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The Role of International Organisations in Global Environmental Governance

  • Hannes Stephan
  • Fariborz Zelli
Publishing year: 2009
Language: English
Publication/Series: The Environment Encyclopedia and Directory
Document type: Book chapter
Publisher: Routledge

Abstract english

The organisational network of global environmental governance (GEG) mirrors the complexity of the planet's manifold and overlapping ecosystems. Bursting onto the international stage in the 1970s, environmental issues began to be addressed by a series of new international organisations, most of them affiliated with the United Nations. Some of them, such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), were given a broad mandate, whereas others like the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) concentrated on a much more precise issue-area and have gained significant authority for their respective sub-fields. After the end of the Cold War, the rise of international environmental organisations has continued unabated. Yet the new institutions came to life in an already institutionalised context: some of the urgent tasks of management and coordination had already been allocated, and the newcomers often contributed to a growing trend towards organisational fragmentation.
For this chapter, we have adopted a broad and inclusive definition of international organisation that is nonetheless distinguished from two other types of international institutions, namely what Keohane (1989: 4) describes as institutions with explicit rules (international regimes) and institutions with implicit rules ("conventions"). In contrast, the organisations we study are bureaucratic actors and "purposive entities" which are "capable of monitoring activity and of reacting to it" and have been "deliberately set up and designed by states" (ibid: 3). They include not only fully-fledged 'organisations', but also UN commissions and programmes. Among the plethora of organisations with environment-related activities, we have restricted our analysis to those operating at the global level and have further selected those with either a clear environmental profile or a significant impact on global environmental governance.
In addition to our leitmotif of organisational fragmentation – which evokes the image of a mosaic of institutional elements – we have also taken account of current debates over mainstreaming and sectoralisation. Thus, many of the organisations reviewed in this chapter contain indications of the progress made towards a greater cross-sectoral integration of environmental concerns. For instance, the World Bank or the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) now routinely address environmental factors in their decision-making, albeit with variable sincerity. Such insights feed into our concluding analysis of future trends and perspectives for reforming the system of global environmental organisations. We begin our survey by describing a number of well-known global environmental conferences which provided the seedbed for the steady expansion of international environmental activities.


  • Political Science
  • Global Governance
  • Environmental governance
  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme
  • UNEP
  • complexity
  • International organisation
  • WTO
  • World Bank
  • climate governance
  • Kyoto Protocol


  • Miljöpolitik-lup-obsolete
  • ISBN: 978-1-85743-377-7
Fariborz Zelli
E-mail: fariborz [dot] zelli [at] svet [dot] lu [dot] se

Senior lecturer

Department of Political Science

+46 46 222 47 64



Associate professor

Department of Political Science



Fariborz is director of the NAVIGOV project. He received the outstanding Ph.D. thesis award of the University of Tübingen and the award for outstanding teaching performance of the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

Ongoing research projects

Department of Political Science
Lund University
Visiting address: Paradisgatan 5H (House: Eden)
Postal address: Box 52, SE-221 00 LUND
Telephone: +46 46-222 89 52

Faculty of Social Sciences