Whether the December 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen produce "success" or real success (1)--that is to say, merely a foundation for further negotiations or a full-blown new post-Kyoto Protocol climate change agreement--the world seems headed for a period of extraordinary international environmental activity with implications for every nation, community, business, and individual on the planet. The scale, complexity, and potential cost of responding to the threat of climate change make this a policy challenge of unprecedented proportions. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the threat of global warming and related problems, including changed rainfall patterns, melting polar ice, sea-level rise, and increased intensity of windstorms, will not be successful without significant institutional support at the global scale.
The existing global environmental governance system, centered on the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, is by almost all accounts not up to the task of managing the response to climate change. UNEP suffers from a vague mandate, severe budget constraints, limited analytic capacity, and other human resource challenges as well as a lack of political support. UNEP has a record of success in some respects, notably in shepherding the process that led to the Montreal Protocol and a series of subsequent amendments that helped phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other chemicals that threatened the world's protective ozone layer. But in recent years, UNEP has not been a major player on climate change.
Indeed, fragmentation is one of the fundamental problems of our current regime of global environmental governance. Dozens of organizations have some degree of environmental responsibility, including the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank and other multilateral development banks, and numerous environmental treaty secretariats. But these various entities often do not "play" well together. There has been little attempt to set consistent priorities, achieve a systematic division of labor, rationalize budgets, or pursue synergies across issues. Moreover, there has been little policy coordination between global-scale economic decisionmaking and parallel efforts at worldwide environmental protection.
A successful global response to climate change will therefore require broad-scale revitalization of the global environmental governance regime. (2) In fact, the urgent need for strengthened environmental cooperation across the world in response to climate change offers an opportunity to rethink global governance more broadly. In this regard, now may be the time to launch a Global Environmental Organization (GEO), based on a new international organization model. Rather than a ramped-up UNEP, I envision a GEO that is leaner and more focused, and which subsumes existing environmental treaty secretariats and consolidates within it the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. It would have a small permanent staff in Geneva and a substantial virtual presence, drawing in expertise from around the world in an evolving set of global public policy networks. To be effective, the new international organization would need clear goals, a compelling set of core principles, carefully specified functions and capacities, and a strong commitment to "good governance."
Any reform of the global environmental governance structure needs to emphasize effectiveness, efficiency, and equity. These goals seem straightforward, yet past international environmental policy cooperation efforts have fallen short on all three of these elements. With a few notable exceptions (such as the Montreal Protocol), the existing regime has produced many meetings and some agreements, but few concrete improvements in environmental performance.
Successful international organizations have clear guiding principles. …