Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders

The Fascinating Origin Story of the United Nations Environment Program, UNEP

The United Nations Environment Program, UNEP, turns 50 years old this year. And in early June world leaders are gathering in the city where UNEP was born to commemorate this milestone in a conference known as Stockholm+50.

Maria Ivanova wrote the book on the absolutely fascinating history of the United Nations Environment Program.  She is a professor of Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of the book “The Untold Story of the World’s Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at 50.

We kick off discussing the historical context in which UNEP was born before having a broader conversation about some of the key decisions and key moments from the 50 year history of the UN’s first global environmental body.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What Was the Significance of Earthrise, the Photo Taken from the 1968 Apollo Mission? 

Maria Ivanova [00:01:56] Often now when we talk about environmental governance, anything environmental, what do we see on the cover of a book? On a web page? We see the globe, right? We see the planet. And in 1968 we saw that picture for the first time, Earthrise. When the astronauts from Apollo took the picture of the earth rising over the moon. And that picture from 1968 has since defined the inextricable connectedness on our small planet and this is indeed what raised awareness around the world in the late 1960s and what motivated the environmental movement of the 1970s. So, the Stockholm Conference, the main report ended the slogan, the motto for the conference was only one earth, and it was inspired by that picture, the most important photographs of our time: Earthrise.

What caused the major environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:05] It’s incredible to me that a picture taken in 1968 could lead to a major international conference premised on a budding environmental movement just four years later.

Maria Ivanova [00:03:19] Well, it wasn’t just the picture, but it really sensitized people to how small our planet was and to how singular it was. Only one earth, right? Only one planet was the slogan of the conference but indeed, the awareness came earlier in the 1960s, 1962 was another awareness raising event, and it was a book maybe that’s surprising. We have a photograph and a book. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was the one intellectual contribution that led to public outcry in the United States, and that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, in April of 1970, when 10% of the population of the United States spilled into the streets in protest and demanded environmental action. That, in turn, led to the creation of a whole suite of institutions in the United States: The Environmental Protection Agency, the National Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and that determined the leadership of the United States. So, there’s a whole series of events that led to a public outcry in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and indeed to the conference, because the government of Sweden proposed the convening of a conference on environment rather than on the peaceful use of nuclear energy in 1968 and it does take four years to convene a conference in the United Nations.

Why did countries start to create their own environmental protection agencies?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:08] And so presumably other countries in the world were developing, I don’t know if you’d call them environmental ministries, but, you know, the rough equivalents of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and presumably one purpose of a conference like this is to create mechanisms for these ministries or agencies in national governments to kind of like talk to each other.

Maria Ivanova [00:05:32] Well, I’ll have to correct you on that, Mark.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:34] Please. You wrote the book literally.

Maria Ivanova [00:05:39] No, countries did not develop environmental ministries before the conference. They did so after the conference. And they did so as a result of what I call the Anchor Institution for the Global Environment, the UN Environment Program, that helped countries create these ministries. It was the United States that had the Environmental Protection Agency. It was Sweden that had an environmental ministry but not many more countries.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:09] Fascinating. So, it was the opposite of what I said, essentially, that with the advent of the United Nations environmental program gave rise to the idea that government should have like ministries devoted to environmental issues.

How was the United Nations Environment Program started?

Maria Ivanova [00:06:26] Correct.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:27] So what’s the origin story of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)? How did it come to life?

