United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is an agency of the United Nations tasked to serve as a catalyst, advocate, educator, and facilitator to promote sustainable development and smart use of the global environment.

This article contains information that was originally published by the United Nations Environment Programme .  Topic editors  and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.

UNEP is able to carryout these goals by collaborating with UN entities, international organizations, national governments, civil society, non-governmental organizations, and many other partners.

UNEP has designated six priority ares that are given the highest priority in their decision making and guidance: climate change, resource efficiency, disasters and conflicts, environmental governance, harmful substances and hazardous waste, and ecosystem management.

In addition to the work done by UNEP in the six priority areas, UNEP also conducts work in additional environmental areas including biodiversity, biosafety, energy, environmental assessment, indiginous peoples, poverty and environment, regional seas, and many more.

UNEP work encompasses assessing global, regional and national environmental conditions and trends, developing international and national environmental instruments, strengthening institutions for the wise management of the environment, facilitating the transfer of knowledge and technology for sustainable development, and encouraging new partnerships and mind-sets within civil society and the private sector.

In 1988, UNEP in collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization (another UN organization), created the Intergovernmental Penal on Climate Change (IPCC), to" assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the best available scientific, technical and socio-economic information on climate change from around the world."

Achim Steiner has been the Executive Director of UNEP since 2006.


During the 1960's, the World began increasing its response to the environmental effects of industrialization. During this time, the United Nations was focused on peacefully using atomic energy, and convened meetings on this issue internationally on multiple occasions.  After attempts by Swedish diplomats and Permanent Representatives to have conferences focusing on the complex environmental problems occuring, the General Assembly supported the convening of the first  United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in 1972, which paved the way for the establishment of UNEP.  This conference became known as the "Stockholm Conference", named after the capital city where it was held. Following the Conference in the fall of 1972, delegates from around the world gathered in New York at the United Nations General Assembly to discuss an institutional and financial framework for the environment. The decisions here established the functions, form, financing, and location of what would later become UNEP. UNEP is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya

Since its creation, UNEP has been a key player in the creation of many revolutionary treaties and organizations. In 1977, UNEP initiated the World Plan of Action on the Ozone Layer in order to bring attention to the newly realized issue of the destruction of stratospheric ozone.  From this, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was started in 1985, establishing the principle of international cooperation on ozone destruction and stressing the need to cooperate in research and monitoring of the ozone.  For the first time, nations agreed in principle to tackle a global environmental problem before its effects were clear or scientifically proven.  This was followed, in 1987, by the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, a treaty with a timetable to phase out and eventually eliminate the production and consumption of these chemicals. In 1991, UNEP responded to the 1990 decision by the Parties requesting the Secretariat to publish and update a regularly Handbook, setting out the Protocol as adjusted and amended, with the decisions of the Parties and other relevant material by publishing the Handbook for the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.  Since 1990, the Protocol has been adjusted on six occasions.  The UNEP Ozone Secretariat serves as the Secretariat for both the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Its duties include arranging for and servicing the major conferences and meetings of the conventions as well as their bureau, working groups and assessment panels.

UNEP played a pivotal role in coordinating the UN system's preparations for United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. This event is often simply referred to as "the Rio Conference."

Beginning in 1978, each UN agency appointed a Designated Official on Environmental Matters (DOEM), to work with and advise UNEP's Executive Director. The DOEMs regularly reviewed the collective environmental work of UN bodies and agencies in preparation for UNCED and were involved in discussions on post-UNCED institutional arrangements. UNCED in adopting Agenda 21 (in chapter 38, paragraph 21), reaffirmed UNEP's coordinating role, stating that, "in the follow-up to the Conference, there will be a need for an enhanced role for UNEP and its Governing Council. The Governing Council should, within its mandate, continue to play its role with regard to policy guidance and coordination in the field of the environment, taking into account the development perspective". Agenda 21 further stipulated that UNEP should concentrate, on "promoting international cooperation in the field of environment and recommending, as appropriate, policies to this end".

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was also established by UNEP, along with help from the World Meteorological Organization, in 1988 to assess the state of existing knowledge about climate change: its science, the environmental, economic and social impacts and possible response strategies.


Since the inception of UNEP, there have been 5 Executive Directors responsible for coordinating, under the guidance of the Governing Council, environmental programmes within the UN system, to keep their implementation under review and to assess their effectiveness, and to advise, as appropriate and under the guidance of the Governing Council, intergovernmental bodies of the UN system on the formulation and implementation of environmental programmes  The Executive Director is elected for terms of four years.  Listed below are the Executive Directors of UNEP throughout the years. caption Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP

  • Maurice Strong (1972–1975)
  • Mostafa Kamal Tolba (1975–1992)
  • Elizabeth Dowdeswell (1992–1998)
  • Klaus Töpfer (1998–2006)
  • Achim Steiner (2006-Present)

The Governing Council

The Governing Council was created by the General Assembly of the United Nations in accordance with resolution 2997, December 15, 1972.  This council was created to carry out the functions and responsibilities of UNEP and serve as the main representation for the programme. 

