The Case for a World Environment Organization

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By polluting the oceans, not mitigating CO2 emissions and destroying our biodiversity we are killing our planet. Let us face it, there is no planet B.

—French President Emmanuel Macron


The Earth Seen from Apollo 17, NASA

A new governance institution is required to reverse these trends to protect Planet A, our home. Humanity is utilizing the global environmental commons in an unsustainable manner, extracting resources at an unprecedented rate due to increased international trade, population growth, and personal consumption. The decline of Earth’s environment globally is well documented by many, including the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Living Planet Reports. The tragedy of the local environmental commons is largely a result of collective action failures involving short-term resource extraction for private gain.[1] These failures include river pollution from factories or agriculture, overgrazing of land, and species habitat loss resulting in extinction. When extrapolated from local to global scale, these collective action failures led to ten major environmental stewardship crises, including climate change, tropical deforestation, and biodiversity loss.[2] More recently, it has been argued that human society’s use of resources exceeds some planetary eco-boundaries and is on track to exceed others.[3] Environmental governance institutions do not have the capacity or power to appropriately manage the influence or rate of private consumption and the local, individual government policies that enable such common resource use.[4]

Our failure to steward the environment is a failure to heed a key moral calling of our time. Pope Francis noted this failure in his Encyclical, Laudato si.[5] Although this moral failure is recognized by such past undertakings as the Biosphere Ethics Initiative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there remains insufficient positive reversal of our course as the dominant detrimental species in the biosphere, despite the existence of international agencies such as United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

The Case for a World Environment Organization

Environmental challenges in the Anthropocene [6] have yet to receive adequate or effective governance response. This leaves society vulnerable to increased future resource conflicts, public health disasters, and economic collapse among other impacts as a result of environmental declines. In addition to these risks, many assaults on the environment also result in the violation of human rights. Collective action failures and the impending tragedy of the environmental commons can be overcome through governance mechanisms from local to global. [7] Environmental declines occur in large part because “there is no legally empowered authority” and “there is no last-resort enforcer” to assure global stewardship governance of Earth’s environmental commons.[8]

To respond to scientifically and morally based calls for improved stewardship, a World Environment Organization must be established to safeguard the environmental commons. Such improved governance―addressing a broader set of environmental commons than currently recognized by the United Nations―will help maintain the ecological integrity necessary to protect and maintain universal human rights and the welfare of Nature.

There are numerous people who do not believe that global governance is necessary. Many experts believe the environmental crises will be solved through human ingenuity, invention, and innovation.[9] However, due to powerful counter-influences, society has not embraced existing technologies that can solve issues facing the Earth. This is evident, for example, in the prevention of climate change mitigation by the fossil fuel industry.

Others critical of founding a WEO-like institution prefer environmental governance through decentralized networks.[10] However, such approaches will not lead to adequate global rules, enforcement mechanisms, and governing capacity to reverse environmental declines in a timely manner, nor will they contravene the global forces responsible for environmental degradation. Society does not govern the global social and economic commons simply through decentralized networks. Why would we do so with the environmental commons?

We maintain that more immediate action, managed through a global governance body, is required to reverse and to avoid further exceeding planetary eco-boundaries. Private interests and poor government regulation and capacity often lead to failures in achieving sustainable governance of the environmental commons. Illustrations of such impacts include global fisheries collapsing, coastal dead zones, and deforestation. [11] The continued degradation could be reversed with more effective governance, capable of stewarding the global commons.

Existing Types of Environmental Governance

Nation-states and the environmental organizations indicated above operate and implement programs to govern the environment through interrelated sets of rules (formal and informal), rule-making systems, and actor networks, from local to global, protecting the environment.[12] These networks and agreements can be described as three types of governance:

First, the international system involving treaties, conventions, and the United Nations system. The UN system has effectively raised awareness of important environmental issues, but has inadequate authority. For example, UNEP was created through authority-limiting compromise.[13] The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has no global governance function beyond organizing and disseminating climate change information. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has proved unable to forge a globally binding, enforceable agreement on climate change. The relatively new Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has yet to deliver on many fronts related to ecosystem services regulation and biodiversity conservation.

Second, national, state, and local laws, as well as supernational and regional management bodies. National, state, and local environmental laws vary in their implementation and achievement of goals. Effective laws include the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act in the United States; and the developing National Land Use Act in the Philippines. However, in many places with degraded environmental commons, local governments are easily corrupted or entirely absent.

