Current State of GEG System

Defining the System

Despite the multitude of treaties, conventions, and agencies, the current global environmental management system has failed to address and solve problems related to transboundary pollution spillovers and shared resources. A revitalized and strengthened policy mechanism and structure is needed to respond to the scale and complexity of the problems and to the changing context within which they have to be tackled. Five major structural issues deserve particular focus when analyzing the pattern of sub-optimal policy outcomes. These issues are highlighted below.

Failed Collective Action

Defined: Collective Action is defined by the United Nations as the group mobilization of member countries toward one end. Achieving collective action requires collaboration.

Environmental regulation at the global level requires an extraordinary degree of cooperation among nations, presenting a difficult “collective action” problem. Because international environmental problems are diffuse – spread across space and time – incentives arise to ignore transboundary emissions and neglect the management of shared resources. Likewise, the concentration of abatement costs (borne fully within the country undertaking pollution control programs) and the diffusion of the benefits (spread across the world) makes free-riding on the efforts of others attractive. As a fundamental matter, unless countries perceive problems as real and thus recognize the advantages of collaboration, the transaction costs of organizing and sustaining international cooperation become overwhelming.


Defined: Fragmentation consists of separating something into smaller pieces or parts or the disintegration of norms or standards into various constituent parts.

International environmental governance is shared among too many institutions with diffuse, overlapping, and even conflicting mandates. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) competes for time, attention, and resources with more than a dozen other UN bodies that possess environmental responsibilities and interests. Some of these other UN bodies include the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and others. Adding to this fragmentation are the independent secretariats to the numerous conventions. Currently, there exist over 500 multilateral environmental treaties. With entities stretched from Bonn to Montreal, Nairobi to Geneva, focus is dissipated, efforts splintered, responsibilities scattered, funding squandered, and accountability lost. In contrast, the World Trade Organization (WTO) handles international trade affairs, the World Health Organization (WHO) handles health related issues, and labor concerns are handled by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Click here for a list of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).

Deficient Expertise

Defined: Lacking knowledge or skill in relevant areas of study or professional undertakings.

Because of the fragmentation described above, relevant data is frequently lacking and problems that are ultimately global problems are addressed in a piecemeal fashion. With independent programs and secretariats, using different data sets, it is difficult to compare problems or results and or to build comprehensive programs to address environmental issues. This is of particular concern in the environmental arena as a result of perceived uncertainty in many of the risks. Therefore, knowledge networking, including collection and exchange of information on “best practices” is necessary to increase the capability of all players and ultimately contribute to sound scientific assessment and comparison. Provision of adequate and timely information on achieving cutting-edge environmental performance would enhance the opportunities for consensus building and coordination of policies critical for the solution of environmental problems. Better monitoring, including systematic review of environmental indicators and an early warning system, is also needed.

Inadequate Authority

Defined: Lacking in the ability to enforce laws and norms. It also refers to the lack of a central knowledge hub that would serve as a source of relevant and useful information. Lastly, inadequate authority refers to the inability to influence and/or persuade on a global scale.

The existing international environmental institutions, especially UNEP, are hampered by narrow or vague mandates, small budgets, and limited political support. The international environmental regime has become mired in a cycle of decline. UNEP’s structural handicaps have led to its output being judged as modest and not very useful. This weak performance results in reduced political support, greater difficulty in attracting highly competent staff, and continuous budget problems as donors look elsewhere for ways to deploy their limited environmental resources. Results further deteriorate, and the downward spiral accelerates. No one organization has the political authority, vitality, expertise, and profile to serve as the center of gravity for the international environmental regime and exert sustained political influence in other global forums for decision-making. However, the contrast with other international regimes, such as those for health, labor, and trade is striking.

Insufficient Legitimacy

Defined: Lacking in authenticity or credibility and not authorized in accordance with law.

The existing international environmental regime has failed to adequately deal with the priorities of both developed and developing countries. As a result, there is little commitment across the world community to the success of the global environmental regime – and little sense of the importance or legitimacy lodged in the institutions that make up this regime. The inadequacy and dispersion of the existing financial mechanisms – scattered across the Global Environmental Facility, UN Development Programme, World Bank, and separate funds such as the Montreal Protocol Finance Mechanism – reinforces the perception of a lack of seriousness in the North about the plight of the South. Furthermore, fundamental principles of good governance such as transparency and accountability are still at issue in many of the institutions with environmental responsibilities. These procedural shortcomings undermine the legitimacy of the system as a whole. Concerns arise not just from governments. The ongoing street protests by a range of environmental non-governmental organizations about the role of the World Bank and the IMF are emblematic of broader public dissatisfaction with how environmental issues are being managed at the global scale. These protests can also be seen as a signal of distress about the way globalization is unfolding and a sense that important values are being lost in the headlong rush for liberalized trade and economic growth.

Prior to the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in September 2002, a series of initiatives on rethinking the governance system was launched. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) initiated an intergovernmental process on International Environmental Governance that seeks to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the current system and develop reform proposals. The Report of the Director reviews the existing institutional structures, instruments and arrangements that define the current state of international environmental governance. Find out more about the UNEP process .