The council is responsible for such tasks including promoting international cooperation in the environmental field, providing policy guidance, continually reviewing the impacts of national and international environmental policies and measures on developing countries, and ensuring national and international programmes and projects are compatible with developmental plans and priorities of their countries.

Support for International Agreements and Discussions

UNEP also hosts several environmental convention secretariats including:

and a growing family of chemicals-related agreements, including:

  • the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes; and,
  • the recently negotiated Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).


UNEP's global and cross-sectoral outlook is reflected in its organizational structure, its activities and is personnel.

To ensure its global effectiveness UNEP supports six regional offices, plus a growing network of centres of excellence such as the Global Resource Information Database (GRID) centres and the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). UNEP also has major offices in Geneva and Paris, where its Division of Technology, Industry and Economics is situated.

UNEP is separated into seven divisions:

  1. early warning and assessment (DEWA) - provides timely, scientifically credible, policy-relevant environmental analyses, data and information for decision-making and action planning for sustainable development. It monitors, analyzes and reports on the state of the global environment, assesses global and regional environmental trends and provides early warning of emerging environmental threats.
  2. environmental policy implementation (DEPI) - responsible for addressing the environmental causes of disasters and conflicts as well as their consequences.  It also handles adapting to climate change and management of our ecosystems.  This covers ecosystem services and economics, fresh water and terrestrial ecosystems, and marine and coastal ecosystems.
  3. technology, industry and ecomics (DTIE) - keeps the worlds environmental situation under review.  To accomplish this, DTIE provides policy advice and early warning informations based on their assessments.  DTIE also is responsible for facilitating the development, implementation and evolution of norms and standards and developing coherent links between international environmental conventions.
  4. regional cooperation (DRC) - responsible for undertaking relevant information and data-gathering to bring regional perspectives to the development of UNEP policies and programmes.  They are also the division who presents UNEP global policies in the regions and enlist support for them at all levels.  They implement and complement relevant parts of UNEP's global programmes through initiating, coordinating, and catalyzing regional and subregional cooperation and action in response to environmental problems and emergencies.  Since this division handles present the policy, they also assist in the development of policies and programmes on global and regional environmental issues between and within Governments in the regions.  DRC also promotes cooperation between UNEP and non-governmental organizations and the private sector.
  5. environmental law and conventions (DELC) - promotes the progessive development and implementation of environmental law in order to respond to environmental challenges.  This is particularly accomplished by supporting States and the international community in strengthening their capacity to develop and implement legal frameworks.   The DELC also was created to support the implementation of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) by parties while respecting the legal autonomy of MEAs and the decisions taken by their respective governing bodies.
  6. global environment facility coordination (GEF) - builds the link between science to policy (Capacity Building, Enabling Activities) at national, regional and global levels.  GEF also raises awareness of UNEP and evironmental issues and advocates for UNEP.
  7. communications and public information (DCPI) - creates public awareness of environmental issues in the media and implements environmental outreach campaigns (such as the Billion Tree Campaign, the Climate Neutral Network, Seal the Deal!, and UNite to Combat Climate Change).  This is the division responsible for publishing UNEP magazines "Our Planet" and "Tunza".  DCPI also maintains the UNEP library and documentation centre and responds to public inquiries.

Each of these divisions were created to carry out their responsibilities concentrating on the six priority areas.


UNEP releases a wide array of publications available for the public, some at a cost, on many hot environmental issues.  These publications include guidance manuals for practitioners in the environmental economic field for regulating services of ecosystems, status reports on issues such as recycling rates of metals, and recommendations to develop efficient sustainable lifestyle policies and initiatives.

In addition to the varying publication topics, UNEP also publishes an annual report which catalogues the work done by UNEP throughout the previous year and shows its future relevance to meet the emerging challenges in years to come.  UNEP also publishes two seperate periodicals, TUNZA and Our Planet.  Our Planet is a free publication available to the public, with each issue focusing on a specific theme like biodiversity, clean technology, or green technology implementation and use.  Our
Planet is publishes multiple publications throughout each year.  TUNZA is the UNEP magazine for youth, written by the youth and focusing on their issues. 

Further Reading

  1. United Nations Environment Programme
  2. Ivanova, Maria, Moving Forward by Looking Back: Learning from UNEP's History, in Global Environmental Governance: Perspectives on the Current Debate, Edited by Lydia Swart and Estelle Perry, Center for UN Reform Education, May 2007
  3. Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-4)
  4. Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth
  5. From_Conflict_to_Peacebuilding




Mangino, K. (2012). United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Retrieved from


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