Preparations for the Rio +20 Summit - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

4  Institutional governance

40. The institutional governance of sustainable development is the second theme of Rio+20. This is an area where the position in the UK has changed radically in the last year and a half. We have reported already on the changing UK architecture for embedding sustainable development in Government, following the abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission.[100] The Government has brought some of the role of the SDC within Defra, but also given the Cabinet Office an enhanced role. Without the SDC, the devolved administrations have also had to redesign some aspects of their sustainable development governance. The Welsh Government is introducing legislation to address sustainable development in all government activity and to establish a successor body to the SDC for Wales.[101] There is work underway in the devolved administrations which could contribute ideas on the Rio+20 themes as well as on how sub-national sustainable development governance could operate. The Government should collect that input and present it to the Conference.

41. In framing the Rio+20 theme of institutional governance, preparatory work in the UN specifically highlighted the roles of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the UN Environment Programme for review.[102] Stakeholder Forum told us that the Commission 'is no longer as productive as it should be; it has made some good analyses of problems, but it has not proved capable of following through with substantive action on the major transformational issues for the global economy'.[103] It 'is not carrying the political weight in the world that the subject deserves now, and it needs some refreshment and reinvigoration'.[104] As the Secretary General warned:

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The test of institutional efficacy and relevance lies in the ability to demonstrate results. On this count, ... there are several areas of concern. In particular, the evidence on environmental indicators continues to be below par, as does that on the convergence between the three dimensions of sustainable development.[105]

42. The UN Commission on Sustainable Development was created in 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of the original Rio Conference agreements. In 2002 it was also charged with providing policy guidance to follow up on the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. It is the UN forum for considering the integration of the three pillars of sustainable development.[106] It reports to the General Assembly through the Economic and Social Council,[107] which is responsible for coordination of policy on wider UN economic and social development initiatives.[108] The UN has been examining a range of reforms, including:

  • enhancing the UN Environment Programme;
  • establishing a new umbrella organization for sustainable development;
  • creating a specialised agency such as a world environment organisation;
  • introducing possible reforms to the Economic and Social Council and the Commission on Sustainable Development; and
  • enhanced institutional reforms and streamlining of present structures.[109]

In setting the scene in April 2010 for the next Rio conference, the Secretary General specifically identified the possibility of transforming the Commission on Sustainable Development into a sustainable development Council under the General Assembly.[110]

43. Questionnaires completed ahead of the Rio+20 Conference next year indicate that a majority of States favour strengthening existing institutions and sustainable development groups favour improved co-ordination between existing institutions, rather than changing mandates or merging institutions or creating new bodies.[111] WWF, Stakeholder Forum and others want a strengthened role for the UN Environment Programme within the UN system,[112] perhaps with an annual review of progress on sustainable development in the General Assembly.[113] Oxfam consider that the ideas being considered for reconfiguring UN governance 'fall short of what is needed', and want to see firm backing at Rio+20 for 'stronger multilateral governance'.[114] FDSD want to see a UN High Commissioner for Future Generations created,[115] and Stakeholder Forum raised the possibility of a new Sustainable Development Council integrating the work currently done by the Commission on Sustainable Development and the Economic and Social Council.[116] IIED, however, think that reform of governance at UN level is a 'misplaced prioritisation' because the 'dominant governance capacity to deliver sustainable development lies at national level'.[117] FDSD made a similar point.[118]

44. One of our witnesses wanted to see an International Court for the Environment created, to provide redress for countries and individuals when environmental law is breached.[119] They considered that initially such a Court could seek to apply existing national laws as well as international obligations such as those embodied in UN Conventions on biodiversity and climate change. Such a Court would need a treaty to establish it. The Government should examine the proposals from the International Court for the Environment Coalition, and in its response to this report set out its view of the pros and cons involved and state whether it intends to support any moves at Rio+20 to establish an International Court on the Environment.

45. The Government does not favour a new Sustainable Development Council, as advocated by Stakeholder Forum, being placed on top of the existing UN Commission on Sustainable Development and Economic and Social Council. While the Commission on Sustainable Development has not worked, the solution is not necessarily to replace it.[120] In any revision of the UN governance machinery, form should follow function. The Government wants to see how the existing UN machinery might be strengthened, including the UN Environment Programme, before creating new bodies is contemplated. That is a reasonable line to take, but the Government should not insist on this if to do so would prevent agreement on more important issues at Rio+20, including agreeing green economy principles and possible new sustainable development and consumption 'Goals'.

100   Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2010-11, Embedding sustainable development across government, after the secretary of state's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission, HC 504; and fourth Report of Session 2010-12, Embedding sustainable development: the Government's response, HC 877 Back

101   The Sustainable Development (Wales) Bill, to be introduced after the 2011-12 Session of the Welsh National Assembly Back

102   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 58 Back

103   Ev 33, para 3.1  Back

104   Q 18 Back

105   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 63 Back

106   ibid, paras 64-65 Back

107   Q 18 Back

108   UN Rio 2012 website (  Back

109   UN's Rio 2012 website ( Back

110   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 69 Back

111   Synthesis report on best practices and lessons learned on the objectives and themes of the united Nationals Conference on sustainable development, op cit, para 86 Back

112   Ev w33; Ev w49; Ev 33 Back

113   Ev w33  Back

114   Ev 27, para 21 Back

115   Ev w19, para c15 Back

116   Ev 33, para 3.2; Q 18 Back

117   Ev 22.para 6.2  Back

118   Ev w19, para b9 Back

119   Ev w1 Back

120   Qq 64-66 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 26 October 2011