Environmental Governance and Sustainable Development: An Interview with Georgios Kostakos

Fen Wang, GreenEarthCitizen, Global Education Magazine

About Fen Wang

Founder and President at GEC; UNEP Reform Project Leader at Tema at Linkoping University; SCO Project Leader at Vermont University; My mission is to contribute myself in global environmental and sustainable development governance and act to accelerate transitioning the society to green economy with sustainable development, and to join together with world visionary leaders to fight and combat the climate change that threaten life of all.


I got the opportunity to talk to Dr. Georgios Kostakos: Executive Director of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS); formerly Acting Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (GSP); UN Secretariat staff at headquarters and in the field; Associate of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and the University of Athens.

This is what he had to say about environmental governance and sustainable development:

Fen Wang: How do you value international law in regard to addressing global environmental issues?

Georgios Kostakos, global education magazineGeorgios Kostakos: Let me start by stating that I am not a lawyer, so I am not so familiar with, nor so motivated by, the legal approach to international relations. There are a lot of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), conventions and protocols, which means a whole set of legally binding international instruments. They have been, however, negotiated via political / diplomatic means and they are often vague and lacking in hard-hitting enforcement measures, unless it is for specific hazardous substances. Thus, international law has limited value in addressing broader environmental issues, beyond setting an overall framework of principles and norms. Nonetheless, as part of their broader competences, international courts like the International Court of Justice (ICJ) can be asked to adjudicate in cases of disputes among states, including on environmental issues. Interestingly enough, regarding climate change, there are efforts to have a resolution passed in the UN General Assembly that would ask the ICJ for an advisory opinion that would define states’ obligations and responsibilities with respect to greenhouse emissions under international law (see policy brief issued by The Hague Institute for Global Justice). Even if that goes ahead, though, there is no guarantee that the Court will decide to take a position, and even if it does it could go either way and will only be an advisory opinion. It might not establish clarity on liability and obligation to act that would reassure small island developing states of not sinking into the rising seas in the coming decades. For now, therefore, the main battleground for addressing major environmental issues is, in my view, diplomatic / political and economic, as well as social, in terms of necessary lifestyle changes. Legal approaches can be complementary, especially at the national level, where legislation is stricter and can be put to better effect by willing governments and civil society activists.

FW: Is there any possibility to put UNEPUNDP and UN Social and Economic Council into one organization, e.g. UN Sustainable Development Organization? Is this a realistic idea? Somehow, there are arguments supporting this idea, e.g. those views expressed in my paper,

GK: UNDP, UNEP and ECOSOC are quite different creatures, with their own histories, respective advantages and disadvantages. They are also very different in nature, as ECOSOC is a principal organ of the UN, an intergovernmental body; UNEP has an intergovernmental Assembly but is primarily an expert advisory body; and UNDP has an intergovernmental Board but is primarily an implementing body. They may be complementary, and ECOSOC does review the work of the other two, but if you want to join them to cover sustainable development as a whole why not also merge together the World BankWTOWMOUNFCCCFAOIFADWHO and ILO, to mention a few? This would be a super-organization that would probably be too complex and difficult to run. The same results could probably be achieved by improving overall leadership and coordination for what is known as “the UN system” of specialized agencies, funds and programmes around the UN proper. At its centre, there is a need for some kind of sustainable development (SD) council, like the UN’s Security Council, for intergovernmental guidance, an overall shared vision for the direction of our world, and a pro-active Secretary-General. The recently established High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, stipulated by Rio+20, which operates under both the UN General Assembly and ECOSOC, could be empowered to play the SD council role, but its universal membership and consultative rather than decision-making character may well turn it into another talk shop. Perhaps the G20, if brought into the UN context and with whatever modifications, could become that SD council, or the Security Council could have an alternative configuration as SD council. All this, however, would require UN Charter amendment for a proper assignment of authority and responsibilities to a new or modified body, which seems difficult to come about these days. As for a common vision, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) currently being negotiated could provide that, if they are not too technical, piecemeal and bureaucratic.

FW: If I would ask you for your personal statement on the input of Science and Technology towards the Post 2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, what would that be?

GK: Do you mean the input of science and technology into the post-2015 Hyogo Framework for Action on disaster risk reduction, or into the overall post-2015 (sustainable) development framework? In any case, science, technology and innovation are major assets in achieving any global goals, be they the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are being negotiated for the post-2015 period, disaster risk reduction, climate change mitigation and adaptation, etc. – all of which are interconnected anyway. Science and technology, however, can point to problems and suggest possible solutions. It is up to policy-makers to take the scientific findings and advice into consideration and create a political and economic environment, within which these can be put to good use. Better interaction between science and society would also help put pressure on politicians to act according to scientific and technological advice.

FWWhat are your reflections on the reality of the past UN MDGs? and what are your reflections on the new post-2015 agenda on UN MDGs?

GK: The MDGs were limited to addressing some key social issues in developing countries, and they actually helped focus efforts towards advancing those. They did not cover all aspects of sustainable development nor did they apply to developed countries, except for the latter’s obligation to provide development assistance to developing countries. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are under consideration by the UN General Assembly and should be adopted in September 2015 would be much more complete in terms of issues and universal coverage. But with 17 SDGs proposed as of July 2014, and under them a total of 169 targets, it is difficult to see how the new set of goals and targets will become operational and effective. There will probably have to be a merging of some proposed goals to get closer to the number of the MDGs, which were eight, with a great dissemination and heuristic value, thus mobilizing governments, civil society, the private sector and individuals even at least as much as the MDGs did.

FW: What about your views on institutional reform of sustainable development at the United Nations?

GK: As I said earlier, we need a strong intergovernmental body of limited membership in the centre of the “SD Universe” to act as its “brain” and first-recourse decision-maker. I would see a parallel configuration of the UN Security Council, and/or bringing into the UN the G20, and/or a drastically streamlined and shortened (in terms of membership) ECOSOC to play that central role. The UN Secretary-General should also become a more effective chair of the UN system, thus providing the overall vision and leadership that will guide formulation of innovative ideas, policy-making, monitoring and implementation more authoritatively and productively. Of course, in addition to governments at various levels (including national, regional and local), the private sector and civil society should be brought into deeper partnership with the UN, mobilizing their respective resources for advancing the common vision. Especially regarding the involvement of the private sector, this should not be limited to big multinational companies alone, but should encompass small and medium enterprises and entrepreneurs, while civil society involvement should be really global and not limited to some big NGOs with permanent or semi-permanent presence in New York.

FW: Thank you very much Dr. Kostakos, for taking a moment to talk with GreenEarthCitizen and share your thoughts with us in Global Education Magazine.

read the original interview here


This article was published on 22nd March 2015, for the World Water Day, in Global Education Magazine.

 You may be interested to read “A Tale of Two UN Processes: The Global Sustainability Panel and Rio+20” written by Dr. Georgios Kostakos and published on October 17th: International Day for the Eradication of Poverty in Global Education Magazine

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