, after Geneva and New York. It is home to two UN agencies: Habitat, which deals with urban planning, and the United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, which has had a mandate to “save the environment” since its inception in 1972.
Back then, saving the environment was closer to what we now call beautification; there were ponds to be saved, and beaches. UNEP was muscled out of the serious business of environmentalism by the bigger and slicker Food and Agricultural Organisation, which held itself responsible for wilderness protection. Whatever the UNEP looked at tended to be close-to; one-off problems such as oil spills, nothing like the macroscopic Gaia vision that UNEP propounds these days.
The programme’s present director is Achim Steiner. A Brazilian-born, Oxford-educated German, he came with strong credentials. He had been head of the World Conservation Union, and before that its policy director. He came to UNEP, he says, because the divisions in international politics as a result of the Iraq war made it even more important for greens to have an effective voice in the multilateral system. In his early pitches Mr Steiner said he wanted UNEP to “shed its 20th century skin and evolve into a more efficient, creative, and responsive organisation fitted for the 21st century.”
He has his work cut out. In the bitchy world of UN agencies, UNEP’s reputation is not good. At dinner parties in Nairobi it is known as “INEPT” for its lack of focus and reliance on glossy brochures. It has grown to 1,000 staff in 42 countries, but remains a mess. Part of the reason is its vague yet towering mandate. There is a tension in the agency between those who want to look at environmental issues in the context of human development, those who see species survival as a moral absolute, and those who believe UNEP should leverage its resources on encompassing issues, primarily climate change and ocean protection.
Those resources are limited. Mr Steiner says UNEP’s budget is $60m a year. On a trip to Montreal he saw an item in Le Devoir about the refurbishment of the Ritz-Carlton hotel for $100m. It’s a tidy anecdote—$60m for saving the planet, $100m for a new ballroom—but there is not much sense, when wandering about the UN campus in Nairobi, that UNEP is capable of saving very much of the planet, even with a budget increase.
Indeed, it is hard not to be depressed at the miniature scale of UNEP operations. The library facilities are no better than those at a failing junior college in the United States. A septic river runs just outside the campus fence. It seems as if most people come to work in large SUVs, alone. The talk at the food court is more of UN bureaucracy than of environmental issues. The lack of urgency is the opposite of the feverish (yet never radical) pamphlets UNEP puts out. It is a stultifying coming-together, a dated modernity, like “Planet of the Apes”, perhaps.
Which is not to say that UNEP has been without successes. It had a hand on this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, through its involvement in the International Panel on Climate Change. It has helped eliminate 95% of ozone-damaging chemicals. Other successes, such as a 50% drop in deforestation in the Amazon, have hardly been noted. The 1992 Rio Earth summit, which it helped organise, was a watershed in redefining man’s relationship with nature.
Mr Steiner hopes the Nobel Peace Prize will mark out climate change as a defining peace and security issue. He wants to see carbon emissions slashed by 80%. Whether UNEP can have any influence on that remains to be seen. Hobbled by bureaucracy and a lack of resources, it looks like more of a distraction than a saviour.

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