Third, non-state actor governance from civil society (e.g., NGOs) and the private sector.[14] Non-state actors undertake actions that some interpret as non-state actor environmental governance.[15] Examples of such governance include voluntary commodity certification schemes such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Public–private partnerships also address environmental issues, but have not successfully reversed negative trends.

While all three types of environmental governance improve environmental stewardship, they have yet to systemically reverse downward trends in ecological integrity. The existing governance structures promote incremental change and are not able to meet the challenges posed by current environmental crises.[16]

Existing Global Environmental Governance and Organizations

At latest count, 1,190 multi-lateral environmental agreements and 1,500 bilateral environmental agreements among nation-states exist to govern natural resources. Principal international organizations and programs related to the environmental commons include the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Global Environment Facility (GEF); The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

These international organizations are highly fragmented, with overlapping and sometimes conflicting agendas.[17] The treaties and principles that now govern the environmental commons can be described as “unambitious and barely implemented”.[18] Additionally, there are gaps in commons governance, especially related to long term resource management and rights.[19]

Establishing a global environmental governance organization may seem impossible given the complex set of issues and high economic stakes involved. However, competition between nations and private interests has been put aside in numerous cases to forge agreements on commons matters such as human rights, poverty alleviation, nutrition, public health, trade, and the global economy. The Paris Conference of Parties (COP) of December 2015 and the Kigale deal of 2016 are the latest examples of the world agreeing on ambitious targets, in this case for dealing with climate change―even if all the means of achievement are unspecified. A significant challenge to these deals and others is that the social and economic commons are typically governed at a higher priority than the environmental commons.

Institutions Governing the Social and Economic Commons

Existing global environmental organizations do not have equivalent power and influence to the analogous institutions that govern the social and economic commons, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), or World Trade Organization (WTO). These organizations were created to assure short- and long-term maintenance of vital societal functions related to public health and the economy. However, because a robustly functioning environment underpins all human economic and societal activities, long-term global economic governance and societal existence are possible only if the global environment that supports them is equally well governed. In several instances, efforts toward conservation and environmental stewardship are superseded or overturned by social and economic commons governance mechanisms.

The global social and environmental commons are governed through a variety of international organizations, including: The International Labor Organization; the World Health Organization; the World Food Program; the International Criminal Court; the World Trade Organization; the International Monetary Fund; the UN Compact; the Food and Agriculture Organization; and the World Bank Group.

Challenges a WEO Faces

Governance of the global social and economic commons through established organizations appears more realizable than creating a new environmental governance organization for several reasons. Leading challenges include:

  • Governing the global environmental commons will bring together a large number of competing interests.[20]
  • Compromise on means and outcomes, as typically achieved in other policy deliberations, can neither govern nor control how nature and its processes will actually respond to newly implemented policies.[21]
  • Changes to existing global environmental governance arrangements have increased the influence of non-state and sub-state actors in the rule-making process.[22]
  • Procedural obstacles exist in creating global environmental governance.[23]

These challenges can be overcome, however, through an inclusive, determined political process to establish a World Environment Organization. This requires a participatory process to develop and implement governance regimes.[24] This process can and should involve governments, as well as civil society and, where necessary, corporations. We observe that every major global organization that governs the social and economic commons was founded during a time when global agreement might have seemed unattainable, whether during the Cold War or following World War I or other major conflicts.

It is therefore critical that a new alliance intensify efforts to establish a WEO. Civil society―which includes conservation and social justice NGOs and exerts significant influence on environmental and social governance―as well nations with an expressed, significant interest in environmental sustainability must reinvigorate efforts to establish a WEO. To motivate politicians and other key decision makers, conservation biology and biological institution communities need to advocate for a WEO. There is also a case for the expression of such responsibility by ordinary people—people must demand such an organization.[25] Demands from the general public can stimulate national governments to agree on the creation of a WEO within the UN system or otherwise.

The Rights of Nature

The environmental conservation movement is undergoing a transformation. One such change is increasing recognition of Nature’s rights, as illustrated by two recent significant governance documents. In 2010, Ecuador granted constitutional rights to Nature’s existence, restoration, and protection.[26] That same year, the City of Pittsburgh banned hydraulic fracturing and recognized the rights of Nature. Complementing these documents, The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature advocates for the ascension of Nature’s rights. The WEO must govern, not just for current and future use of natural resources by people, but also to attend to these rights of Nature.

