Impressions from the UNEP GEO5 stakeholderprocess


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About the Author


Dr. Markus Ohndorf is senior researcher and lecturer at the ETH Chair of Economics. His research interests lie in the fields of environmental economics and formal economic analysis of institutions. Before joining ETH, he worked amongst other things as an NGO-Lobbyist at several large UN conferences.

Markus Ohndorf

From 29 to 31 March 2010 the global intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder consultation on the 5th Global Environment Outlook report (GEO5) was held at the headquarters of the UNEP in Nairobi, Kenya. The ETH Zurich was represented through the IED.

Ministerial Consultations in session
Ministerial Consultations in session

Within a series of publication called Global Environmental Outlook, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) aims to provide an assessment of the state and trends of the global environment in relation to the goals set in Multilateral Environmental Agreements. Since 1997, four different reports have been published within the GEO process which is often referred to as being UNEP’s flagship assessment process on this issue. From March 29 to 31 March 2010, UNEP launched the process for the 5th edition of the Global Environmental Outlook with a ‘global intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder consultation’. Within this consultation, the great lines of the GEO5 were to be determined.

Having acted as a reviewer for selected chapters of GEO4, yours truly was invited by UNEP as a representative of the Institute for Environmental Decisions (IED) of ETH to participate in the stakeholder consultation for GEO5. Given that the objective of the GEO process is the assessment of the global environment, I expected – somewhat naively – that the main focus of the dialogue would be on scientific discussions. Yet, contrary to assessments situated in the scientific realm, stakeholder dialogues within the UN system are highly politicized. This holds as such and notably also for the current GEO process, the results of which will be published in 2012, the year of the Rio+20 Conference. Rio+20 is to address topics like ‘a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication’ and the ‘institutional framework for sustainable development’. It goes without saying that such themes are necessarily subject to differing political interpretations, notably with respect to size and direction of potentially large international financial transfers. Hence, as a potential basis for justification of specific viewpoints the outcome of the GEO5 might well be of political importance.

As a consequence, the two day debate was dominated by the representatives of the different countries which seemed to have a stake in addressing particular issues rather than others. Thus, while at first many representatives of scientific institutions complained about the lack of scientific focus, others were fascinated by the real-world case study on environmental lobbying that started to unfold in front of their very eyes.

The session took a similar form as a full-fledged UN conference. Following some semi-structured discussions on the assessment, the Secretariat proposed an eight page document on the ‘Statement on the Objectives, Scope and Process” of GEO5. The participants were then invited to make suggestions on changes in the text, which were included in the working document as ‘bracketed text’. Subsequently, for one and a half days, participants were arguing within the plenum over the inclusion or non-inclusion of specific brackets. The process reminded me of a Conference of the Parties (CoPs) in the international climate policy context.

As the discussed ‘Statement’ was to delimit the mandate to the GEO’s authors, the exact wording of the document can have a considerable influence on the final report. A rather vague statement of the objectives increases the authors’ leeway, while a statement of specific methods decreases their discretion.

Some country representatives seemed to be particularly interested in excluding those areas of analysis which might shed a negative light on their government’s environmental policies. The US representative, for example, went through great lengths trying to have arctic areas excluded from the assessment. Given that the US intend to pursue controversial explorations of natural resources in arctic areas, the political motivation for such an omission is quite obvious. Yet, in this particular case the US proposal was doomed to fail. As the Secretariat pointed out, the UNEP’s mandate explicitely comprehends Arctic areas. As a consequence, GEO5 is required to address problems in these areas, independent of any political agenda.

Other countries, in particular those suffering from trans-boundary environmental problems were keen on broadening the scope of the assessment. Members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) wanted to have their concerns explicitly listed. Interestingly, the great emitters of greenhouse gases supported this foray in principle. During the ensuing discussion, critics argued that mentioning a specific environmental topic might not be useful in a document that is to setup a general mandate for the report’s authors. Indeed, while the mentioning of small island states prevailed, other developing countries insisted to be indirectly referenced as well. As a result of this discussion, the final version of the objectives includes a sentence ranging over four lines, requiring the assessment to “highlight the regional differences, diversity, specificities and vulnerabilities, such as of Small Island Developing States, coastal zones, flood plains, arid lands and high mountain regions, as well as regional commonalities.” The process leading to this formulation took more than an hour; and provided an insight into why official UN documents are so poorly written.

While in the above examples the pursuit of special interests was quite obvious, the political nature was often more convoluted. For example, in one of his rare interventions yours truly failed to have the term “use of theoretical scientific findings” integrated into the objectives of GEO5. To the average ETH economist this formulation seems to be ideologically neutral, and yet it provoked a vehement response on the part of the US delegation. As it turned out, the US representative interpreted this formulation as an undue reference to the precautionary principle which is, as he argued, not endorsed by the US government. This line of argumentation is quite surprising, but reveals that the US representative had astonishingly deep knowledge of the literature. Indeed, current findings in decision theory could be interpreted as supporting immediate action in the presence of irreversible, but uncertain damages. In an application to climate change these theories might establish a case in favor of immediate abatement of greenhouse gases. Hence, if such theories are not considered within the report, potential criticism of the US reluctance to ratify international climate policy agreements is automatically reduced a priori. This is quite an amazing chain of thoughts.

The above-presented dispute was solved by a compromise. The final version of the document includes the term“incorporates scientific data and information”. For yours truly this was fair enough. The term leaves enough room for interpretation by GEO’s scientific authors… and might bring along further unexpected, but interesting, political issues for analysis.

Editors Note

UNEP’s Expert Nomination Process for GEO5 started on April 16. Several members of IED applied for a variety of positions. We keep you posted.


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