The United Nations (UN) and European Union’s (EU) Means to Manage Environmental Problems

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Discuss how the United Nations and European Union seek to address environmental issues.

Since the early 1970s, there has been a growing recognition that environmental problems are not always local, especially issues such as climate change, acid rain, and loss of biodiversity. These issues know no boundaries, and their effects are felt globally; therefore, they cannot be dealt with by one or two states (Belle et al., 2013; Connelly et al., 2012).

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Instead, it requires a collective and international approach, rightly so, as the impact of environmental degradation affects the well-being of all (Barnes, 2011). Subsequently, nation-states and other international organizations have united to create international decision-makers and administrations with governance levels reaching far and wide (Connelly et al., 2012).

Two examples, namely the United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP] and the European Union [EU], will be discussed in more detail in this essay, highlighting their processes, tools, and contributions.

UNEP was born out of environmental concerns from the United Nations 1972 Stockholm Conference; it works to the highest degree to regulate international affairs (Barnes, 2011). Their aim is to address global environmental problems through negotiations and international consensus on agreements [international law] (Belle et al., 2013).

The UNEP, in addition, has established bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] and the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services [IPBES]. The purpose of such bodies is to provide independent scientific research to assist international policy and law in political negotiations and consensus (Connelly et al., 2012).

International law is usually divided into hard and soft law. Hard law is legally binding to a state that has given consent in relation to other states for enacting legislation (Belle et al., 2013). Examples include formal written agreements such as treaties, conventions, and protocols (Stookes, 2009).

Treaties are agreements between national states; they are specific and precise in their terms, measures, and obligations (Barnes, 2011). However, they are challenging to achieve as agreements between multiple states are complex (Connelly et al., 2012). Therefore, the negotiation process is useful to iron out controversial issues and to highlight the full nature of the problem (Belle et al., 2013).

There are over 500 international environmental agreements currently in force, covering a range of environmental concerns (Barnes, 2011). One such example is the Convention on Biodiversity, which came into force in 1993. It is the most widely ratified agreement in force, with 188 states (Stookes, 2009).

The Convention on Biodiversity arose from the 1992 Rio Convention on Environment and Development, which was an unprecedented success (Barnes, 2011). The Convention achieved four other agreements, namely the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, Declaration on Forest Principles, and Convention on Climate Change (Connelly et al., 2012).

Non-governmental organizations have also played an important role in the Rio Summit by shaping general environmental politics and contributing to scientific data and awareness (Barnes, 2011). A treaty may also give rise to a protocol, which is a sub-agreement that has the same legal force (Stookes, 2009).

Protocols provide even more specific obligations. For example, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 under the Convention on Climate Change of 1992 (Bell et al., 2013). In addition, the Rio Summit gave rise to the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, which are key soft law principles for sustainable development, including the precautionary and polluter-pays principles.

They are not binding agreements nor are they specific and enforceable. Instead, they are aimed at being persuasive to secure a form of commitment through political pressure (Stookes, 2009). UNEP agreements are not legally binding as they lack sanctions for non-compliance. On the other hand, European Union law is more specific and legally binding with the aim of achieving standardization across all member states (Barnes, 2011; Bell et al., 2013).

The European Union [EU] consists of 27 member states and has introduced a number of environmental policies and legislation, with more than 600 key pieces of legislation adopted by its members (Weale et al., 2002). This revolution began in 1987 when an environmental chapter was added to the European Economic Community [EEC] Treaty.

Since then, it has come a long way and has gained international status as an environmental leader (Connelly et al., 2012). Most of the environmental law currently in force in the UK is derived from international law via the EU, which is a key signatory to many international conventions (Bell et al., 2013).

An example of this is the right to public participation in decision-making [legal component of the EIA procedure] derived from Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration of 1992. This principle is embodied in the 1999 Aarhus Convention where at least three EU Directives and Regulations were formed (Stookes, 2009).

EU law has a mix of binding legislation [hard law] and non-binding guidelines [soft law]. This includes Treaties, Regulations, Directives, Decisions, Recommendations, Opinions, Plans, and Policies (Wurzel et al., 2014). Treaties are the highest level of law and form the constitutional basis of the EU, for example, the Treaty of Rome of 1957 (Weale et al., 2002).

Regulations, on the other hand, are binding in their entirety and are applicable to everyone in the EU. For example, the protection of species of wild fauna and flora (Stookes, 2009). Directives, on the other hand, allow member states the flexibility to implement directive aims into their national regulatory system (Wurzel et al., 2014).

Directives are legally binding and are often the most used for environmental policy. Examples include the Waste Framework Directive and the Habitats Directives (Bell et al., 2013). Decisions are also binding in their entirety; however, they are specifically addressed to either member states, corporate bodies, or individuals (Barnes, 2011).

On the contrary, Recommendations, Opinions, Plans, and Policies are non-binding instruments. Nevertheless, they are meant to be persuasive and have constraining value (Stookes, 2009). Environmental policies and legislations are given life through four main EU institutions: The European Commission, The European Parliament, The Council of Ministers, and The European Court of Justice (Wurzel et al., 2014).

