Global Environmental Governance: Preface by David Runnalls

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The first global conference on the environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, set in motion three decades of discussion, negotiation and ratification of a whole series of international environmental agreements. My late colleague, Konrad von Moltke, had a list of more than 500 different agreements and even he was not sure that he had identified all of them.

The Stockholm Conference spawned the United Nations Environment Programme. The Earth Summit, held in Rio 20 years later, brought with it the Conventions on Biological Diversity, Climate Change and Desertification and created another UN political institution, the Commission on Sustainable Development. And the desire to host a prestigious international institution led to the decisions to locate the small and underfunded secretariats of many of these agreements in many geographically diverse homes—from Montreal to Bonn to Rome and some places in between. In a sense, we have been embarrassed by our own success. Major institutions, such as the World Bank as well as the World Trade Organization, claim sustainable development as their overarching goal. A similar growth of interest is also seen within non-UN international and regional institutions in terms of environmental and sustainable development concerns.

The international environmental institutions have each evolved differently, but they all have something in common. They are unusually open, both to civil society actors and to the business community. My own Institute is proud to have contributed to this openness and transparency through our publication of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, which is present at virtually every meeting of the Conferences of the Parties.

The immense growth of the system of global environmental governance signifies the world’s growing appreciation of the scope and scale of the problems. However, this growth has also made the system unwieldy and increasingly incoherent. There is now a general agreement that this system is more cumbersome and less effective than it must be if we are to confront the serious environmental challenges laid out in such international reports as those of the IPCC and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Although many of these institutions remain small and fragile, their tasks are vital and they can often bring substantial financial resources to bear.

There have been lots and lots of proposed schemes and solutions to the global environmental governance “problem.” These range from the reform of UNEP to the creation of a World or Global Environmental Organization. They involve “clustering” some of the secretariats by specialty, or even merging some or all of them.

The Danish Government approached IISD and asked us if we could help make some sense out of this debate, to summarize the options and to make some recommendations for progress. The timing has been propitious, as there is a major UN reform process well underway, which includes global environmental governance as one of its prime goals.

The work has been directed by IISD Associate, Adil Najam, a Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and by two of his Fletcher colleagues, Mihaela Papa and Nadaa Taiyab. It was reviewed by an international Advisory Group which I had the privilege to chair. The group included eminent experts from diverse backgrounds, all serving in their individual capacities. The Advisory Group met twice, once in Boston, courtesy of the Fletcher School, and once in the Conference Room of the Danish Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen.

We have made some recommendations which we think can be taken up within the practical politics of the moment and which we think would make the system work much better. We have drawn inspiration from Konrad von Moltke who never gave up on this system despite its frequent failures, and who constantly reminded us of just how complex the art of environmental governance can be. As Konrad put it in an IISD paper, it is “The Organization of the Impossible.”

I want to thank the Danish Government for supporting this project and continuing to fund its publication and follow-up. And I would like to congratulate Dr. Najam and his colleagues on a job well and promptly done.

David Runnalls
President and CEO
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)

Back to TOC: Global Environmental Governance: A Reform Agenda



Najam, A., & Development, I. (2007). Global Environmental Governance: Preface by David Runnalls. Retrieved from


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