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Environmental Leadership Inside and Out: A Conversation with John E. Scanlon

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

December 2, 2021

Watch the recording here.

“UNEP has been a roller coaster ride - highs and lows - but it has not yet lived up to what its mandate is; it's not yet seen as the global environmental authority that sets global environmental agenda, and it’s not being able to coordinate the system as it was anticipated.”

As UNEP celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2022, Maria Ivanova engages with environmental leaders to discuss the ideas within her new book as well as global environmental trends and the future of UNEP. For our fifth dialogue, Dr. Maria Ivanova hosted John E. Scanlon who served as Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) from 2010 to 2018, and as a principal policy advisor at UNEP. Currently, John Scanlon works as the Chief Executive Officer for the Elephant Protection Initiative. With a background in law and experience in both national and international organizations, Scanlon offered a unique perspective on the environment and reflected on the past, present, and future of UNEP.

Unique Perspectives

Due to the depth of John Scanlon’s experience with environmental institutions and his passion for law, policy, and politics, Prof. Ivanova and Scanlon discussed the credibility of UNEP and the UN overall. Scanlon explained that the UN and multilateralism are “under pressure” today, and are “facing multiple challenges” due to issues like geopolitical tensions, internal competition, the difficulty of reform, and the UN’s inability to appropriately react. Nevertheless, he notes that although the UN is an old institution, and “it’s not quite what we wanted it to be,” there are some parts of it that “work better than others.”

Scanlon also experienced the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development - or the Rio+20 Summit while in leadership. During this session, ideas to reform UNEP occupied a major part of the agenda. Scanlon took the audience back that moment and discussed leading the “Strategic Implementation Team” that UNEP’s Executive Director, Achim Steiner, He noted that

“When we joined, there were six UNEPs…not interacting with each other...we needed to operate as one UNEP.”

Reflections on UNEP

“Who is telling the whole story of the state of the planet, and reviewing what the UN system and the conventions are doing to lift us out of this? UNEP is the place to do that.”

Prof. Ivanova highlighted the debates around“ "upgrading” the institutional form of UNEP and engaged Scanlon to share his reflections on UNEP. Scanlon noted that UNEP needs to re-evaluate the effectiveness of various conventions but does not need to administer them. He stressed, “UNEP [needs to] be the global environmental authority” that creates the “real authoritative report on the state of the environment”. Something that he called “a planet report” that would inform the world about the full state of the environment. Ivanova supported this stance which is echoed in her new book that explains the vision of the founders of UNEP as THE authority on the environment. Scanlon also shared that he envisioned UNEP as the one guiding UNDP, GEF, and the entire UN system in general; UNEP should be the one “letting us know of the state of the planet.”

However, we see a picture where the connection between agencies is blurred, and everyone, including UNDP and GEF, has their own environmental agendas, and there is a lack of an authoritative assessment on the environment. Scanlon compared UNEP to a conductor of an orchestra:

“You don’t have to own all of the instruments; you don’t have to own all of the equipment, but you need to get the orchestra to play to one sheet. And that’s where we have an opportunity for UNEP.” He also stated,
“I would like to see the UNEP Executive Director as a member of the Executive Board of UNDP. UNDP is stepping into the environment space...if you look at its current strategy to 2025; but I don’t know where UNEP was in that discussion?”

The audience continued the dialogue with questions about CITES, levels of governance, environmental political action, as well as questions about the Rights of Nature and the Global Pact for the Environment. In response, Scanlon suggested ideas like these and and ‘Global Pandemics Treaty’, and a wildlife crime agreement, offer new ideas on how to respond to current environemntal crises, as well as suggesting ways to address the “interplay of governance complexities” other than by following the current hierarchical perspective. To conclude, Professor Ivanova asked John Scanlon about his vision on UNEP@100.

He predicts the UNGA will rename UNEP to the World Environment Organization (WEO):

“... a name change to reflect the fact that this is the global organization that is there as the authoritative voice; don’t need to change the form -- change the name!” while also stressing.
“Never ever change the mandate or name without due process and respecting the sovereign rights of states to make the call.”

On that note, the Center for Governance and Sustainability concluded the last session of the UNEP@50 dialogue series for the year of 2021. Watch the Dialogue

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