In the course of the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, the increase in the earth's population and the advance of technology, with concomitant changes in patterns of production and consumption, led to pressure on the environment and threats to its stability that were new in human history. For a long time, the implications of these phenomena were largely ignored. In the decade of the 1960s, however, problems such as soil erosion; air, water, and marine pollution; the need for conservation of limited resources; and desiccation of once-fertile zones became acute enough to awaken the consciousness of governments and people in all parts of the world, but especially in the industrialized countries, to the urgency of the situation. The UN responded with the decision of the 1968 General Assembly to convene a world conference on the human environment.
The first UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm in June 1972. The conference was a focus for, rather than the start of, action on environmental problems. At its conclusion, the participants, representing over 90% of the world's population, adopted a declaration and a 109-point plan of action for the human environment that became the blueprint for a wide range of national and international programs. The broad intent of the action plan was to define and mobilize "common effort for the preservation and improvement of the human environment." The preamble to the declaration conveys the urgency, magnitude, and complexity of that task.
Later in 1972, on the basis of the conference's recommendations, the General Assembly created the UN Environment Program (UNEP), to monitor significant changes in the environment and to encourage and coordinate sound environmental practices. With headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, UNEP is the first global UN agency to be headquartered in a developing country. Its mission is to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.
Twenty years after its inception, UNEP's mandate was reaffirmed and strengthened in 1992 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Out of that conference came an ambitious plan of action—Agenda 21—with an emphasis on integrating development and environment into all United Nations program areas.
The UNEP secretariat is headed by an executive director who is elected by the UN General Assembly for a four-year term, upon the recommendation of the Secretary-General. UNEP's professional staff in 1997 numbered around 250. Besides its Nairobi headquarters, UNEP maintains regional offices in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, West Asia, and North America.
UNEP's Governing Council is composed of 58 states elected by the General Assembly for four-year terms on the basis of equitable geographic representation (16 African seats, 13 Asian seats, 10 Latin American and Caribbean seats, 6 seats for Eastern European states, 13 seats for Western European and other states). The Governing Council generally meets every two years.
In 2002, the following states had representatives on the Governing Council: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, Chad, China, Colombia, Congo, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, France, The Gambia, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Italy, Japan, Kenya, Libya, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Myanmar, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Slovakia, Sudan, Suriname, Switzerland, Syrian Arab Republic, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, Uruguay, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
The Council's functions and responsibilities include promoting international cooperation in the field of environment and recommending policies to that end, providing general policy guidance for environmental programs within the UN system, keeping the world environmental situation under review so as to ensure that emerging problems requiring international assistance receive adequate consideration by governments, promoting the contribution by international scientific and other professional communities to knowledge about the environment and the technical aspects of UN environmental programs, keeping under review the impact of national and international development policies, and reviewing and approving the utilization of the resources of the Environment Fund.
The Environment Fund was set up under the authority of the Governing Council to finance wholly or partly the costs of new environmental initiatives within the UN system. It is made up of voluntary contributions. Altogether 143 countries made at least one voluntary contribution to the Environment Fund over the period 1973–2001. Eleven countries maintained their regular annual contributions over the whole period, thus ensuring continuous support and implementation of the UNEP program. Still, 95% of the total contributions to the fund came from just 20 countries. UNEP's budget for 2000–01 was $119.2 million. In 2001 the number of donor countries increased to 79, contributing approximately US$44 million to the Environment Fund.
For its first 20 years, UNEP's policy, as set by the Governing Council, has been focused on the three broad areas of environmental assessment, environmental management, and international environmental law. Many parts to the program evolved under these three themes. There was the environmental monitoring capacity built up in the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS), and the establishment of a computerbased store of data in the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC). More computer-based capability was developed to show how both natural and human resources are distributed in the Global Resource Information Database (GRID). In addition, UNEP.net, a web-based interactive catalogue and multifaceted portal, offers access to environmentally relevant geographic, textual, and pictorial information. Another key information system is INFOTERRA, UNEP's international network for the retrieval of global environmental information. It is a worldwide network with national focal points in 177 countries, providing governments, industry, and researchers with access to a vast reservoir of environmental data and information gathered from about 6,800 institutions and experts in more than 1,000 priority subject areas.
Environmental management and legal instruments were developed. The most successful example of international environmental law can be seen in the instruments used to protect the ozone layer: the 1985 Vienna Convention and the 1987 Montreal Protocol. Expert groups convened by UNEP, with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the scientific community, and industry, led to the development of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which was adopted in March 1985. In September 1987 the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed, setting limits for the production and consumption of chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. The Montreal Protocol came into force on 1 January 1989 and was amended in London in June 1990, in Copenhagen in 1992, and in Vienna in 1995 after research showed that ozone depletion was even more severe than previously feared. Industrialized countries succeeded in phasing out the production and consumption of halons by 1 January 1994, and were well on the way to the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons by the end of 1995. The consumption of CFCs in industrialized countries decreased from about 1,000,000 tons in 1987 (when the Protocol was signed) to about 13,000 tons in 1996. Developing countries, although mandated to begin phase-out only in 1999, began making progress before that time. A multilateral fund, involving UNEP, UNDP, and the World Bank, was established to help developing countries meet the costs of complying with the revised protocol and to provide for the necessary transfer of technology. By 2001, the fund had already disbursed US $1.2 billion to developing countries for transition to ozone-safe technology.
