The Multinational Monitor

July/August 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBERS 7 AND 8

T H E   U N I T E D   N A T I O N S

The UN's Environmental Project

by Nancy E. Wright

UNEP was established in response to a recommendation by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. It describes itself as "the environmental conscience of the U.N. system," formed "to motivate and inspire, to raise the level of environmental action and awareness at all levels of society worldwide." Based in Nairobi, Kenya, UNEP maintains a professional staff of nearly 200 and has an estimated annual budget of $30 million. Among its environmental services are: a Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS), a network of information on climate, atmosphere, oceans, renewable resources and pollution; the Global Resources Information Database (GRID), a system designed to provide information about the earth's resources to planners and policy-makers; the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC) which provides policy-makers information on potentially hazardous chemicals currently in use; and Infoterra which provides governments and industries in 137 countries with technical data about all aspects of the environment. UNEP gathers the data from more than 6,000 institutions and in over 1100 areas of environmental research.

Having successfully put in force a treaty designed to limit the production and use of Chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) and prevent further damage to the ozone layer, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) is confronting the next major environmental challenge to the atmosphere: global warming. UNEP, led by Executive Director Dr. Mostafa K. Tolba, is breaking new ground in achieving international consensus on environmental issues.

In addition to the ozone treaty, UNEP can boast of a number of significant accomplishments since its establishment in 1972. For example, through multilateral negotiation UNEP has developed the Med Plan, an intergovernmental effort to halt Mediterranean Sea pollution, (1978-1980); 10 regional seas programs, modeled on the Med Plan's example; the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, established to control trade in wildlife products; a Global Plan of Action for Marine Mammals; and a plan for a Hazardous Waste Treaty, approved in March of this year and likely to be implemented by mid-1990.

Among these successes, the ozone treaty represents a unique convergence; those negotiations included the public and private sectors as well as the scientific community concerned about the potentially harmful effects of CFCs on the earth's atmosphere. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly soon after the treaty negotiations were concluded, U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar said that for the first time, "the combined efforts of governments, scientists and industry to prevent a global issue from reaching crisis proportions" had led to a universally-supported international treaty.

Efforts leading to the agreement can be traced to the 1970s, when several countries began to restrict production and/or consumption of CFCs which are widely used in refrigerants, styrofoam, cleansers and aerosol components. In March 1985, the European Economic Community and 21 countries, including the United States, adopted in Vienna a Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer which called on all parties to limit activities which could result in depletion of the ozone layer and set general guidelines for cooperation in legal, scientific and technical exchange. It set no specific numerical limits on CFC production or use, however. In 1978, the United States banned the use of CFCs in aerosols and in September 1987, the United States, the EEC and 22 other countries signed a new preventative agreement: the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer; at present a total of 39 countries plus the EEC have signed and ratified it. The Montreal Protocol calls for a freeze on CFC production and consumption at levels not exceeding those of 1986, a 20 percent reduction of the 1986 levels by 1993 and an additional 30 percent reduction by 1998.

Some environmental groups are not sure that the reductions are enough to alleviate the problem. According to Rod Fujita of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), "A lot of evidence has come out recently that says that cutting CFC production by 50 percent won't solve the problem. Representatives from the United States and other countries say that we need to cut the emissions more than that to solve the problem." Nevertheless, Fujita considers the Montreal agreement a relative success.

Despite this success, environmentalists say that UNEP operates at a disadvantage because of its financial dependence on industrialized countries. "To date the organization has performed admirably on a tight budget," says Jeff Leonard, of the World Wildlife Fund. But, he adds "If the global environmental agenda continues to flower, UNEP will also have to grow and/or change." Conrad Von Moltke, editor of International Environmental Affairs, also points to the crippling effect of UNEP's small budget. "UNEP's disabilities are linked to lack of resources.... Traditionally its operating budget has been nothing short of indecent, with the United States contribution to UNEP equalling about the same amount as EPA employees spend each year on coffee."

With or without funding increases, UNEP is moving to start work on new environmental treaties. Growing concern about the greenhouse effect, along with the success of the ozone treaty, has prompted UNEP to lay the foundation for an international agreement to prevent further global warming. Tolba says that global warming is "one of the most serious issues the world is facing." UNEP's Governing Council awarded the issue top priority at its first special session in March 1988. And in May 1989, 103 countries attending the Governing Council decided to begin negotiations for an international treaty on global warming and climate change in 1990. UNEP, in close collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization, will prepare a draft treaty, based, in large part, on the findings of UNEP's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Although both ozone depletion and global warming affect the atmosphere, important differences between the two issues may complicate negotiations toward a treaty on the latter. Dr. Noel J. Brown, Director of UNEPs York Liaison Office, asserts that "there is now considerable ferment in the world community to establish a normative basis to protect our atmospheric resources and to stabilize climate. The Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol have given us a truly global framework for dealing with these global issues." But Dr. Peter Haas, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a specialist on global environmental affairs, explains some of the potential complications, saying "It is difficult to generalize from the ozone treaty to other cases [because] the scientific evidence on global warming is not as solid and a much stronger opposition is mobilized against developing a [global warming] treaty."

