Making International Environmental Efforts Work: The Case for a Global Environmental Organization By Daniel C. Esty and Maria H. Ivanova

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Making International

Environmental Efforts Work:

The Case for a Global

Environmental Organization
By Daniel C. Esty and Maria H. Ivanova

Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy

Prepared for presentation at the Open Meeting of the Global Environmental Change Research Community

Rio de Janeiro, October 6-8, 2001

Daniel C. Esty is a professor of environmental law and policy at the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He is also Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Associate Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (


Maria H. Ivanova is the Director of the Global Environmental Governance Project ( and doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. E-mail:

Established in 1994, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy draws on resources throughout Yale University to develop and advance environmental policy locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. One core goal is to develop and advance policies responding to critical environmental problems and to provide a forum in which scholars, environmental advocates, business people, officials, and representatives of international organizations can exchange views.

2001 Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy

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New Haven CT 06511

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction 4

2. Rationale for a Global Environmental Organization 5

2.1 The Environmental Problems of the 21st Century 5

2.2 The Global Environmental Governance System 6

2.2.1. Failed Collective Action 6

2.2.2 Fragmentation 8

2.2.3 Deficient Authority 8

2.2.4 Insufficient Legitimacy 9

2.2.5 Fiddling or fixing 10

3. Functions and Features of a GEO 11

3.1 Decision-Making 11

3.2 Implementation 12

3.3 Monitoring 12

3.4 Conflict Resolution 13

3.5 Features of a GEO 13

4. What’s in a Name? 14

5. Organizational Design 14

6. Benefits of a GEO 16

6.1 Improved Collective Action 16

6.2 Improved Problem Solving 17

6.3 Improved Legitimacy 18

6.4 Strengthened Policy Space for the Environment 18

6.5 Improved Fairness 18

7. Implementation Strategies 19

8. Conclusion 20

9. References 21

Making International Environmental Efforts Work: The Case for a Global Environmental Organization
By Daniel C. Esty and Maria H. Ivanova

1. Introduction

Poor performance in response to mounting global scale pollution and natural resource management challenges has spurred interest in rethinking global environmental governance and perhaps restructuring the current institutional architecture. Both former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and French President Jacques Chirac have urged the establishment of a Global Environmental Organization.1 While more modest reform agendas, building on the status quo, might also be considered, the nature of the environmental problems at the global level and the inherent shortcomings of the existing structure argue strongly for a broader reconfiguration of the international environmental regime.

Significant natural resources, from the ocean bed to the atmosphere, are shared regionally or globally. Yet, despite the multitude of treaties, conventions, and agencies, the current global environmental management system has failed to address and solve problems related to transboundary pollution spillovers and shared resources. A revitalized and strengthened policy mechanism and structure is needed to respond to the scale and complexity of the problems and to the changing context within which they have to be tackled. To this end, options for a new, flexible, and innovative approach to addressing global environmental problems need to be developed. The world community would benefit from the presence of an authoritative environmental voice in the international arena and a recognized forum for national officials and other stakeholders to work cooperatively to address global issues.

In this paper, we advance the case for a Global Environmental Organization (GEO). Our proposal for a GEO builds on a careful analysis of the problems that must be addressed internationally and the key capacities that an international environmental body should possess. We outline a possible organizational structure, sketch out an implementation strategy, and address some of the arguments likely to be raised against creating a GEO.

2. Rationale for a Global Environmental Organization

2.1 The Environmental Problems of the 21st Century

From thinning of the ozone layer to depleted fisheries to the possibility of climate change, the world community faces today a number of inherently global challenges. Advances in a range of ecological sciences continue to unveil new threats to the “global commons” that deserve attention – from airborne mercury to disrupted hydrological systems – as well as new inter-relationships among issues, such as the impact of excess nitrogen from fertilizers or vehicle emissions on terrestrial and marine ecosystems.2 Ecological interdependence is a fact.3 The only question is whether we will manage it thoughtfully, explicitly, and effectively or on an unsystematic and ad hoc basis.

Clearly, some environmental problems are of limited geographic scope and can be handled at the national scale. But governments around the world are beginning to recognize their inability to address the many environmental problems with international implications on their own. Thus, stronger national, state/regional and local environmental performance is necessary, but cannot substitute for appropriate action at the global scale.

And the problem is not just environmental. Basic economics teaches that unregulated shared resources are at risk of overexploitation. Fish stocks, for instance, can be run down quickly if every fisherman tries to catch as many fish as possible as quickly as possible. Similarly, transboundary spillovers of pollution (such as SO2 emissions drifting downwind and causing acid rain or contamination of shared rivers, such as the Danube) cannot be adequately addressed at the national scale. If not controlled, such “uninternalized externalities”4 lead to “market failures” and result in allocative inefficiency in the economic realm, reduced gains from trade, and lost social welfare, not to mention environmental degradation.

As the longstanding literature on “public goods” makes clear,5 collective action to address externalities must be at the scale on which the harms arise. Thus, some sort of functioning global environmental regime becomes an economic as well as an ecological necessity. Because environmental problems are diverse and arise at different scales, a governance structure must similarly be multi-tier in structure. What is therefore needed is a “nesting” of institutions6 – a framework of local, regional, national, and international policy mechanisms for a comprehensive, effective and integrated approach to environmental governance.

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