The Mediterranean Action Plan has been the model as UNEP's Regional Seas Programme has spread. Today, nearly 140 countries take part in Regional Seas Programmes catalyzed and coordinated by UNEP. Action Plans cover the Mediterranean, the Kuwait region, the Red Sea, the Caribbean, the Atlantic coast of West and Central Africa, the Eastern African seaboard, the Pacific coast of South America, the islands of the South Pacific, the East-Asian region, the South Asian region, the Black Sea, the North-West Pacific and the South-West Atlantic. An Action Plan for the Caspian Sea is being developed. Coordination is provided through the UNEP Water Branch.
UNEP provides the secretariat for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which entered into force in 1975 and prohibits or regulates trade in some 30,000 endangered species. The protection of endangered species under the CITES Convention has seen successful international cooperation to stamp out trade in rare plants and animals.
UNEP also provides the secretariat for the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), which came into force in 1983. UNEP supports the World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC), which assesses the distribution and abundance of the world's species. Action plans for African elephants and rhinos, Asian elephants and rhinos, primates, cats, and polar bears have been published by UNEP and IUCN.
UNEP also has contributed to the drawing up of global conventions on hazardous waste, climate change, biodiversity, and desertification and of international guidelines, including those on international trade in chemicals, protection of marine environment from land-based activities, environmental impact assessment and shared natural resources.
In March 1989, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, drafted by UNEP, was adopted by 116 governments and the European Community. The convention entered into force on 5 May 1992. Its immediate target is to impose strict controls on the international movement of hazardous wastes and eventually to reduce their production. As of November 2002, 152 countries acceded or had signaled their intention to accede to the convention.
In June 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity was signed during the UN Conference on Environmental and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The convention was prepared by an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, set up by UNEP's Governing Council and assisted by UNEP, FAO, UNESCO, and IUCN. Its main aims are to conserve biological diversity and to ensure that its benefits to mankind are shared equitably.
UNEP also supports the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), which has established a network of gene banks in 30 countries to house the world's 40 base collections. More than 100 countries collaborate and more than 500,000 plant species have been collected, evaluated, and deposited.
A joint venture between UNEP, UNDP, and the UN Sudano-Sahelian Office is assisting 22 Sudano-Sahelian countries to fight desertification. In spite of these efforts, implementation of the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification has been slow. UNEP's Plan of Action to Combat Desertification has been succeeded by the Convention to Combat Desertification, wich entered into force in 1996. UNEP's activities in desertification control now focus on achieving strong support and effective implementation of the convention.
UNEP, along with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to provide scientific assessments on the magnitude, timing, and potential environmental and socioeconomic consequences of climate change and realistic response strategies. Negotiations begun in early 1991 led to the formulation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was signed by 154 governments in Rio de Janeiro during the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. It entered into force on 21 March 1994.
The organization also is responsible for UN activities involving freshwater. Among regional initiatives are the Action Plan for Latin America and the Caribbean and the program for environmentally sound management of inland waters in the Zambezi Basin.
UNEP, along with UNDP and the World Bank, administers the US$ 2 billion Global Environment Facility (GEF), and is responsible for GEF's Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP). GEF was established as a three-year pilot in 1991 to oversee funding for global environment protection in the areas of climate change, biodiversity, international waters, and ozone depletion. In 1992, a restructuring process began that resulted in agreement on fundamentally altered institutional arrangements for the facility, now known as GEFF II. UNEP will play the primary role in catalyzing the development of scientific and technical analysis and in advancing environmental management in GEF-financed activities. It also will be responsible for establishing and supporting the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel as an advisory body to the GEF. The UNDP is responsible for technical assistance activities and capacity building. The World Bank, the GEF Trust Fund's repository, plays the primary role in ensuring the development and management of investment projects while also mobilizing private sector resources that are consistent with GEF objectives and national sustainable development strategies. The GEF provides the interim funding mechanism for the conventions on climate change and biological diversity, until parties to those conventions agree on a permanent arrangement.
UNCED and Agenda 21 marked a new beginning for the world community as a whole. Agenda 21 reaffirmed UNEP's role as the principal environment body in the UN system and expanded UNEP's role to encompass a vast range of world environmental needs and problems, with an emphasis on regional delivery.
Five years later, at the nineteenth session of the Governing Council of UNEP in 1997, as part of the ongoing reform process of the United Nations system, UNEP's Governing Council adopted the Nairobi Declaration, again asserting the role and mandate of UNEP as the leading global environmental authority and calling for assurances of financial stability for the implementation of its agenda.
Specifically, the Nairobi Declaration set out the following as core elements of the focused mandate of a revitalized UNEP:
UNEP's integrated work program emphasizes relationships between socio-economic driving forces, environmental changes, and impacts on human well-being. Equipped with a stronger regional presence and marked by a process of continuous monitoring and assessment of its implementation, UNEP's program of work focuses on the following areas: sustainable management and use of natural resources; sustainable production and consumption; a better environment for human health and well-being; and globalization of the economy and the environment.
In 2000, the fifth special session of the UNEP Governing Council and the subsequent 20th session of the Governing Council elaborated UNEP's areas of concentration, which included environmental monitoring, assessment, information, and research (including early warning); enhanced coordination of environmental conventions and development of environment policy instruments; freshwater; technology transfer and industry; and support to Africa. To support these initiatives, UNEP initiated a restructuring that was expected to trim administration costs while developing the Nairobi facility as a critical UN administrative office.