Redefining the Environmental Commons

The WEO would deal with issues arising from the numerous multi-lateral and bilateral agreements that deal with stewardship for particular areas of the global environment. However, equally important is for the WEO to be a decisive international governance agency for the global environmental commons. UNEP reports that only twenty-five of the five hundred multi-lateral environmental agreements it recognizes deal with one or more areas of the global environmental commons. The global commons are defined as “areas outside the jurisdiction of any nation or group of nations.”[27]

UNEP’s own legal recognition of the domains of the global environmental commons is limited to four: (1) Antarctica is governed by the Antarctica Treaty System, which ensures the protection of the fauna and flora on the continent of Antarctica.[28] (2) The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) lays out the legal order for seas and oceans, including their use and preservation as a global commons. UNCLOS clarifies the area within this commons as being the area existing beyond the two hundred miles from shore that is the exclusive economic zone of any given nation. This commons includes the sea bed, ocean floor, and subsoil, in addition to the area itself. (3) The atmosphere of the Earth is managed for environmental and access uses. The UNFCCC and Montreal Protocol are the primary governing environmental treaties of the atmosphere, which is beyond sovereign control.[29] (4) The outer space of the Earth’s atmosphere is marked by the lowest satellite orbits and governed by the UN Treaty of the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which was signed in 1967 and defines this commons as outer space, the moon, and other celestial bodies.[30]

The legal principle cited for these entities being considered commons is the common heritage of humankind, but this conception is under contest.[31] Additional considerations of such heritage can be interpreted to extend the commons to rain forests and biodiversity.[32] Another emerging consideration is the rights of Nature, and it is evident that the environmental commons must be redefined to protect Nature everywhere. In any case, the current legal conception of the commons is inadequate to assure sustainable existence of the global environmental commons for humans and Nature.The global environmental commons should expand to include other key realms that impact ecosystem health, underpin the social and economic commons, and are directly linked to the already-recognized global environmental commons. An expansion of the commons would support improved local commons management by guiding appropriate local use, as well as supporting Nature’s rights. The following expanded definition of the commons suggests increased governance on “private property”; and, this being the case, there are two issues to keep in mind. The first is that environmental entities and processes do not recognize nor stop at property lines or territorial borders―rivers run through countries, states, and property allotments without title or written permission. The second issue is that the concept of private property originated several hundred years ago to capitalize on the resources of the commons. Although we do not advocate for dissolution of private property, and we believe that the concept and practice will continue to exist, it is important to recognize that aspects of property ownership and the commons are vitally interlinked.[33] Indeed, property owners should be obliged to manage their holdings as parts of the global commons. Several of these elements of private property are actually “common goods.”[34]

We see the following to also be parts of the global environmental commons:

Deep seas, including sea beds. Governance of this domain is included in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and has led to establishment of the International Seabed Authority, which regulates resource exploitation activities and promotes environmental conservation in deep sea bed areas. There is also a Deep Sea Conservation Coalition of seventy organizations and institutions that monitors and reports on these exploration activities, as well as on deep sea fisheries operations, to the United Nations and other governing parties. In addition, there is a handbook, recently published, covering the existing and needed legal framework for protecting the marine environment.[35]

International freshwaters—in particular, international rivers, lakes, and aquifers. The 263 international river basins are home to 40 percent of the world’s people.[36] These rivers provide significant food through fishing and irrigated farming, drinking water, and electricity production, with many also serving as commerce avenues. In addition to rivers, humanity relies on aquifers for irrigation and drinking water. According to Lester Brown, more than twenty of the thirty-seven major global aquifers do not fully recharge, thereby limiting their future use.[37] Freshwater bodies also transport nutrients to the coastal zones, which in turn impacts the global commons of the high seas.

Although as many as 3,600 international river treaties have been signed since AD 805, their effectiveness is not clear.[38] In 1997, the UN General Assembly adopted the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This declaration has provided the foundation for regional accords and other basin treaties; however, its practicality has been questioned for a variety of reasons, and only 103 countries approved the resolution.[39] Global governance for such international rivers and lakes is therefore warranted, given the critical nature these bodies of water play in a variety of social and economic commons, as well as their ecological importance. A base for such governance already exists in the form of a handbook on international water law.[40]