Perhaps the most fundamental barrier to a global warming treaty is that, according to Haas, "effective treatment of greenhouse gases would require a fundamental transformation of modern industrial life." Brown also acknowledges this obstacle. "In attempting to address the contributors to global warming, we are talking about the centerpiece of industrialized civilization, which is energy use," he says. And Leonard points out that the problem will soon spread beyond the industrialized nations. He says that soon "developing countries may need to turn more to the use of fossil fuels, a leading contributor to the greenhouse effect, to offset their current problems of deforestation and soil erosion due to overuse of wood."

The business community is making efforts to show its interest in and attention to environmental issues through such measures as creating a Global Climate Coalition with a mandate to communicate to governments and communities business's concern about global warming. But Dr. Irving Mintzer, a Senior Associate with the Climate, Energy and Pollution Program of the World Institute in Washington, D.C., suggests that the actions and commitments from the private sector are still very cautious and limited.

"We must proceed in a thoughtful manner, so that we don't destroy the economies of the world," warns Mr. Tony Vogelsberg, Environmental Manager for Freon Products (CFCs) at DuPont. DuPont, along with Pennwalt Corp., announced a phase-out of CFC production over the next decade almost immediately after scientists confirmed that ozone depletion is three times greater than originally estimated. But Vogelsberg points out, "The ozone protocol affects a relatively narrow segment of the industrial sector. Global warming, on the other hand, involves so many players that it will be hard for any one industry to step up to the plate and take the lead."

Environmentalists believe that the deciding factor in the negotiations for the Montreal Protocol was the preponderance of scientific evidence concerning the damage that CFCs cause, and that the global warming treaty will have a considerably greater chance of success if it too is based on a strong scientific foundation. Brown says "You cannot base policy on ill-conceived data or data which has not been adequately tested. Establishing a reliable scientific basis is one of the major tasks of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change."

Perhaps the most unprecedented aspect of the development of the Montreal Protocol was the active participation of the private sector. UNEP hopes that participation will be maintained throughout the negotiations on global warming. "As in the case with ozone, the private sector has the research capabilities to develop alternatives to using resources and products which exacerbate global warming," Brown notes.

Mintzer calls the interaction between industry and UNEP "a new front, a constructive approach." He says that "the most important aspect of the ozone negotiations was the cooperation among industry, government and non-governmental organizations."

Contrasting ozone with global warming, however, Mintzer stated, "Industries ... don't yet have the message on global warming." He believes that b y continuing to educate people and raise public awareness about the problem, environmentalists will be able to change that. "New risks, as well as new profit opportunities, will be generated as both concern and research increase," he says.

Dialogue between UNEP and the private sector is a relatively new phenomenon, although, as early as 1975, UNEP created the Industry and Environment Office to serve as a liaison to industry. Both UNEP and industry appear hopeful that the dialogue between the two sectors will continue for some time. Dr. W. Ross Steveris, environmental affairs manager of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. remarks, "I would like to think of this interaction as a trend that will continue."

Haas says that he believes industry will continue to respond to national polices rather than becoming a moving force in developing environmental treaties. To the extent that this is true, UNEP and other intergovernmental bodies may face the difficult challenge of negotiating with an industry that wants to appear environmentally conscious while still maintaining a high level of resistance to substantive changes.

Stevens reveals DuPont's conception of balancing environmental concerns with good business sense. "We believe there will have to be a great deal of give and take for a number of sectors," he states. "The issue of atmospheric pollution is too tough to expect everyone to be a winner and no one to be a loser. Hopefully, the final package will be one where everyone believes he benefitted and no one feels he has lost too much." Libby Bassett, a writer on population, environmental and development issues for UNEP and other environmental organizations, expressed confidence in UNEP's ability to handle the complex negotiations remarking, "UNEP has a tradition of creating consensus in the face of difficult circumstances." In Bassett's words, "Environmental language is one that can bring parties in conflict to the table."

Nancy E. Wright is a former research associate for the United Nations Association and a former consultant for the United Nations.

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