EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 12. Accelerating the Transition: United Nations Leadership

In an age when so many environmental issues are binational, multinational, or global in scale, countries often look to the United Nations for leadership. The first international environmental treaty completed after the founding of this world body was the International Convention for the Regulation of Whales. Negotiated by delegates from 57 countries, it was signed in Washington, D.C., in 1946. During the half-century since then, the United Nations has played a key role in negotiating 240 international environmental treaties ranging from the preservation of migratory birds to the protection of the stratospheric ozone layer.3

Over the decades, the United Nations has dealt with numerous threats to the earth's health. In May 1985, scientists reported a "hole" in the stratospheric ozone layer over Antarctica. This alarmed the international scientific community because the stratospheric ozone layer protects life on earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Two years later, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) assembled delegates from 150 countries in Montreal to negotiate the Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. This international agreement set the stage for phasing out the widespread use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the family of chemicals primarily responsible for ozone layer depletion, reducing their use by more than 90 percent over the next 13 years. The negotiation of the Montreal Protocol and its implementation represent one of the finest hours of the United Nations.4

Another landmark treaty, the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), was negotiated in 1973. This set the stage for active U.N. intercession in protecting endangered species. In 2001 this entailed trying to save Caspian Sea sturgeon. The catch of this fish, the source of world-renowned caviar, had fallen precipitously as illegal harvesting spread out of control. The United Nations convened a meeting of the countries involved
Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Iran, which was managing the sturgeon on its coastal waters responsibly, was not called to the conference. Using its enforcement authority, CITES threatened to impose an embargo on trade in caviar if the countries did not work together to protect the sturgeon from extinction. In an early indication of the influence CITES now has, Russia announced in July 2001 that it was suspending commercial fishing for sturgeon.5

Another of the many environmental contributions by the United Nations is the Law of the Sea Treaty, which established off-shore limits of up to 200 miles. Individual countries were given the responsibility for managing their own fisheries. This treaty gives national governments the authority they need to protect their coastal fisheries and to manage them for maximum sustainable yield. The United Nations also plays a prominent role on the climate front. It has mobilized 2,600 of the world's leading scientists to work in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This group, which contains numerous working groups, publishes a report every few years that provides the latest findings on climate change. The IPCC research and projections underpin international negotiations on climate stabilization.6

Despite the 240 international environmental treaties negotiated over the last half-century, degradation of the global environment continues. Although the United Nations has recorded numerous successes on the environmental front, the gap between what needs to be done and what is being done to ensure a sustainable future is widening. In the end, the United Nations cannot move any faster than its member governments will permit.

When the United Nations convened the first conference on the environment in Stockholm in 1972, it gave the fledgling international environmental movement a legitimacy it had lacked. When it convened the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, its principal product was Agenda 21, a voluminous work on sustainable development. Although this consisted of bits and pieces of a sustainable future, it did not deal with the systemic economic change needed to create a sustainable future.

In September 2002, the United Nations will convene the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. In many ways, this conference will be a test of whether the international community is ready to take the steps needed to reverse the earth's environmental deterioration before time runs out. Recognizing this, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a 2001 commencement address at Tufts University, "We must stop being so economically defensive and start being more politically courageous."7


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3. International Convention for the Regulation of Whales, signed 2 December 1946, Washington, DC, entered into force 10 November 1948, from Harvard University, International Environmental Policy Reference Guide, environment.harvard.edu/esppa/home.html, viewed 18 July 2001; Hilary French, "Environmental Treaties Gain Ground," in Lester R. Brown et al., Vital Signs 2000 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), p. 134.

4. Discovery of ozone hole first reported in J.C. Farman, B.G. Gardiner, and J.D., Shanklin, "Large Losses of Total Ozone in Antarctica Reveal Seasonal ClOx/NOx Interaction," Nature, 16 May 1985, pp. 207-10; Montreal Protocol signed 16 September 1987, entered into force 1 January 1989, from Harvard University, op. cit. note 3; 90 percent reduction in French, op. cit. note 3, p. 135.

5. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), signed 3 March 1973, Washington, DC, and entered into force 1 July 1975, from Harvard University, op. cit. note 3; Greg Frost, "Caviar Clampdown Eyed to Help Sturgeon Burgeon," Reuters, 20 June 2001; "World Briefing-Russia: Saving the Caspian Sturgeon," New York Times, 17 July 2001.

6. U.N. role in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Vanessa Houlder, "Keeping a Cool Head in the Global Warming Hothouse," Financial Times, 13 March 2001; Randall Mikkelsen, "US Abandons Kyoto Climate Pact-A Blow to Europe," Reuters, 29 March 2001.

7. U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, "Rio + 10: Time to Get Started," CSD Update Special Issue, August 2000, www.johannes burgsummit.org; Kofi Annan, Keynote Address, Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, 20 May 2001.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute