United Nations and Environment Essay

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The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organization made up of 191 member states. According to its Charter’s Preamble, it was created with the intent to provide international peace and security through the promotion of cooperation among states of the world and “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The UN officially became an organization on October 24, 1945, after a majority of the original 50 signatory states and the five permanent members of its most powerful organ, the Security Council, ratified the UN Charter. Following the devastation caused by World War II, the member states recognized the need to create a place where world leaders could regularly get together to create mutual understandings and to foster cooperation. The organization’s additional goals include achieving economic and social development as well as human rights for the peoples of the world.

The UN has six main organs. The most powerful of these is the Security Council, which deals with international security issues. Its decisions are binding. The Security Council has 15 members, of which five are permanent members. These five were the victors in World War II-China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The five permanent members of the Security Council have veto power over all decisions made by the council. The remaining seats are held by other nations on a rotating basis. Other UN bodies include the General Assembly (GA), in which all member states are represented and all international issues are discussed. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), with 54 elected states rotating for two-year positions, deals specifically with issues of economic and social development. Other organs include the International Court of Justice, the Trusteeship Council, and the Secretariat. The Secretariat under the Secretary General is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the UN.

The Environment: Early Years

The GA and the ECOSOC have been the most important bodies of the UN in addressing environmental issues. The GA sets norms and understandings of international relations between states as it is the one place where all states of the world gather to discuss issues of international concern and to make recommendations for action. ECOSOC is important not only for discussions among members states on issues related to the environment, but also for initiating environmental studies, coordinating the activities of different UN agencies, and preparing important international conventions and conferences related to environment. The Secretary General, as the chief administrative officer of the organization, ensures that the UN carries out the decisions of the Security Council, GA, and the ECOSOC on all matters including environmental issues.

During the initial years of the UN, environmental issues were not extensively addressed, yet there were several subsidiary UN organs that engaged environmental matters as they related to their particular missions. As early as 1965, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) started to deal with water resources and pollution, since one of this specialized agency’s goals is to study, assess, and protect the world’s natural resources.

UNESCO hosted the first Intergovernmental Conference on environmental issues known as the Biosphere Conference in 1968. The UN and subsidiary organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also attended this meeting. This conference was inspired by the idea that nature holds a delicate balance and human development is potentially damaging to it, thus, nature must be conserved, preserved, and protected. This conference led to the 1970 initiation of the biosphere experiment to determine human effects on the environment. During these initial years, the International Maritime Organization started to address problems with oil pollution of the seas. These were the early moves to broaden the scope of the general development issues addressed by the UN to include a clean environment and resource protection as important components of human development.

As environmental issues were highlighted by the biosphere conferences, member states in the GA and the ECOSOC also started to take notice of the importance of protecting the human environment in order to meet the UN’s development goals.

In 1968, with a recommendation from ECOSOC spearheaded by Sweden, the General Assembly decided to convene the UN Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE), which took place in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. At the same time, the GA also asked that the Secretary General of the UNCHE conference, Maurice Strong, prepare a comprehensive report on the problems facing developing and developed countries in regard to the human environment.

In preparing for the meeting, Strong worked with an advisory committee in which disagreements surfaced. Many developing countries were threatened by and resistant to the idea of integrating environmental protection as a part of their countries’ policy agendas. The economic burden of dealing with environmental problems seemed daunting given that the path to economic and social development was already very difficult for the less-developed nations. But Strong was able to convince participants that without protecting the environment in the short term, the states cannot expect to grow in the long term.

This conference, attended by representatives of 113 nations, was a watershed event. These states came to an agreement on 26 principles on the human environment. The principles included the right to clean environment, the safeguarding of natural resources, the restoration of renewable resources, the protection of wildlife and endangered species, the prevention of the exhaustion of resources, the prevention of toxic pollution and global warming, and the prevention of pollution of the seas.

As a part of the negotiations, the developing countries received special consideration. Their particular needs were addressed under the 26 principles with a call for financial and technical aid to poorer regions and a clause stating that environmental policies should not hinder development. The principles also included a call for scientific research and education, a commitment to spend resources for making improvements on the environment possible, coordination among states to use resources more rationally, better urban planning, and recognition of the need for population control. There was also a call on states to create environmental agencies within their governments and additionally a call on states to start negotiations on the elimination and destruction of all nuclear weapons.

After the first comprehensive intergovernmental conference on the environment, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was created by the GA. UNEP is designed to coordinate UN agencies regarding environmental concerns and to generally serve as the lead agency on environmental affairs. The program is charged with assessing the state of the world’s environment, developing mechanisms to deal with environmental problems, strengthening institutions, conducting research and raising global awareness on environmental issues.

The 1980s: a New Approach

In the 1980s, the UN moved from a general discussion on the environment to more specific actions through treaty agreements on the ozone layer, toxic waste, and climate control. Inspired by a report by the UNEP governing body, the GA decided to create a special commission on Environment and Development to consider world “Environmental Perspective to the Year 2000 and Beyond.” This commission is commonly referred to as the Brundtland Commission, named after its chairman, a former Prime Minister of Norway. The commission’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, defined sustainable development, a concept that would serve as the guiding principle for global environmental policy. The statement read:

The Governing Council believes that sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and does not imply in any way encroachment upon national sovereignty. The Governing Council considers that the achievement of sustainable development involves co-operation within and across national boundaries.

In many ways, the 1980s represented a new era for the UN in its approach toward the environment, which went beyond preservation and conservation. It explicitly recognized environmental degradation as a human-created problem that needed to be addressed along with its traditional development goals. New global treaties designed to address environmental problems were enacted. In an effort to address a growing hole in the earth’s ozone layer, the 1985 Vienna Convention on the protection of the ozone layer was negotiated followed by the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. These treaties can be considered the most successfully implemented environmental treaties relative to other treaties negotiated. The Montreal Protocol called on state parties to take action to reduce and eliminate the production and consumption of ozone depleting substances (ODS) such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning. Since going into effect, the treaty has been updated and renegotiated to further the goals of the Protocol.

One hundred and eighty-nine states made a commitment to the success of the Protocol and there has been tremendous progress in repairing the hole in the ozone layer due to these agreements. While the agreement is an international agreement among states, some have argued that the success of the Protocol would not have been possible without the commitment and leadership of the United States and the cooperation from major companies that produce CFCs, who aggressively sought alternatives to this harmful substance.

In another environmentally related development, in 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in collaboration with World Meteorological Organization and UNEP. These entities were designed to investigate growing concerns about temperature increases associated with carbon dioxide buildup in the earth’s atmosphere. Policies regarding climate control were seen as necessary after the first Assessment Report by the IPCC. This report led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which provides an overall policy framework for addressing climate change issues. A third major problem area addressed starting in 1989 is toxic waste disposal. This was first discussed under the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes. The agreement bans the export of hazardous waste from rich to poorer countries.

The Earth Summit and Beyond

With the wider scope of environmental issues being discussed by the countries of the world, between 1989 and 1992 the governments prepared for a UN Conference on Environment and Development. This conference is also known as the Earth Summit, or the Rio Summit, and took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. The conference was another watershed event for the UN as it laid the groundwork for a number of agreements and proposed an ambitious environmental and social policy agenda detailed in the final conference document, Agenda 21. The framework laid out in Agenda 21 included issues of sustainable development such as combating poverty, protecting health, human settlements, population, as well as environmental concerns such as atmosphere, land management, deforestation, biological diversity, desertification, and sustainable agriculture.

While the participating nations were able to reach agreement, there were differences in emphasis sought by nations from different regions. The developing countries wanted to focus more on freshwater, deforestation, and pollution as opposed to the advanced industrialized countries, which sought to emphasize ozone depletion, hazardous wastes, and global warming. There were several conventions and commissions created to work on sustainable development during and following the Rio Summit, including the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1994 Convention to Combat Desertification, the 1995 Agreement Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stock and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, the 1998 Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade and the 2000 Stockholm Treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

This gathering was also significant because nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made inroads into the UN policymaking structure, a role that had traditionally been limited to nation states and in which NGOs were largely ignored or dealt with only informally. The Global Forum was a very effective parallel summit and it was hard for the states involved in the Earth Summit to ignore this important sector. Since that time civil society organizations have been more formally integrated into the UN’s policymaking process.

Although the Earth Summit is still hailed as an important event, its significance lies more in the attention paid to environmental and development issues than in the actual actions that resulted. While some agreements were reached and progress made, its goals have not been advanced nearly as rapidly as originally hoped. World leaders revisited the issues of sustainable development in Johannesburg in 2002, 10 years after the first Earth Summit, in order to discuss the lack of progress made toward meeting the goals of Agenda 21 and other agreements created under the Earth Summit.

The UN is the central organization where states of the world gather to make broad international agreements about many global issues including those related to the environment. Since its foundation, the UN and its subsidiary organizations have been working to create knowledge and awareness, set standards, and help carry out environmental policies accepted by the international community. So far these issues have been primarily addressed by the GA and ECOSOC. But, as resources become scarcer, states might start to consider environmental issues, especially those related to energy and water scarcity, as security issues and shift environmental policy responsibility to the Security Council. The goal of the UN has been to avoid environmental problems from becoming issues of international security and continue the work among member states to create a safer and cleaner environment. To this end, there have been more than 3,000 treaties signed and deposited with the UN and nearly 41 major multilateral treaties and conventions conducted under the auspices of the UN.


  1. Christopher Flavin, Hilary French, and Gary Gardner, State of the World Report 2002: Special World Summit Edition (Worldwatch Institute, 2002);
  2. Karen Mingst and Margaret P. Karns, The United Nations in the Post-Cold War Era (Westview, 2000);
  3. United Nations, Basic Facts about the United Nations (United Nations, 2004);
  4. United Nations, “Sustainable Development, Human Settlements and Energy,” www.un.org;
  5. United Nations Environment Programme, https://www.unenvironment.org/;
  6. Thomas G. Weiss, David P. Forsythe, and Roger Coate, The United Nations and Changing World Politics (Westview 2004).

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