Environmental Governance Reform

UNEP Governing Council MeetingWhile the number of institutions, policies, and programs charged with stewardship of the global commons has risen dramatically over the past 30 years, the state of the global environment continues to show negative trends and increasing risks. As a result, national governments, civil society groups, and experts on global environment policy have called for efforts to strengthen the global environmental governance system. After nearly a decade of deliberations, during the Rio+20 conference participating states agreed to enhance UNEP and make it a more powerful global environmental organization. The Global Environmental Governance Project and the Center for Governance and Sustainability have been at the forefront of the reform discussions. We have produced valuable research and organized events with scholars and practioners to discuss reform options and the way forward. Highlights from our research and writing include:

2012 and 2013 the Global Environmental Governance Project and the Center for Governance and Sustainability contributed to the Rio+20 process in several key ways:

  • As a major partner in the production of the flagship global environmental assessment, the Global Environmental Outlook GEO-5, the Center led research, convened authors, and engaged in outreach
  • Through articles, chapters, and policy briefs, the Center co-directors, fellows, and collaborators offered new perspectives on the environment and development reform processes within the United Nations
  • Student-faculty delegations participated in high level intergovernmental meetings through support from the Center
  • In collaboration with Yale University and Fundação Getulio Vargas, the Center co-organized the Global Climate Coalition Student Workshop at Rio+20. Sixteen student teams hailing from all continents shared their ideas for sustainability projects  to implement on their campuses and in their communities. Center Senior Fellow Stanley Johnson delivered the keynote address.


2011 The Global Environmental Governance Project convened a conference of academics and policymakers Berne, Switzerland 26-28 June 2011 to explore a set of questions relevant to national and international governance, bring rigorous analysis to the policymaking process, and foster policy relevance in academic inquiry.  .

A tangible outcome of that meeting is the Governance and Sustainability Issue Brief Series, which are peer-reviewed by one academic and one policy maker. The Summary Report of the meeting is available online.

2010 During the 2010 Nairobi meeting of the Consultative Group described above, the Global Environmental Governance Project was instrumental in opening the ministerial process to civil society and spearheaded the collection and compilation of civil society contributions for the Nairobi meeting. We prepared an analytical summary of Major Groups and Stakeholders Input, which UNEP circulated to governments as one of the official background documents.

2009 The Global Environmental Governance Forum: Reflecting on the Past, Moving into the Future took place from June 28th to July 2nd, 2009 in Glion, Switzerland and brought together several generations of environmental leaders, including all five successive UNEP Executive Directors (Maurice Strong, Mostafa Tolba, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Klaus Töpfer, and Achim Steiner). Participants from 26 countries gathered in order to rediscover the past, analyze the present and imagine the future of global environmental governance.

More information.


Overview of the Reform Process


In February 2009, at the 25th UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi, ministers launched a formal political process (the so-called Belgrade process) to consider all possible options for reforming global environmental governance. A Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives met in Belgrade and in Rome to outline reform alternatives for the environmental architecture of the UN system.


In February 2010, the Consultative Group presented a set of options to the 11th Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Bali, Indonesia. The Governing Council adopted Decision SSXI/1 on global environmental governance, establishing a new Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives to advance the work of the previous group by building on the set of options.

On 7-9 July 2010, the Consultative Group met in Nairobi, Kenya. The outcomes of the consultations are presented in the Co-chair’s Summary and Roadmap available from the UNEP website, including a new matrix with 9 of the 24 options from the UNEP Ideas Paper indicating which options received most support from governments so far. Background papers for the meeting gave an overview of Environment in the UN System, a comparison of UN Specialized Agencies versus UN Programmes, an information note on Typologies of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, and a compendium of Views on IEG Reform from the Environmental Management Group.

A second meeting of the Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives on IEG was held in Helsinki, Finland in November 2010, and the outcomes were presented as recommendations to the 26th Regular Session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in February 2011. It was decided that the process for IEG reform would continue in the broader context of sustainability.


The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), marking the 40th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference and the 20th anniversary of the Rio ‘Earth Summit’, had two major themes for global environmental governance, namely the institutional architecture for the environment and for sustainable development.

In the lead-up to Rio+20 discussions have focused primarily on the question of reforming institutional form. Two main reform options were on the table: transforming UNEP into a specialized agency; and enhancing UNEP without changing its status as a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly.

For a list of relevant documents on the reform process, click here.

For a list of events related to the reform process, click here.




UNEA logoThe Rio+20 Conference Legacy

Rio+20’s most important legacy are:

  1. The change in UNEP’s institutional form and,
  2. The change in the international institutions for sustainable development, through the creation of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and extinction of the Commission on Sustainable Development.


In the outcome document, “The Future We Want,” states committed to “strengthen and upgrade” UNEP by expanding its governingcouncil from fifty-eight countries to universal membership; by increasing its financial resources through greater contributions from the UN regular budget; and by expanding its role in capacity building and implementation.

As a result of Rio+20, UNEP became the only UN subsidiary organ with universal membership, as its governing council transformed into the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA). This change is expected to grant UNEP greater legitimacy vis-à-vis member states and multilateral environmental agreements. Universal membership in the environment assembly will formally involve all UN member states in decision-making, thus according its decisions greater legitimacy.

Financially, UNEP also emerged in a stronger position. Affirming the need for “secure, stable, adequate and predictable financial resources for UNEP,” Resolution 67/213 committed contributions from the UN regular budget in a manner that adequately reflects the organization’s administrative and management costs.

Through the renewed political commitment to UNEP, countries formally affirmed the organization’s mandate in its entirety—from the initial General Assembly resolution to the latest political declaration. They emphasized that it was important for UNEP to enhance its voice and ability to realize its coordination mandate, by increasing its engagement in key coordination bodies and by leading efforts to formulate UN system-wide strategies on the environment. Importantly, governments affirmed a greater role for UNEP in helping nation states to build capacity and implement environmental commitments, a role that would bring the organization closer to on-the-ground activities.

For more information on Responses to Rio+20, click here.



Ivanova, M. (2012). Institutional design and UNEP reform: historical insights on form, function and financing. International Affairs, 88(3), 565–584.

Ivanova, M. (2013). The Contested Legacy of Rio+20. Global Environmental Politics, 13(4), 1–11.