Soils. Soil health significantly impacts the global social and economic commons, as well as the environmental commons of the atmosphere. Soil health is critical to the provision of food, fuel, and fiber, the stability of ecosystems not under food production, and to a stable, habitable climate. Soil’s importance for food, fuel, and fiber production makes it critical in maintaining a stable and secure society. While individual property owners often manage soil, soil health must be maintained for the good of humanity and all of Nature. Globally, several soil types are under threat, with many types at risk of extinction.[41] Current soil erosion rates exceed soil production rates, while fertilizer use is untenable at current rates.[42] Globally, soil erosion exceeds 75 billion tons per year at a cost of $400 billion with significant decreases in crop yields.[43] High erosion reduces the capacity for energy production at hydroelectric dams and reduces water quality for drinking and downstream fisheries habitats. Soil is also a significant sink and source for greenhouse gas emissions.[44] Sustainable management of soils is required to protect human security, to avoid famine and potential armed conflict.[45] Good soil health has been linked to human health in multiple ways.[46] A Global Soil Partnership exists within the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with an Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils due to provide a global report on soil change and its impacts. A principal in this undertaking has called strongly for global governance of soils.[47] Soil degradation and over-fertilization are impacting other ecosystems and global commons by contributing to the creation of 400 marine dead zones covering 245,000 square kilometers globally.[48] A WEO could enable meaningful response to the challenge of maintaining the health of soils.

Biodiversity. Nature has an increasingly recognized right to exist for its own sake. The IUCN members approved Motions 78 and 89 at the 2016 World Conservation Congress. Both motions affirm the rights of Nature and the obligation of humanity to conserve Nature. An emerging legal trend seeks to protect Nature through establishing that humanity has a “duty of care” for biodiversity.[49] Meanwhile, others are arguing that the loss of biodiversity should be termed “ecocide,” an analogue to genocide in international legal consideration.

In addition to this existential right, society benefits from the bounty and diversity of nature. Biodiversity provides the source of all food, medicines, and a stable climate through ecological integrity that maintains functioning ecosystems and sequestering of greenhouse gas emissions. There are myriad benefits provided by biodiversity as a whole and by individual species.[50] Currently, international and national legal regimes fail to fully protect biodiversity, as biodiversity continues to decline globally, with numerous studies documenting this extinction trend.[51] Species and ecosystem extinctions threaten to further destabilize other environmental commons such as the atmosphere, forests, and freshwater bodies.

Forests. Humans have modified global land cover on about 41 percent of the total area globally habitable.[52] Although there are different estimates of land cover change over the past two hundred years from satellite imagery and other sources, there is no question that deforestation—on the order annually of a Panama-sized bloc—is substantially affecting Earth’s hydrological cycles and biogeophysical processes and contributing to climate change.[53] Private sector interests for agriculture and for forestry products currently drive this deforestation globally. These commons need protection beyond what they are currently afforded.

Forests are a unique global environmental commons. Not only do forest ecosystems harbor the greatest concentration of biodiversity globally, they are also critical in maintaining a habitable, stable climate by sequestering greenhouse gas emissions, thus preventing pollution of the atmosphere, another of our global commons.[54] The global responsibility to conserve forests is recognized by REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Foreign Degradation in Developing Countries) mechanisms at the international level (see www.un-redd.org). Expanding the environmental commons concept to include forests would also expand protection of the rights of indigenous people in many countries.

In regard to the five additions to the global environmental commons recommended above, protecting global commons often intersects with the exercise of private property rights. When efforts to cooperatively improve private management fails, we suggest resorting to the legal principle of eminent domain to correct, improve, or replace current ownership and management of these commons resources. This is justified in the interest of the global public for environmental well-being. Such decisions may require the establishment of an international court for environmental justice, but would be executed by national and local governments wherein property rights are recognized.

The Foundation for the WEO

Creation of a World Environment Organization is not a new idea.[55] The sustainable development agenda of the United Nations, The Future We Want, demonstrates the growing international agreement to improve management of the environmental commons. The principles on which to establish the WEO are well ingrained in international law. Supporting this aim are the World Charter for Nature, the emerging Sustainable Development Goals, the Earth Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Catholic Church, amongst other declarations, agreements, and religions.

To address the gap―outside of national jurisdictions―under which global environmental commons are managed, these commons could come under a trusteeship mechanism founded within existing principles of international law and conventions.[56] The Draft International Covenant on Environment and Development provides a legal framework to achieve environmental conservation. The Environmental Law Programme of the IUCN recently released the fifth edition of the Covenant, which includes thirteen fundamental principles.[57] These principles and the body of the Covenant intertwine the rights of Nature (and all beings) to exist. Furthermore, the document lays out the interdependence of conservation, sustainable development, and internationally accepted human rights.

In 1982, the UN General Assembly adopted the World Charter for Nature, with the United States as the sole dissenting nation.[58] The Charter’s critical points provide guidance and a moral framework for conservation. Recommendations include implementing controls on economic development, making clear that humans are a part of Nature, and encouraging the development of international laws to protect Nature. The Charter’s regulatory framework applies across the borders of developing and developed countries, or North-South contexts. A WEO would create a mechanism for implementing the World Charter for Nature.

