The United Nations and the safeguarding of the environment (Basic)

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Even if few peoples are aware of it there are many UN conventions (an agreement between states) working to find solutions to the current environmental issues.

There are so many of them that even the most interested and motivated student can get lost in this impressive dedale of commissions, Ad-Hoc working groups, sub-comitte, and bodies each of them having different mandate and scope.

The purpose of this post is to introduce the different organisation (bodies in the UN vocabulary) working in this area.

-The legacy of Rio 92: CBD, UNFCC, UNCCD;

In 1992 the head of states from all over the world gathered in Rio (Brazil) and made some historical contribution to tackle the environmental issued of the next century. From it three conventions were borne: one dedicated to the climate change the United Nation Framework on Climate Change another on biodiversity the Convention on Biological Diversity and another one least known (at least in the western countries),the United Nation Convention to Combate Desertification.

Another important outcome was the Rio declaration (, that is an extremely ambitious text but most of it didn’t turned into concrete actions.

Each of these conventions meet on a regularly basis, they are different kind of meetings:

-the Conference Of Parties (COP) that is the reunion of all member states that decide on the general course of the convention, vote on every matters (budget, programms..), decide to create sub-bodies, launch working groups or Ad-Hoc working group which are meetings addressing specific issues and gathering all the science and expertise available on this. The most famous COPs are the one from the UNFCC that gather every year, like in 2009 in Copenhaguen which receive lots of attention from the western media. The other two conventions have COPs once every two years and are less followed.

-the working groups and sub-bodies meetings, they meet regularly and are the place were in-depth (well theoretically) discussion occurs, usually in the COP there is not enough time to debate on issues, and in these groups statements are made and voted that are then sent to the COP with its conclusions and plan for actions. These meetings are the place were expert and scientific address their concerns to delegates (guys representing states) and hope that they will be mirrored in the final statements.

-there are also numerous regional and even sub-regional workshops organised again to narrow down the meetings to a few specific issues.

So to sum up these big conventions have different kind of meetings with different scope every big decisions is taken during the Conference of Parties but usually these articles or agreements are reached before during sub-bodies meetings or workshop.


The International Union for the Conservation of Nature was founded in 1948 and on the contrary to every other organisation mentioned here is not related to the UN (even if it was created by the UNESCO). The IUCN is a gathering of NGOs working in the field of conservation and bringing all this knowledge together. The most famous product of the IUCN is the red list which is a very widely used assessment of species threat status (how likely is it for this species to become extinct).

They work on very wide range of topics and are represented in most conventions, which means that they can come to the meetings, give their advice/point of view (but cannot vote on decisions..).

 -CITES, CMS and Ramsar

The **Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES, **was fouded in 1963 at a meeting of the IUCN, it is a multilateral environmental agreements, which means that more than three countries have signed this treaty. Participation to it is voluntary and the articles are not legally binding.

The purpose of this convention is to regulate the trade and across border movement of living or dead specimens of endangered species, like parrots or crocodile. All species that are listed in the Appendix I are banned for trade unless exceptional circumstances for example biologist taking sample in the jungle, they apply for a permit and if the government grants it then these species can cross the borders. All species listed in Appendix II are not endangered yet but could become so if trade continue unregulated, trade is still permitted even if certain countries can ask for permits for particular species.

The** Convention on Migratory Species** was signed in 1979 and its aim was to protect migratory species that are facing major threats due to global change since they depend on good conditions in their breeding grounds, good flight conditions (no natural hazard) and then good wintering ground conditions. So these species depend on many different factors and since they occur across boundaries there protection is only relevant between states were they occur (called range state by the convention). As for CITES there are two appendices where species under Appendix I should be actively protected and actions being taken by range states government and Appendix II compile species that would benefit from international co-operation. The main output of the convention are so called agreements which are legally binding text between range state that meet and discuss the issues, there are such agreements on gorilla, dolphins…

Ramsar is less known Multilateral Environmental Agreement, its aim is to protect wetlands and their biodiversity. The main work of Ramsar is to identify site that are threatened and need particular protection, these site are then called Ramsar site. The main issue about this is that most of these sites are threatened by land use change especially urban development.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created in 1988 by the UN and its aim is to deliver reports on the currant knowledge of climate change. What the IPCC do is to gather all the science and scientific literature available and compile a synthesis of all this in a way to be understandable by non-scientific. IPCC do not carry on research, authors are not paid by the organisation but are known and respected scientific in their field. Once a year delegates from every member state meet and elect the bureau (the heads of IPCC) and each government propose a list of experts to compose the different working groups (there are three of them) there are then selected by the bureau. Then these experts will write the reports and publish them, so far there has been 4 reports published (1990,1995,2001,2007) the fifth one is expected in 2014.

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is a brand new version of the IPCC applied to the field of biodiversity conservation. It has been finalised last year (2012) in Panama and its first meeting will be held in Bonn in January of the coming year (2013). There are some difference between the IPCC and IPBES, the first one is in the output of the panels, in IPCC reports are made on a global scale yet in biodiversity efficient conservation is not decided on a global scale but more by local politics, then to better target the audience IPBES will carefully think about the “scale and scope” of each of its assessment. Another difference is the multidisciplinarity of the IPBES where natural scientist will work with social scientist and economists again to better communicate to politics. Therefore the whole process is designed to be policy-relevant which means that decision makers will use the conclusions when making policies.

There are loads of issues remaining, and even if the enthusiasm is great in the biodiversity scientific

community after the creation of this panel, the deception could be great. We have to remember that the only thing that IPBES and IPCC do is to write report that’s it, no binding decisions, no agreements, no conventions. At the end everything will be, as ever, in the hand of the decision makers.

Useful Resources:

For each of these conventions/organisations/panels, a quick search on the net will lead you to their websites, with informations more or less accessible to a large audience.

A very useful resource is the earth negotiation bulletin feed which provide summary and analysis for every major UN meetings:

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