Skip to content

Realpolitik and Reform at Rio+20: The Politics of Reforming the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Kemp, Luke. 2014. Realpolitik and Reform at Rio+20: The Politics of Reforming the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Earth System Governance Working Paper, No.30.


This research aims to explore the barriers and opportunities to change in the form and mandate of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and to develop scenarios for the future of UNEP based upon observed drivers and constraints for change. It provides an original contribution to the existing literature by analysing the political dynamics underlying UNEP reform based upon a case-study at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and the use of a systems dynamics approach. Scenarios, emergent from interviews and observation of negotiations, suggest that UNEP can undergo a change into a World Environment Organisation (WEO) either through a slow, incremental upgrade, or a speedy transition to a WEO without US participation, pushed by a coalition of proactive states. Other more operational options include a network and regional focused structure or a merger with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In terms of mandate, there was political momentum from developing countries for UNEP to take a stronger role in implementation, but continued opposition from industrialised non-EU states against adopting a stronger coordinating function. This article argues that the most politically feasible and attractive future pathway for UNEP is to become a more decentralised, operational agency with a mandate focusing upon capacity building, information gathering and dissemination, implementation and a possible, although less feasible, movement towards integration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Moving towards a WEO in the longer term will require addressing the issue of US ratification potentially through a ‘Critical Mass WEO’ or a World Sustainable Development Organisation (WSDO).

The Working Paper is available here (pdf).

You might like these publication categories

Recent publications

2022 Annual Report

Curious to know about the various parts of the Earth System Governance Project, and what has been achieved in 2022?…

Global Shifts: Business, Politics, and Deforestation in a Changing World Economy

What global shifts in markets and power mean for the politics and governance of sustainability. In recent years, major shifts…

Earth System Governance – Volume 16

We are delighted to present the sixteenth volume of Earth System Governance, the new open-access journal for all those interested…