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Functions Needed for Environmental Governance: What Functions Do You Think Are Important?

This section is designed to facilitate a broader discussion about the functions needed for effective global environmental governance in the future. After you have read through the descriptions of possible functions, please share your ideas by taking part in our online poll.

To produce more effective environmental agreements, global environmental governance must perform a series of functions well. Before discussing the appropriate organizational structure to achieve that, we should consider first what functions are most important.

Environmental compacts won't move forward, for instance, without developing scientific data and analysis to identify a problem, its likely consequences, and some alternative paths to a solution. Some academic experts, such as William Clark of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, argue that science may offer a smoother road to consensus on thorny environmental issues than politics. Calestous Juma of the Center for International Development at Harvard argues that the failure to bring science "into environmental governance and implementation is possibly the most important institutional failure of modern times."

"Science makes the environment speak," says Dartmouth's Von Moltke. Without a scientific consensus, the Montreal Protocol that phased down CFC use would never have been negotiated. Many of the international agreements of the last 30 years have stalled, in part, due to a lack of data and scientific analysis that would justify action.

The scientific resources devoted to a host of other problems are dwarfed by the need, says Von Moltke. He proposes establishing a revolving fund at UNEP that would devote $15 million a year to a specific scientific problem. One year it might be desertification; the next it might be marine pollution.

What functions must be performed by any international environmental structure of governance? Here is a list of some that have been called critical. Please click on the "OTHER" button to suggest additions.

Priority Setting/Strategic Planning

Considering the broad scope of problems/issues and diverse interests among governments, international organizations, and private sector groups, a body or structure must encourage the major actors, as well as the interested and affected parties, to agree to work toward goals that go beyond narrow national interests to pursue larger, international or global benefits. Some basic consensus is critical to progress in international negotiations and to encourage individual government actions, particularly where differences are substantial.


  1. International conferences such as the Stockholm Conference, the Rio Earth Summit, Rio Plus 5 and soon Rio Plus 10, and the UN Millennium Conference highlighted the state of the global environment and underlined the urgent need for action in the international agenda. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a non-binding agreement but signatories agree that human consumption of fossil fuel impacts global climate change and accept voluntary actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  2. Annual reports by major international organizations, such as the World Bank and various agencies of the United Nations emphasize areas of need and propose appropriate international responses.

Coordination/Integration of Policies and Activities

The existence of hundreds of binding and non-binding multilateral environmental agreements as well as overlapping interests in international environmental problems and issues create a complex (and confusing) landscape for policy decisionmakers. A global environmental governance body or structure that aims to improve coordination and integration of policies and activities among treaties and governments could reduce redundancy and contradictions. It would have to bring together governments, international organizations, and interested and affected parties in the private sector to ensure that strategies, policies, and actions are coherent and effective.


  1. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development was created to follow up on agreements and action plans that came out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

  2. The United Nations Environment Program was created to give guidance to international environmental negotiations under the United Nations system.

Data Collection

Data collection includes early warning, monitoring, and analysis. All are critical to understanding the state of the environment and the rate of change, identify gaps in knowledge, build consensus, and choose appropriate policy responses to problems. To be useful, any database must assure the quality of its data as well as its quantity. Collection will have to be done by qualified persons using the same sampling techniques and standards. And data from different time and space will need to be integrated, stored, and disseminated.


  1. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) collects world climate data. Its work has been critical to understanding the movement of acid precipitation pollution, ozone depletion in the atmosphere, and global climate change.

  2. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization collects data on food production worldwide. This information helps to produce forecasts on food consumption needs and assist national governments and international organizations to find ways to alleviate hunger and poverty.

  3. The World Resources Institute, the United Nations, and the World Bank are funding a four-year survey of data on the world's ecosystems and their capacity to provide essential services for human survival and prosperity. The survey is being coordinated with the secretariats overseeing three major environmental treaties -- on desertification, wetlands, and biodiversity -- to arm them with information they need to consider new agreements.

