United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

views updated

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)


The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the U.N.'s designated authority in environmental issues. Its mandate is to coordinate the development of environmental policy at global and regional levels and to bring emerging issues to the attention of governments and the international community.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Established following the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and staged in Stockholm, Sweden, the UNEP was created as a body to reflect the environmental conscience of the U.N. The

Stockholm Conference marked the formal acceptance by the international community that development and the environment are inextricably linked.

The UNEP is composed of a governing council, which features of 58 nations elected for four-year terms by the U.N. General Assembly; a Secretariat, with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya; and a voluntary Environment Fund to finance UNEP's initiatives.

Impacts and Issues

UNEP's principle success has been in the promotion of a body of research that has greatly improved the understanding and awareness of environmental issues. In turn, this has provided the impetus for environmental legislation worldwide.

The UNEP took an early lead on international legislation and agreements considered essential to counteract climate change. Its landmark treaty was the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer. This was one of the first examples of international recognition of the “potentially harmful impact on human health and the environment through modification of the ozone layer.”

Although the Vienna Convention proffered no binding targets for the reduction of harmful gases, it was augmented by the Montreal Protocol, originally signed in 1987 and substantially amended in 1990 and 1992. The Montreal Protocol stipulated that the production and consumption of compounds that deplete the stratospheric ozone layer—chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform— would be phased out by 2000 (2005 for methyl chloroform).

UNEP has also been instrumental in supporting the cause of sustainable development. It defines this as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, delegates gave their support to Agenda 21, an action program for sustainable development into the twenty-first century. This, claims UNEP, “gave new impetus and importance” to its work.

Agenda 21 had a wide ranging set of principles covering everything from a commitment to eradicate unsustainable third world debt and a removal of protective tariffs. It also affirmed recognition of “mankind's need for a safe and stable natural environment.” In other words, economic development should not be to the detriment of the natural environment.

Throughout the 1990s, the principles of sustainable development were reaffirmed at numerous international conferences, but the commitment for environmentally sound development was largely a failure. A case in point came in May 2000, when UNEP convened the first Global Ministerial Environment Forum, in Malmö, Sweden. A declaration was formulated—the Malmö Declaration—noting the “deep concern” that “the environment and the natural resource base that supports life on Earth continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate” and that “there is an alarming discrepancy between commitments and action” in relation to sustainable development. But it was UNEP's inability to gain binding commitments on environmentally sustainable development that was the root of the problem.

The Malmö Declaration did effect some action, however. When the U.N. Millennium Declaration was signed in September that year—partly as a reflection of the concerns articulated at Malmö— one of its goals was to ensure environmental sustainability. But this was merely another pledge and non-binding, heightening the sense that UNEP could only ever effect rhetoric on environmental sustainability.

This sense was reinforced two years later when nations met in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) or Earth Summit 2002. The main outcome of the summit was the Johannesburg Declaration, another non-binding pledge. Although the declaration mentioned climate change as among the challenges the world faced, in the pledge to the fight against the worldwide conditions “that pose severe threats to the sustainable development of our people,” every issue from chronic hunger to terrorism was included without mention of climate change.


AGENDA 21: Program initiated by most members of the United Nations in 1992 that seeks to foster sustainable development in poorer countries. Implemented by the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development. The number 21 was chosen to refer to the twenty-first century.

CHLOROFLUOROCARBONS: Members of the larger group of compounds termed halocarbons. All halocarbons contain carbon and halons (chlorine, fluorine, or bromine). When released into the atmosphere, CFCs and other halocarbons deplete the ozone layer and have high global warming potential.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE (IPCC): Panel of scientists established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988 to assess the science, technology, and socioeconomic information needed to understand the risk of human-induced climate change.

OZONE LAYER: The layer of ozone that begins approximately 9.3 mi (15 km) above Earth and thins to an almost negligible amount at about 31 mi (50 km) and shields Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The highest natural concentration of ozone (approximately 10 parts per million by volume) occurs in the stratosphere at approximately 15.5 mi (25 km) above Earth. The stratospheric ozone concentration changes throughout the year as stratospheric circulation changes with the seasons. Natural events such as volcanoes and solar flares can produce changes in ozone concentration, but man-made changes are of the greatest concern.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Development (i.e., increased or intensified economic activity; sometimes used as a synonym for industrialization) that meets the cultural and physical needs of the present generation of persons without damaging the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

VIENNA CONVENTION: In climate affairs, treaty signed in 1985 in Vienna, Austria, with the purpose of reducing emissions of chemicals that damage the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol is an extension of the Vienna Convention that describes binding national obligations for the reduction of ozone-depleting emissions.

More successful efforts include UNEP's work to heighten recognition of the issue of climate change. In 1988, UNEP, in partnership with the World Meteorological Organization, jointly founded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The panel's assessments of the impact of greenhouse gases have been vastly influential in informing the debate on climate change over the past two decades. Plus, in October 2007, the IPCC jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in recognition for its work in bringing global attention to the issue.

See Also Montreal Protocol; Sustainability; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).



Gareis, Sven Bernhard, and Johannes Varwick. The United Nations: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Weiss, Thomas G., and Sam Daws, eds. The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.


Clarke, Tom. “Wanted: Scientists for Sustainability.” Nature 418 (2002): 812-814.

“The Party's Over.” New Scientist 2,359 (September 7,2002)

Web Sites

“Climate Change Gateway.” UNEP. <http://www.unep.org/themes/climatechange/> (accessed November 21, 2007).

James Corbett

About this article

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)