Maria Ivanova [00:06:32] So UNEP came to life again in this spectrum of environmental awareness so as countries, citizens understood the interconnectedness of the environmental issues with that Earthrise image, with the pollution that we were seeing around the world, mostly across developed countries, there was a clear understanding that collective problems require collective action. And there were a number of individuals in the United States, in Sweden, across other countries around the world that actually saw not only the need for these institutions for collective action, but also how they could be put in place, and then the need for an institution for collective action at the global level. And so, UNEP came about because some people in the United States, ambassador John McDonald, for example, who was in the U.S. State Department, saw the need for an international institution. There was a gap. He had created other institutions. He had created the U.N. Population Fund; UN volunteers and he articulated the need for an international institution for environment. And he developed the rationale for it and the support for it in the U.S. government. So, again, surprisingly, and counter to conventional wisdom, the United States government at the time in the 1970s was a leader in the imagining of a new international institution for the environment. So, it was indeed the United States and Sweden that led the idea for the creation of such an institution. Many developed countries in Europe, the U.K., for example, or France, were not only not supportive, they were actually quite opposed to the idea of a new international environmental institution. It goes quite counter to the kind of narratives that we have developed over time.

How did the Cold War affect the creation of the United Nations Environment Program?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:06] I think maybe another interesting thing that’s counterintuitive or counter to the conventional narrative that I understand now, which is that in this period, more broadly speaking, across the UN system, there was this deep paralysis because of the Cold War. Yet here you have the advent of a new United Nations institution in the height of the Cold War. Were there important Cold War dynamics informing the creation of UNEP?

Maria Ivanova [00:09:36] Absolutely. There were very important Cold War dynamics in the convening of the Stockholm conference. So, in these early 1970s, we had the two Germanys right, East Germany and West Germany and East Germany was not allowed to participate in the conference. This was Cold War dynamics because East Germany was not formally a member of the United Nations. And so, in solidarity, the Soviet Union and all of the Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the conference. They did not attend. And so, you have the entire Eastern Bloc absent from the Stockholm Conference. However, because of the wit, the commitment, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the Secretary General of the conference, Maurice Strong, these countries were kept engaged through direct diplomatic channels. So, Maurice Strong talked to the Russian ambassador regularly, and indeed environment became the space, the platform where a lot of collaboration between East and West, between North and South happened after the Cold War. But during the Stockholm Conference itself, this was Cold War dynamics at their height.

Who was Maurice Strong?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:12] And I’m glad you mention Maurice Strong because he is like a fascinating figure. He’s a Canadian who earned a fortune in the fossil fuels industry, if I’m not mistaken, but then became a leading figure in the international environmental movement. I sort of know of his work, mostly through his association with Kofi Annan, they were sort of tight compatriots back at the time. But it’s just fascinating to me to think that someone with that background could become this international environmental leader.

Maria Ivanova [00:11:46] You’re absolutely right. My entire work on global environmental governance is at the juncture of individuals and institutions. And while I am a scholar of institutions, I focus a lot on the role of individuals in these institutions. And so I have studied Maurice Strong, I have interviewed Maurice Strong and convened all of UNEP’s executive directors in 2009 for the first and now only time, all five at the time, UNEP executive directors, came together in the same room to discuss the history of UNEP, the vision for its future, and share their insights with a group of people who had led and created institutions, but also a group of young people from around the world who were emerging leaders. Now, over ten years later, they have all emerged and have become powerful leaders in their own right. But Maurice Strong was there, Mostafa Tolba who’s another very important leader of UNEP, Liz Dowdeswell, Klaus Toepfer and of course, Achim Steiner.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:11] And it’s just fascinating to me that, you know, in today’s context it would be unheard of to have someone who had that background in the oil and gas industry become an environmental leader and the leader of a UN agency dedicated to environmental progress.

Maria Ivanova [00:13:28] Well, Maurice Strong is a complex figure. He actually comes from a very modest background. He did not even finish high school. So, his engagement with the oil industry was because of where he was in Canada at the time, and he traveled up north, and these were the explorers at the time is what type of resources are there? And so, indeed, with his smarts and his wit, he managed to work for companies, but he was also the director, the head of the Canadian Development Agency, CEDA. And this is what he was right before he became the Secretary-General of the Stockholm Conference. But he’s also someone who was very committed to the United Nations. He had always wanted to work at the United Nations, and he started as a security guard at the United Nations when he was very young. And he understood that this would not be the way to go to the top. And so, he exited, made a fortune, worked with companies, but he always preserved that interest in global collective action and in the environment.