The European Commission (EC) is made up of at least one member province representative. They play an executive function in the EU and are responsible for interpreting the involvements that require induction, execution, and enforcement (Weale et al., 2002). Once a proposal for statute law is initiated and developed, it is sent to the European Parliament.

The European Parliament comprises directly elected members with direct control over the EU establishments and adopted statute law (Belle et al., 2013). Following the European Parliament’s proposed statute laws, they are sent for examination to the Council of Curates.

Once statute law is passed and adopted, national governments are responsible for supporting steps and execution (Wurzel et al., 2014). Member provinces are relied upon to provide information on conformity with EU statute law. If this is not the case, it may be brought before the European Court of Justice, which can determine actions or fines for non-conformity (Stookes, 2009).

To conclude, it is apparent that the EU has accelerated environmental administration in the UK, as over 80% of all environmental statute law in the UK emanates from the EU. Like the UK, the EU forces its Member States via the use of Directives, Regulation, and Decisions to accommodate rigorous environmental ordinances (Weale et al., 2002).

This driving force is particularly beneficial for “laggard” states that would otherwise remain slack about implementing such standards (Carter, 2007). Similarly, the UNEP plays a critical role in monitoring and coordinating international action via the use of Treaties, Conventions, and Declarations and has therefore accelerated growth in global environmental administration (Barnes, 2011). UNEP has acted as a catalyst for defining issues, research, and negotiating policy response.

This force has provided a platform for other supranational administrations such as the EU to follow with the aim of safeguarding the environment and all its constituents (Connelly et al., 2012). Critically explore compulsory, voluntary, and economic approaches to environmental problem resolution, considering the variables that determine their choice.

There is a range of policy instruments used to protect the environment from anthropogenic activities. They may be grouped into three broad categories, namely, mandatory, voluntary, and economic approaches (Connelly et al., 2012). This essay will discuss the aforementioned approaches, detailing their benefits and utility in protecting the environment, but also their restrictions and cost for implementation.

Compulsory policy instruments, such as ordinances, seek to protect the environment with legally binding law enforcement and effects for non-conformity (Hahn, 2001). Punishments and fines are, however, argued insufficient for the harm caused; however, the approach is widely used and is also known as the “command and control” instrument (Belle et al., 2013). This instrument appeals to policymakers as it offers precision, predictability, and effectiveness (see Table 1).

Table 1: Three regulative criteria implemented by constructions and processes (Carter, 2007).

Standard Examples
Ambient criterions Limits entire concentration in peculiar countries e.g. rivers, air and land
Emission criterions Limits the sum emitted from single beginning e.g. catalytic converter in autos and gases from mills
Design criterions Aim to command pollution via production engineering

As demonstrated by Table 1, regulations are uniform in their criteria and regulations. This has the potential to be debatable, as some polluters may find it easier to meet the criteria than others. As a result, some regulators, dependent on the national regulatory system, will make judgments and negotiate compliance in discretion to allow for some kind of flexibility in execution (Connelly et al., 2012).

This act creates a divide from formal detailed criteria to informal accommodating criteria. This creates disparity, particularly in enforcement between states, as some states may be more “cooperative” than others (Carter, 2007). Regulation is the main instrument used by international governments to solve global issues; they are fast-playing and have resulted in significant environmental improvements, such as the world’s first air pollution legislation, the Clean Air Act 1956, which dramatically improved air quality in Britain (Prakash and Kollman, 2004).

Despite these advantages, there are a number of restrictions, such as the reliance on BATNEEC and the lack of incentives to go beyond what has been legalized. Furthermore, regulations require funding from the government, and the lack of it will allow ineffective execution, lack of disposal, and inadequate monitoring and enforcement (Hahn, 2001).

Subsequently, this creates a hindrance for investing in environmentally rigorous states as opposed to more relaxed, less resourceful states. Restrictions in this technique force policymakers to consider alternate policy instruments such as voluntary (Prakash and Kollman, 2004).

Voluntary policy instruments are not enforced by the law nor encouraged by financial incentives, which some may argue has the potential to create relaxed, unmotivated attitudes towards environmental problems and accordingly put parties’ administrations at risk of “free-riding” (Carter, 2007). Examples include environmental management strategies such as ISO 14001 and eco-labelling (Connelly et al., 2012).

Such approaches increase the credibility of a company and create a commercial advantage by looking favorable to their stakeholders. Environmental agreements are another voluntary act implemented to encourage environmentally conscious decisions, such as the ones set by the EU in response to core polluting industries (Bell et al., 2013).

However, environmental agreements are argued to be unambitious as they allow some parties to commit to the lowest permitted denominator in fear of future tougher regulations and eco-taxes; and allow lowest level acceptable commitments to suit least enthusiastic members (Carter, 2007).

Voluntary instruments are preferred in some cases as they provide flexibility to the manufacturers on how best to deal with their environmental impacts and thus require no policing. In addition, they have the potential to promote lifestyle changes and good environmental practices (Hahn, 2001).

