United Nations Environmental Program

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As "the voice for the environment" in the United Nations system, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) speaks on behalf of generations not yet born and acts as a clearinghouse for scientific information. It works with other U.N. entities as well as international organizations, national governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector, reporting on the changing state of the world environment, tracking the causes of change, and working collaboratively to develop responses to those changes. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, UNEP has six regional offices and centers, including the Global Resource Information Database and the World Conservation Monitoring Center. Its Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics is headquartered in Paris. UNEP also hosts several secretariats that were formed in response to the passage of international treaties, conventions, and protocols relating to the environment.


At the time of the first Earth Day celebration in 1970 there was growing awareness of the transnational threats posed by pollution but no international body to advocate for global environmental health. That void was filled in 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden, at the United Nations General Assembly Conference on the Human Environment, which established UNEP.

Delegates to the conference, which was convened to examine the relationship between the environment and development, agreed that humankind had the fundamental right to "freedom, equality, and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being" and that human beings bear "a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations" (Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, June 1972).

However, agreement was not forthcoming about how to balance concern for the environment and development to achieve those ends. Officials from developing countries worried, for example, that the resource-protection policies suggested by many of the delegates would hinder economic development in poor nations. At the urging of developing-world leaders such as Indira Gandhi, philosophical statements about "loyalty to the earth" were displaced by practical considerations of economic growth.

From Stockholm onward UNEP has tried to set a course that both is visionary and grapples with the realities of life. To that end it has underscored the fact that poverty, hunger, and misery in the developing world must be addressed if an environmental agenda is to be successful, emphasizing the need for economic growth that would allow developing countries to make progress without repeating the environmentally disastrous mistakes of the industrialized world. The term sustainable development came into use in the 1980s to describe that approach.

Areas of Concern

In the 1980s UNEP defined several areas of environmental concern, including climate change and atmospheric pollution; pollution and the shortage of freshwater resources, along with the deterioration of coastal areas and oceans; and land degradation, including desertification and the loss of biological diversity.

AIR. Since the first book on air pollution was written in the seventeenth century, the situation has gotten decidedly worse. There is still urban air pollution, and with it concern about sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, ozone, and suspended particulate matter. Every day nearly one billion people in urban areas breathe air with unacceptable levels of pollution. The problem has widened to include the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer caused by chloroflourocarbons, acid rain that burns forests with heavy doses of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and climate change, which is melting glaciers and raising sea levels at an alarming rate and has been studied in a concerted way since 1980 by UNEP's World Climate Programme. UNEP's efforts to improve understanding about the sources of atmospheric pollution and climate change helped bring about the entry into force of a Global Convention (Vienna 1985) and a Global Protocol (Montreal 1988) for the protection of the ozone layer. UNEP collaborated with other groups in the development of the Climate Change Convention that was signed in 1992.

WATER. As far back as 1977 at the United Nations Water Conference delegates were alarmed about rising levels of water consumption and pollution. The conference's Mar del Plata Action Plan challenged the international community to create an integrated long-term plan for water management. The first step was taken in 1985, when UNEP launched the Programme for Environmentally Sound Management of Inland Waters (EMINWA) in an effort to protect the world'ssuppliesoffreshwater.

Oceans and seas, which cover 70 percent of the earth's surface, are another area of concern, particularly with regard to coastal development, discharges of municipal and industrial waste, and the overexploitation of water through the use of long-line and drift nets. In the early twenty-first century more than 120 countries take part in UNEP's Regional Seas Programme, which encourages research, monitoring, and the control of pollution and the development of coastal and marine resources.

LAND. The degradation of drylands, which is known as desertification, is an increasingly severe problem that affects more than a sixth of the world's population. Caused mostly by agricultural and grazing practices that ignore the fragility and productive limits of the land, desertification also is brought about by prolonged drought. More humid areas are at risk of degradation as a result of urbanization, unsustainable agriculture, and deforestation, which clears more than 11 million hectares (27.2 acres) of forest per year. In 1977 UNEP was designated to coordinate the United Nations Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. With regard to deforestation and habitat loss, agreement on a set of nonbinding principles for forest conservation was reached in 1992. UNEP also initiated a series of in-depth country-by-country studies of biodiversity that led in 1992 to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Results and Successes

The success of UNEP-instigated treaties, conventions, and protocols has resulted from the agency's effective use of scientific and expert advice to inform decision makers about complex environmental problems. For instance, the Global Biodiversity Assessment of 1995, which led to the Convention on Biodiversity, involved roughly 1,500 scientists. UNEP helped develop ways to produce, synthesize, and legitimize the expert knowledge of those scientists and then to provide reliable and accessible scientific advice on environmental policy options. In 1988 the World Meteorological Organization and UNEP set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since that time the 2,500 scientists associated with IPCC have produced a series of reports that have been highly influential in the debate about climate change. UNEP is not an environmental protection agency as such but more of a scientific advisory institution.

Historical Development

Twenty years after the Stockholm conference UNEP continued to explore the relationship of the environment and development at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. One hundred seventy countries came together in Rio and adopted by consensus a common global strategy for environmental protection called Agenda 21. Among other things, Agenda 21 laid the groundwork for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Some participants felt that the recommendations of the Earth Summit favored development over environmental protection. Examples include state sovereignty over resources (and environmental and development policies), the promotion of global free trade and open markets, and a "polluter pays" approach in which market instruments and not strict regulatory mechanisms are used to curb environmental degradation.

It was also at the Earth Summit that the Precautionary Principle received a global hearing. The delegates agreed in Principle 15 of the Rio declaration on environment and development that "where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." The Precautionary Principle became a cornerstone for the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the Convention on Biodiversity and has been used in additional forums to argue against genetically modified agricultural products and other forms of biotechnology. The European Union calls the Precautionary Principle a "principle of common sense" and uses it in judging food safety; San Francisco was the first American city to adopt the principle for its purchases and building projects.

In 2002 at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, development again seemed to occupy center stage. UNEP's executive director, Klaus Toepfer, diplomatically called the summit "satisfactory," but many delegates were angered by efforts, most notably those of the United States, to derail timetables and targets for environmental policies such as the use of renewable energy. Nevertheless, UNEP continues to be the best hope for international cooperation and global governance on life-threatening issues that know no boundaries.


SEE ALSO Biodiversity;Deforestation and Desertification;Ecology;Environmental Ethics;Environmentalism;Environmental Justice;Environmental Regulatory Agencies;Global Climate Change;Nongovernmental Organizations;Pollution;Rain Forest;Waste;Water.


Atchia, Michael, and Shawna Tropp, eds. (1995). Environmental Management: Issues and Solutions. New York: Wiley.

Brown, Noel, and Pierre Quiblier, eds. (1994). Ethics and Agenda 21: Moral Implications of a Global Consensus. New York: United Nations Environment Programme.

Toldba, Mostafa K.; Osama A. El-Kholy; E. El-Hinnawi; et al, eds. (1992). The World Environment 1972–1992: Two Decades of Challenge. London: Chapman and Hall. 1992.

Worldwatch Institute, in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme. (2002). Vital Signs 2002: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future. New York: Norton.

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United Nations Environmental Program