Why was the United Nations Environment Program headquarters placed in Nairobi, Kenya?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:53] So I want to ask you about key accomplishments of UNEP over the last 50 years but before we get there, I have to imagine that there is an interesting story to tell about how UNEP became the first United Nations major office to be located in Africa. Its headquarters is in Nairobi. How did that come about?

Maria Ivanova [00:15:18] That’s also a counterintuitive story. In some of the narratives about how that comes about, people would say, or even scholars write, that it was a very purposeful decision to put UNEP out of sight, out of mind. We’ve created the first environmental institution in the United Nations, governments were afraid that it will be too powerful, therefore, they almost conspired to put it away in Nairobi, where it would be indeed out of sight, out of mind. That’s not the story. That’s not what happened. And I uncovered the story by going into the archives of the U.N. and reading through the transcripts of the deliberations at the time. And what happened was a very genuine debate about where a new international institutions headquarters would be located, and it was about representation. Until then, the United Nations agencies were all located in the global north and there was a very valid argument made by Kenya very forcefully in the U.N. General Assembly, that it was time for fairness, for equity in the location of U.N. headquarters around the world. And the decision to locate the headquarters of UNEP in Nairobi came about in a competition. There were competitive bids from ten countries. Kenya was one of them. And ultimately, it was the result of a vote in the committee of the U.N. General Assembly. And at the time, again, think of this as Cold War, but it’s also post-colonial reality and a lot of UN member states are previous colonies that had just gained nationhood and the developing countries outnumbered developed countries and made a very powerful argument for locating this new agency in in Nairobi. And as the result of a vote most countries voted yes, so all developing countries voted yes, most developed countries actually abstained, and the final result was a decision to locate the headquarters of the first U.N. environmental institution in the global south, in Kenya. The decision to locate UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi has had significant impact because it enabled developing countries to be part of this environmental agenda, but it also colored what the UNEP itself as an institution was responsive to and what it was able to do. UNEP had to become more responsive to the problems that it saw on the ground, and it became an advocate for the interests of developing countries. And this is why I call UNEP the Anchor Institution for the Global Environment because anchor institutions are institutions that cannot move. They anchor the debate both physically but also conceptually and UNEP has anchored the debates on global environmental governance in the global south and it has a responsibility to the community within which it is located to be responsive and to actually contribute to those communities in a substantive, in a productive way.

What progress has the United Nations Environment Program made for the climate?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:33] So looking back over the last 50 years of UNEP, what would you consider to be its most important or significant contributions to environmental causes?

Maria Ivanova [00:19:47] So we have to think about the mandate of the institution and the expectations from the institution, and those are not necessarily the same things. So, UNEP’s mandate is to be the environmental conscience of the world, is to raise awareness, to bring the environmental dimensions to the UN system and to bring together the environmental institutions or the institutions that work on environment in the UN system. The expectations from UNEP are often that it would resolve environmental problems, but it does not have the capacity, does not have the instruments, the tools to resolve global collective action problems on its own. So therefore, I would characterize accomplishments in three areas. One, it did raise awareness about environmental issues around the world, and it continues to do so. Two, it catalyzed the creation of institutions for environmental protection around the world. Those environmental ministries that we talked about, it was UNEP that was the catalyst, the creator of these institutions. And third, it did contribute to collective action on global problems, on global environmental problems. And indeed, through that collective action from science, from policy, from companies, from citizens, it contributed to the resolution of some critical global environmental problems. And here, ozone depletion is exhibit one. If it were not for UNEP, if it were not for indeed its executive director at the time, Mostafa Tolba, I doubt that we would have come to the resolution of the depletion of the ozone layer in the manner in which we did. Now the ozone hole is healing, and it is the one global problem that we can say we have almost resolved.