Voluntary actions cannot achieve sustainable development goals alone; they need to be used to supplement other measures such as economic market-based instruments [MBIs] (Carter, 2007).

MBIs are revenue enhancements or levies focused on specific environmental issues. They are argued to be an efficient and effective option to regulation by providing incentives to motivate polluters to go beyond what is required by law (Carter, 2007).

Additionally, they create a market incentive for polluters to internalize externalities via tradable licenses, deposit funds, and emission charges (Prakash and Kollman, 2004). However, they are unfavorable to conservationists who argue about the questionable monetary value of the true value of the environment, particularly with global resources such as biodiversity (Connelly et al., 2012).

Further statements state that by putting a price on the environment, it allows parties to buy the right to carry on polluting, delaying the process of environmental behavior, and legalizing pollution while ignoring the real issue of environmental justice (Carter, 2007; Prakash and Kollman, 2004). MBIs are favorable for this reason as it allows parties operational flexibility to pay if they cannot practically make extreme commitments to comply with standards.

This is in conformity with the polluter pays principle, bearing the cost of pollution control and redress (Bell et al., 2013). Although good on paper, this approach is difficult to implement in the real world as it requires huge detailed technical information.

Furthermore, MBIs require monitoring and sanctions as polluters can cheat and lie to avoid taxes (Prakash and Kollman, 2004). Support for MBIs is weak and argued to be driven only by the displeasure of regulation rather than environmental improvement. Additionally, taxes are unfavorable to the public and political environment as it creates ill will and potential protests and uneasiness for future elections (Carter, 2007).

The choice of taking a policy instrument that is most efficient and effective is challenging. Different instruments will be appropriate for different circumstances, and if appropriate, they may be used in combination (Jacobs, 1991).

To assist in this selection process, Jacobs (1991) has laid out six criteria to allow for comparison, namely: effectiveness, motivation, administrative costs, efficiency, political acceptability, and distributional impact. The effectiveness of a policy instrument looks at how it can achieve its environmental goals with certainty, speed, and flexibility.

Although each method is favored, regulation is most effective in terms of response time (Jacobs, 1991). With respect to motivation; one has to determine if there is any motivation for implementation, for example, taxes and licenses may provide motivation for improvements but regulation will not (Jacobs, 1991).

Regulation and market-based initiatives require administrative costs, particularly with monitoring and enforcement; therefore, the weight and burden of such costs would need to be evaluated; taxes and licenses are argued to ease that burden (Carter, 2007).

The criterion of efficiency is determined by the maximum effectiveness of a policy instrument that has the least cost burden while providing the most motivation to reduce environmental degradation (Connelly et al., 2012).

The next criterion is political acceptability, and it is often linked to distributional impact; this looks at the equity and political sensitivity. For example, burdens placed unfairly by certain parties, i.e. paying more tax than one is responsible for or paying more than one can accommodate, therefore allowing the wealthy to pay their right to pollute while disadvantaging the poor (Carter, 2007).

The above statements have demonstrated that no one policy instrument is perfect and absolute; it should be viewed as working together to accomplish environmental protection in public policy aims. Some instruments can merely be resolved by ordinance where the aim is to place jobs and force solutions quickly (Carter, 2007; Prakash and Kollman, 2004).

Market-based policies and voluntary programs, on the other hand, may create incentives for firms to examine the benefits of following alternate environmental policies; nevertheless, they need to work side by side with ordinances (Hahn, 2001).

Alternatives to regulation seem to be most widely used in ‘new’ policy areas such as climate change; however, the pace of change in policy instruments is slow (Connelly et al., 2012). Whatever the case, instrument choice needs to be carefully examined, keeping in mind the resources and capabilities of both regulators and regulatees (Prakash and Kollman, 2004).


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  2. Bell, S., McGillivray, D. & Pedersen, O. W. (2013). Environmental Law (8th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Carter, N. (2007). The Politics of the Environment (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Connelly, J., Smith, G., Benson, D. & Saunders, C. (2012). Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.
  5. Hahn, R. W. (2001). A Primer on Environmental Policy Design. London: Routledge.
  6. Jacobs, M. (1991). The Green Economy: Environment, Sustainable Development, and the Politics of the Future. London: Pluto Press.
  7. Prakash, A. & Kollman, K. (2004). Policy Modes, Firms, and the Natural Environment. Business Strategy and the Environment, 13(2), 107-128.
  8. Stookes, P. (2009). A Practical Approach to Environmental Law (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. Weale, A., Pridham, G., Cini, M., Konstadakopulos, D., Porter, M. & Flynn, B. (2000). Environmental Governance in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  10. Wurzel, R. K. W., Zito, A. R. & Jordan, A. J. (2013). Environmental Governance in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of New Environmental Policy Instruments. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

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The United Nations (UN) and European Union’s (EU) Means to Manage Environmental Problems. (2017, Jul 09). Retrieved from

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