Rule Making

Governments enter into international environmental agreements, treaties, and protocols for actions at home and overseas. These intergovernmental agreements are bilateral and multilateral, with the latter often requiring broad acceptance to be effective.


  1. Montreal Protocol: to reduce and terminate the consumption of chemical compounds which destroy ozone in the stratosphere.

  2. Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).

  3. Ramsar Convention on Wetlands: to protect wetlands of international significance.

  4. Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal.

Standard Setting

Standard setting facilitates assessment of progress toward environmentally sound practices. Standards also aid the collection and sharing of data and information. A global environmental governance body or structure could give guidance or assistance to developing countries, in particular, to develop standards and to cultivate the capacity to apply them. At the same time many corporations have adopted voluntary, non-binding standards for guidance in environmental management. Environmental advocacy groups, too, are using standards as a way to encourage green consumption and using the public's buying power to pressure industry to adopt more environmentally sound practices.


  1. ISO 14000 for corporate environmental management accounting.

  2. Forest Stewardship Council certification encourages consumption of sustainably produced forest products.

  3. The CERES principles for corporate disclosure of environmental impacts were formulated and adopted by many top U.S. companies.

Compliance and Assistance

Rules (treaties, protocols, agreements) are not good if no one complies with them. Enforcement mechanisms are often lacking in the international arena. Since no institution has the power or authority to sanction national governments, compliance depends largely on the voluntary actions of national governments. In other words, governments are driven by incentives rather than penalties. Incentives in the form of financial assistance and technology transfer are most commonly called for to aid countries to acquire the capacity to respond to international environmental threats and their global environmental responsibilities.


  1. Loans and grants from international organizations: The Global Environment Facility provides assistance to developing countries in four priority areas of international environmental concern: biodiversity loss, climate change, ozone depletion, and degradation of international waters. Lending by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are other examples in this category.

  2. Bilateral development assistance from individual donor countries, such as U.S. Aid for International Development and Japan's Official Development Assistance.

  3. The International Panel on Climate Change provides no funding for new research, monitoring, or direct scientific capacity building in developing countries, but a sizable portion of its annual budget goes to travel support for global change experts from developing countries to participate in IPCC meetings and workshops.

Dispute Resolution

International disputes involving environmental issues have increased because of the mainstreaming of the environment in practically all policies. Yet, effective mechanisms to handle them are in sore shortage. Examples are the clashes between governments and interested parties over protection of turtles and fishery techniques under the GATT and World Trade Organization.

  1. The WTO's dispute resolution panel is seen as biased in favor of trade overprotection of the environment. In the turtles case, the U.S. decision to bar imports of fish and other seafood caught in cages without a turtle-freeing device was based on a domestic U.S. law. The dispute panel ruled against the U.S.

  2. NAFTA's Commission for Environmental Cooperation can publicize failures but cannot correct or penalize them.


If you think there is one or more important functions not listed here, this is your opportunity to let us know.

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Next section: Future Paths: A Look at Four Leading Concepts

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New World, Old Order?: Front Page
Finding Global Environmental Solutions
The Evolving Context of Global Environmental Governance
Greater Transparency and Participation by Civil Society
Functions Needed for Environmental Governance: What Functions Do You Think Are Important?
Future Paths: A Look at Four Leading Concepts

Take Our Online Poll

External Links
U.S. Mission Agencies
Department of State
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Department of Commerce
Environmental Protection Agency
Agency for International Development
Global Change Research Program

International Organization and Civil Society Groups
Friends of the Earth (US)
World Wildlife Fund Global Network (international)
World Wildlife Fund (US)
Center for International Environmental Law
International Union of Concerned Scientists
Greenpeace (US)
Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund
Forest Stewardship Council
The World Bank
International Monetary Fund
World Trade Organization
UN Environment Programme
UN Development Programme
UN Food and Agriculture Organization
United Nations
UN Commission on Sustainable Development
The European Union
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
The World Meteorological Organization

Multilateral Environmental Agreements/Secretariats
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora
Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer
Convention on Biological Diversity
Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal
Convention to Combat Desertification
Earth Negotiations Bulletin
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