The concept of maintaining ecological integrity is another critical legal basis for the WEO. This concept, according to Canada’s National Parks, defines integrity of an ecosystem as “when it (an ecosystem) is deemed characteristic for its natural region, including the composition and abundance of native species and biological communities, rates of change and supporting processes.”[59] The concept of ecological integrity is embedded within the laws of both the United States of America and Canada, which require their governments to manage ecosystems and species adaptively to assure ecosystem function and survival, especially in protected areas. It is notable that ecological integrity in the form of terrestrial species associations has changed substantially since the advent of agriculture.[60] Given the vastly increased human population since then, the pressure to maintain this aspect of ecological integrity has become enormous.

Incorporating the concept of ecological integrity, the non-legally binding Earth Charter is an ethical framework for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the twenty-first century, and another foundation for a WEO.[61] It attempts to “revolutionise humanity’s relationship with nature.”[62] The Earth Charter creates a framework to set goals for the interconnected issues of sustainability, human rights, and human equality, with international collaboration as a “basic requirement.”[63]

In addition to the Earth Charter, the Bolivian government submitted the document “Harmony with Nature” to the 2012 United Nations Earth Summit as a platform calling for sustainable development and better environmental governance. While the eventual Summit outcome, The Future We Want, did not generate such ambitious governance among membership countries, numerous countries (notably France and Germany) supported creating a WEO.

From the global to the local there is clear legal precedent that supports the creation of a WEO to protect the interlinked rights of humans and the environment. Degradation of the global environmental commons negatively affects many basic human rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lack of food, water, and a stable climate threatens the security of many human populations, while environmental degradation, resulting in rising sea levels due to climate change, arbitrarily deprive people of their property and homes.

Goals for a World Environment Organization

A WEO must undertake the following:

  • Create positive, proactive approaches to natural resource governance and management to achieve sustainable existence.
  • Reverse the exploitation of planetary resources beyond livable boundaries by: securing and maintaining ecosystem integrity and resilience; reducing agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus production, use, and pollution; and stopping the loss of biodiversity.
  • Govern the achievement of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity and environmentally relevant UN Sustainable Development Goals including: Goal 6, to ensure available and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; Goal 12, to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns; Goal 13, to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts; Goal 14, to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development; and Goal 15, to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss.

WEO Structure

The WEO can be structured and empowered in a fashion similar to international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, but with preeminent focus on the responsibilities of global trusteeship.[64] The organizational structure, including functions and programs, would result from collaborative decisions by signatory national parties. Three different models for such an effort have been described as cooperative, centralized, and hierarchical; meanwhile, previous efforts to establish a WEO have been critically reviewed.[65]

Although lacking enforcement authority, UNEP established an environmental governance program for 2010–2013 with four divisions: sound science for decision making; international cooperation; national development planning; and international policy setting and technical assistance. This last division has a two-year budget of $117 million, with almost a third of that earmarked for poverty alleviation. The WEO would elevate all such divisions in stature and power.

Our conception of WEO structure would emphasize cooperative governance with enforcement authority; interventional capacity for environmental conservation; provision of scientific knowledge for decision making beyond the remit of UNEP; and maintaining relationships with key organizations and institutions for wise comprehensive environmental stewardship, especially regarding the global environmental commons and ecological integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems.

Conclusion

The international community has seen fit to govern important aspects of the global social and economic commons. It has yet to effectively govern the environmental processes and conditions that underpin the basic social and economic commons, as well as the conditions and resources necessary for humanity’s continuing existence. The lack of international environmental governance―due to collective action failure brought on by short-term private and national interests―is resulting in the overshoot of livable planetary eco-boundaries.

It is time that leadership emerges in the form of a global governance mechanism to assure a healthy global environment now and into the future. A well-structured and empowered World Environment Organization can provide such governance. The tragedy of the global environmental commons is happening, but it is not inevitable. It will take resolve, effort, and sacrifice to avert the full tragedy by heeding the clear scientific and moral callings to protect the environment through establishing a WEO to govern the Earth’s resources and environmental commons. By doing so, we will safeguard universal human rights and the welfare of Nature.

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[32] United Nations Development Policy and Analysis Division, Preparing for the Development Agenda beyond 2015.

[33] S. Stoll, “No Man’s Land,” Orion Magazine, January/February 2016.

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