What was the Montreal Protocol of 1987?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:11] And you’re referring to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which is, I think, widely considered the most impactful or successful global environmental treaty and as you said it was convened under U.N. auspices and I think the last time you and I spoke for the podcast was a podcast episode focused on the success of the Montreal Protocol in closing the hole in the ozone layer. But you cite a direct link between the advent of UNEP and the successful healing of the ozone.

Maria Ivanova [00:22:45] Indeed. Indeed, and this Mark is also an example of the importance of both individuals and institutions in exercising leadership.

How are the United Nations Environment Program and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change related?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:57] To what extent is UNEP responsible for or a contributor to the advent of the U.N. F.C.C., the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, that is the kind of driving force behind international negotiations on climate change.

Maria Ivanova [00:23:17] To a great extent, UNEP, and the World Meteorological Organization, WMO, were the co-creators of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports we now await eagerly, and they get more and more dire by the year, right? But this scientific assessment that this panel was created to deliver was absolutely critical. And this is what UNEP did, it mobilized the science. That was its mandate and it delivered on its mandate in an outstanding manner. And so, after that, science came to the fore, scientists called on governments to create the necessary institutions and the institution that was deemed necessary was a new convention, a new instrument, and that was the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. And it was adopted in 1992 during the Rio conference, the Earth Summit, which was celebrated, which was convened on the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference.

What might happen at the Stockholm plus 50 event?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:35] So we are speaking during a year of commemoration of Stockholm plus 50. As world leaders and as delegates and academics, NGO leaders are convening in Stockholm in person, presumably for this commemoration, what should those of us who are not in Stockholm, expect out of Stockholm plus 50? Is this going to be just a celebration of accomplishments of years past, or is there some sort of forward-looking agenda that will be articulated or has been articulated around this conference?

Maria Ivanova [00:25:18] So Stockholm plus 50 is going to be a different event. It is formally not considered now a conference. So, it was the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the Rio Earth Summit, which was also a conference. In Stockholm now we will only have two days and they are termed to be an international meeting. So, it is a commemoration. It is a celebration of the anniversary and a wakeup call, an urge to action to governments, but also to citizens, to companies, to campuses, universities around the world to do things that matter, to deliver on the commitments that were made in Stockholm, in Rio, and in the conferences since. But there will not be any formal negotiations. I think this is a celebration, but it’s also a wakeup call.

What is the United Nations Environment Program doing now for the environment and the climate?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:32] So I guess building off that idea of like this being a wakeup call, having studied so carefully the history of UNEP, what role might UNEP play today to perhaps more progressively fulfill against its mandate?

Maria Ivanova [00:26:54] So what can UNEP do? What can UNEP do as the small institution within the United Nations with a big mandate to address world environmental issues, whether it’s through awareness or through the creation of institutions or through direct action. It is indeed the question that not only is UNEP asking itself, but others are asking of UNEP. And I would answer this, that UNEP must be seen as the resource that makes other agencies more effective. UNEP has to be seen as the connector, the catalyst, the collaborator. That is where its comparative advantage lies. UNEP will not be able to resolve environmental problems by itself. It would not be able to give the resources to every place where they are necessary. However, UNEP is the convener. It holds a tremendous power to articulate where the problems are, but also bring together thinkers and doers and to articulate a new way of moving forward and make the connections. Make the connections among countries, among companies, among citizens and I would really emphasize among universities, this is the one area where I will continue to tell UNEP, let’s work more on bringing the young people, through universities, into a more coherent and more purposeful collective trajectory.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:52] Well, Maria, thank you so much for your time and I will post a link to your book in the show notes of this episode. Thank you.

Maria Ivanova [00:29:01] Thank you very much.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:04] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Maria Ivanova. That was great. And I do want to plug that last time that I spoke with Maria Ivanova for the podcast was part of a special episode I did on the history of the Montreal Protocol. This, of course, was the landmark United Nations treaty that resulted in the closing of the hole in the ozone layer. And I did this episode as part of a special series in which I partnered with the United Nations Foundation around the success stories of multilateral cooperation. So do check out that episode in the archives. All right. We’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!