22 February 2016

Africa: Crossroads for UN Environmental Body That Helped Put Climate Change on Global Agenda

Photo: UNEP
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With little over 1000 employees, an annual budget equivalent to that of a medium-sized corporation and headquarters in a developing country (Kenya), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) punched above its weight when, at the height of the economic crisis in 2008, it boldly announced a plan to tackle the world's economic woes.

Achim Steiner, the youngest chief of any UN agency at the time, called boldly for a 'Green New Deal'- a rapid transition from the polluting, fossil-fuel-dependent, 'business as usual' economy in favour of a resource-efficient, low-carbon green economy.

UNEP's Green Economy concept makes economic sense. It promises a better world in return for an investment of less than 2 per cent of global GDP. The sum, amounting to an average of around $1.3 trillion a year and backed by forward-looking national and international policies, would grow the global economy at around the same rate - if not higher than those forecast under current economic models.

UNEP argued that the Green Economy was not only relevant to more developed economies but was a key catalyst for growth and poverty eradication in developing ones too, where in some cases close to 90 per cent of the GDP of the poor is linked to nature or natural capital such as forests and freshwater.

The ideology boldly challenged the myth of a necessary trade-off between environmental investments and economic growth and, instead, pointed to a gross misallocation of capital.

By 2011 the international community had signed off the 'Green New Deal'. The Inclusive Green Economy became a cornerstone of the Rio+20 Sustainable Development outcome document and an important ingredient of the 2030 sustainable development agenda.

This development illustrates the profound impact that UNEP has achieved as it has evolved from the time of its inception at the landmark Stockholm Conference of 1972 to its position today as a global force capable of building bridges between environmental, social and economic development.

In June, this year, Achim Steiner steps down after two and a half successful terms that witnessed the strengthening of UNEP, its accession to universal membership, the establishment of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), an increase of core funding from the UN regular budget and growing relevance on the international stage.

Steiner's departure carries the risk of disruption to UNEP's work, its role on the international stage and its internal reform processes.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – who has played an instrumental role in placing climate change, the environment and sustainable development high on the international agenda — also departs a few months later.

For UNEP, the question of succession is one of critical importance.

What is at stake?

While change can often be beneficial, too much of it at the wrong time can be harmful. UNEP is at a critical juncture in its development and faces myriad challenges.

In this age of political and economic instability, armed conflict and a global refugee crisis, UNEP is at risk of losing relevance. To avoid this, its strategies, response mechanisms and interventions must continue to evolve.

Reduced contributions by member states – caused largely by long-time European benefactors redirecting finances towards the mounting refugee crisis – means the organization must quickly find ways to diversify its funding sources and build trust across new platforms through the efficiency and high-impact delivery of its Programme of Work.

At the same time, it is important to consider that while financial systems have yet to recover from the 2008 crash, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) already warns that the next financial crisis is just down the road.

The shortcomings of global economic and policy place the world on a dangerous course.

UNEP's ambitious 'Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Financial System' is helping individual states build frameworks that put sustainable development at the very heart of their financial systems. By examining the rules and governance of financial markets, it has opened a dialogue at the highest level on market reform and how to unleash investment in the green economy to achieve sustainability, protect the planet and save the global economy.

UNEP has been discouraging short-term trading in favour of more sustainable, more robust and, ultimately, more profitable, business models.

This work is still at its infancy but promises solutions and a way forward for a more sustainable future.

Passing on the baton

So, who will carry this work forward?

In considering the succession of Achim Steiner, a strong argument must be made for stability and continuity at this critical stage for UNEP, allowing the organization to mature some of its key initiatives while delivering on the agenda entrusted to it.

In turbulent waters, a reliable hand on the tiller may make good sense.The succession must offer UNEP a smooth transition to its next phase of development.

Steiner and his inner team have played a critical leadership role in shaping the strategic vision and direction of the organization; and spearheading day-to-day political engagement with governments and UNEP's governing bodies, especially the newly-founded UN Environment Assembly.

One of the most recent examples of UNEP's success is the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative that UNEP supported in the lead-up to the most recent Climate Conference.

Steiner and his team initiated and supported African leaders in the development, in only eight months, of an ambitious project aiming at producing 20'000 MW of clean energy by 2020, and which received in Paris a USD 10 billion pledge from donor countries.

For what matters the most about COP21 and other environmental agreements, is not putting ink on paper, it is putting these agreements into practice.

And that - like the rest of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - depends entirely on our ability to shape and implement integrated solutions at a global scale.

This is a challenge and a mission that, if efficiently tackled, would cement UNEP's relevance and international standing in a changing world.

Mark Halle is a former UNEP official. He lectures, writes and publishes frequently on issues related to sustainable development.

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