15 JANUARY 2010


The December 2009 Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change succeeded at least in one major objective: serious survival issues which a year earlier sounded complex and marginal were brought to the mainstream of international public concern at the highest level. Much of the credit goes to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Despite an almost comic "Seal the Deal" campaign, dubbed "Hug a Penguin" by insiders, and a fragmented team, his personal determination, commitment and advocacy made the difference.

However, as Sam Goldwyn used to tell Hollywood movie producers, a bigger screen makes a bad picture look worse.

Focused attention exposed the inadequate status of the U.N. Environmental mechanism. Most media comments highlighted a "foundering forum" stressing a point made in a New York Times editorial that "the U.N. machinery has outlived its usefulness," suggesting that "real progress will henceforth be in smaller gatherings of the big players." Worse, a one page substantive analysis in The Financial Times pointed out in varied ways that failure of climate talks in the Danish capital to "seal" the promised "deals" increased the doubts about the U.N.'s ability to solve the world's most pressing problems. That sounded particularly frustrating as the U.N. itself had flagged most of those relevant problems over the last forty-five years. Many things happened to U.N. Environment on the road from the first Copenhagen conference to the most recent one. Duplication, fragmentation and political expediency drove its literature way ahead of its capacity to deliver.

Although Sweden raised the first alarm in a note to the Secretary General followed by an international conference, it was a thrust by Canadian Maurice Strong that led to the establishment of a U.N. Environment Programme in 1975. Geneva was his first choice, where he set up a network of personal support. Yet, upon the insistence of the African group, the Geneva Assembly decided on Kenya. Gigiri, an environmentally attractive village near Nairobi, was selected. Although somewhat cornered in unfamiliar territory, Strong led UNEP with impressive dynamics and a futuristic spin. His formidable network of influential friends placed environment on the fashionable intellectual map, particularly in key industrialized countries, where more awareness -- and action -- was most needed. Slogans like: "Think Globally, Act Locally" began surfacing widely while grass root groups keen on "greening" of our daily life spread across companies, workplaces, and parliamentary delegations. For a decade, UNEP projected an image of competence and politically correct relevance. By the time he left two years later to pursue private initiatives with high-level partnerships, UNEP was already on the international map.

While Mustapha Tolba of Egypt reigned for seventeen years, substantive projects continued, even expanded. Yet, a toll was taken on the novelty of the issues and the alert freshness of their management. Other smaller bodies started mushrooming, starting with UN HABITAT in 1978, based in the same neighbourhood of Gigiri. Its mandate as a Human Settlements Programme was "to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all." It was also headed by a senior official, though with a lesser rank of Assistant Secretary General. It had "Centres" in Nairobi, Rio and Fukuako -- yes, Fukuako -- if you can find it on a map.

As drafting generally similar yet distinctly different mandates comes naturally to any trained internationalist, more ventures mushroomed on the side, with the usual determination on close co-ordination to avoid duplication. A very experienced and delegation-friendly goateed young man from Burkina Faso found his way through a separate entity to look after Desertification. Another, from Fiji, persuasively argued about the political conflicts that could or would arise from the unpredictability of sea movements. An equally senior post was authorized. A Climate Change Secretariat initially plodded its weary way practically unnoticed between Bonn and Vienna. It could count on the enthusiastic loyalty of influential Dutch, Belgian, and Scandinavian parliamentarian joined by one or two sophisticated civil servants from the Mauritius Islands. Another senior post with appropriate -- and expanding -- staff were duly made available.

An Earth Summit in Rio, from 3 - 14 June 1992, officially entitled U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, produced a Declaration that reaffirmed the Declaration of the 1972 Stockholm conference. "With the goal of establishing a new and equitable global partnership through the creation of new levels of cooperation among states, key sectors of societies and people; working towards international agreements which respect the interests of all and protects the integrity of the global environmental and developmental system; recognizing the integral and interdependent nature of the Earth, our home," it proclaimed 27 principles with the basic first one that "human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development; they are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature."

No one would argue, of course, with such a consensus. However, since then, the overflow of environmental interests and fragmentation of their management accelerated. Mr. Strong resurfaced as a driving force of that conference with renewed ambitious projects. Mr. Tolba was succeeded in UNEP by a very charming Canadian woman with little help from her staff and very limited authority to stop increasing encroachment on her central role. The only silver lining was the emergence of a formidable Under-Secretary General for Sustainable Development, Nittin Desai, an experienced Indian, who worked well with Mr. Strong while keeping track of relevant development within the U.N. System. His practical authority was limited and when he left his Department its new leadership lost its grip and its impact. Small fiefdoms, small directors with big egos, managed to flourish, while subsequent Secretaries General were otherwise pre-occupied with their own problems and had no time to focus on such issues or sought to accommodate a potentially helpful party.

Responses to increasingly visible environmental threats over the last decade were very limited and too bureaucratic -- except when it came to travel opportunities. Like in some other intra-national issues, an "eco-tourism" industry evolved, particularly at governmental expense. Pursuing the "Ozone Layer" became an insider's black joke as almost the same groupings of tired middle-aged delegates selected resort islands like Bali in pursuit of what was abbreviated as FUNCC or FUCC (Framework for U.N. Climate Change Convention). Mercifully the "U" was eventually shifted forward though another "C" was added to aim for a UNFCCC. Meanwhile the need to deal with carbon emissions and alternative energy inspired multi-billion dollar businesses. A network of enlightened influential entrepreneurs perceived a welcome blend between clearing the stratosphere and "greening" their own bank accounts.

The U.N. had regained its role, however partially, when the Japanese government hosted a meeting in December 1997. Secretary General Annan in his first year played an impressive role in persuading governments to sign the Kyoto Protocol. For the first time, binding targets were set for 37 industrialized countries and the European Community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to an average of 5% over the five year period of 2008 - 2012. But then, Mr. Annan had more pressing concerns in his second term, the leadership team on Development within the Secretariat drastically changed, dispersed offices operated on their own with little effective co-ordination, and main operations like UNEP and HABITAT retreated into little more than parking spots for politically expedient appointments. Some momentum was noted with the appointment in 2006 of Dutch export Yuo de Boer as the new Executive Director of the Climate Change effort. He revived a $27 million operation, which had been almost dormant since 1991 when its offices were in Geneva, then moved to Bonn in 1996, following an offer by the German government. Part of the problem was in the blurred lines of guidance.

It is "institutionally linked" to the U.N. without being integrated in any of its programs. Its staff -- about 200 -- are on short-term and consultancy contracts. It wastes valuable time reporting to several governing committees with abbreviations like COP, CMP, and "subsidiary bodies." Even reporting by its chief, who is at the Assistant Secretary General level, is through two different channels: the U.N. Under-Secretary General heading the Department of Management on administrative and financial matters, and the Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs on all other matters. That means spending more time reporting than taking effective action.

When Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched his Climate Change Campaign, de Boer provided helpful and experienced support. Approaching Copenhagen, however, the special team entrusted by the Secretary General did not seem to be on the same wavelength. More to the point, the dispersed and fragmented U.N. environmental structure was not up to the level of his commitment. In Copenhagen 2009, a U.N.-sponsored conference, the U.N. Secretary General was the least mentioned participant by the international media. It was thanks to Robert Orr, a member of his office, that the U.N. got a mention at the front page of The New York Times.

Now, as the Secretary General repeatedly proclaims that he is mainly interested in results, he may wish to review the current situation as he prepares to get a more definite commitment from world leaders before the end of this year.

The only advice we would add to his team is: Keep "Hopenhagen," but avoid the hot air.