In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Environmental Institutions

  • Introduction
  • Historical Development
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD)
  • Institutions of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAS)
  • Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) with Environmental Mandates
  • Scientific Research and Monitoring
  • Institutions of Adjudication
  • Non-Government Sector (NGOs)
  • Effectiveness of International Environmental Institutions

International Law International Environmental Institutions
Alexander Zahar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0075


In the literature on international environmental institutions, “institution” and “organization” are often used interchangeably, with a preference for the less delineating and richer concept of “institution” where there is a need to encompass processes and traditions or where a pinnacle organization is lacking, as in the nongovernment sector. We also find “institution” used in the same breath as the even richer concept of an “international regime” (defined as a system of principles, norms, rules, operating procedures, and institutions that actors create or accept as regulating or coordinating action in a particular issue area of international relations). Institutions/organizations are sometimes said to be the means by which international regimes are implemented. How did international environmental institutions originate and to what do they owe their present shape? How do they operate and to what end? Do they provide any benefit? Can they be improved? What tested methodologies do we have for studying them? The works discussed in this article answer these questions, and more. The history of international environmental institutions (in contrast with environmentalism itself) is relatively brief. The 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment triggered international institutionalization—notably the establishment of the UN Environment Programme—and the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) also spurred considerable growth. Since 1992, attention has shifted from institution building to implementation and consolidation. The main functions of international environmental institutions may be summarized as facilitating international treaties and agreements; framing new principles, policies, and laws; acting as a forum for the negotiation of further measures and regulations; receiving reports on treaty implementation by states; coordinating environmental monitoring (including information and data collection); facilitating independent monitoring and inspection; promoting scientific research; providing technical and financial support; and facilitating the participation of civil society. Depending on their size and degree of specialization, the institutions referred to in this article will have one or more of the above functions. This article reflects the debate in the literature on many issues, including whether a “system” for global environmental governance exists; whether international institutionalization has translated into state cooperation in solving common environmental problems; whether environmental organizations have any powers of independent action in the development of policy and law (or whether they are limited to receiving instructions from states); whether the best way forward is to create a global environmental institution or to continue to try to improve and coordinate the multiple and dispersed regulatory regimes (which are open to change through review and negotiation, but are only loosely coordinating their activities); and whether the diffusion of regulatory power among networks of state and nonstate actors, which transcend national boundaries, has progressed far enough—or has gone too far. In the structure of this article, historical and introductory works and textbooks are presented first. The coordination of the policies of the many international organizations with environmental mandates has generally fallen to the United Nations, in particular the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. Thus three central sections of this article are largely about UN or UN-related institutions, arranged by their degree of dedication to environmental issues, but also by the type of institution they are. The next four sections of the article are “sectoral” in their approach to the literature, whereas the final two sections focus on works exploring the effectiveness and possible reform of international environmental institutions.

Historical Development

Caldwell 1996 is a history of the environmental movement and policy response in the 20th century, starting in the immediate postwar years when various attempts were made to form an international movement for the environment. Another option for a general history is Guha 2000, a transnational account of the origins and institutional forms of the global environmental movement. Iriye 2002 (especially in the chapter on “The Growth of Civil Society,” pp. 126–156) examines post-1950s environmentalist and development-oriented organizations with a view to determining their contributions, individually and collectively, to what Iriye calls a “global consciousness” and global community. More than the aforementioned works, McNeill 2010 is politically and culturally embedded. McNeill argues that, beginning around 1969–1970, transnational popular movements taking an environmental turn received help from the period of détente in international relations. When détente died in 1979–1980 and the Cold War reintensified, the room for political maneuvering that was available to advocates of environmental protection narrowed dramatically. The contributors to Hargrove 1972, understandably for the period the work represents, were mainly concerned with pollution control for lakes and seas. The emphasis was as much on “The Potential of Regional Organizations in Managing Man’s Environment” (a chapter by Robert E. Stein, pp. 253–272) as it was on international cooperation. Reading the papers in this collection is thus a history lesson in itself. Boyle 1991 describes the contemporaneous abandonment of the model of bilateral-dispute settlement in favor of an institutional model for environmental governance that enables the multilateral resolution of environmental disputes, as well as the negotiated application of international legal standards. Weiss 1993 and Soroos 2011 may be read as confirmations of Boyle’s intuition about a paradigm change unfolding. On the legal-theory side stands the classic Bodansky 1999, making the argument that the stronger international environmental institutions become, the more ill-defined their the legitimacy is regarding their decisions, since commentators both on the right and on the left of politics deplore their “democratic deficit”; his point is that this is likely to represent a limiting factor on efforts to develop more powerful and effective international regimes.

  • Bodansky, Daniel. “The Legitimacy of International Governance: A Coming Challenge for International Environmental Law?” American Journal of International Law 93 (1999): 596–624.

    DOI: 10.2307/2555262

    A classic in the discipline, the article begins with the observation that as international institutions gain authority, questions are being voiced about their legitimacy. Bodansky writes that if, in order to avoid gridlock, international institutions are compelled to depart from purely consensual modes of decision making, a substitute theory of legitimacy is needed. He finds no compelling substitute theory, concluding that international environmental law must continue to rely on its traditional foundations: self-interest, reciprocity, and consent.

  • Boyle, Alan E. “Saving the World? Implementation and Enforcement of International Environmental Law through International Institutions.” Journal of Environmental Law 3 (1991): 229–245.

    DOI: 10.1093/jel/3.2.229

    By one of the great scholars of international environmental law, this relatively early article in the discipline discusses emerging international environmental institutions with an emphasis on the different techniques used by them to bind their members to their decisions on matters of global concern while avoiding confrontation among states.

  • Caldwell, Lynton Keith. International Environmental Policy: From the Twentieth to the Twenty-First Century. 3d ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

    The book’s emphasis is heavily on institutions of governance. For Caldwell, the institutions comprise not only state governments, but also international organizations, regimes, agreements, and customary behaviors.

  • Guha, Ramachandra. Environmentalism: A Global History. New York: Longman, 2000.

    The author locates what he calls the first wave of environmentalism in the Industrial Revolution, in the United Kingdom. Back then it was largely an intellectual response. The emergence of a mass movement in the 1960s, in the United States, was the second wave. The book is as strong on Gandhi and his influence as it is on Germany’s Greens. A very worthwhile bibliographical essay (pp. 146–154) completes the book.

  • Hargrove, John Lawrence, ed. Law, Institutions, and the Global Environment. Papers presented at the conference for Legal and Institutional Responses to Problems of the Global Environment, New York, 1971. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana, 1972.

    Comprises papers from a conference held in New York in 1971 on “Legal and Institutional Responses to Problems of the Global Environment,” sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the American Society of International Law.

  • Iriye, Akira. Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

    Iriye concludes that international organizations served to turn the world’s attention to global issues—the environment among them—at a time when geopolitics and military strategy divided nations. Thus “global consciousness” is to be distinguished from “global community” (globalization).

  • McNeill, John R. “The Environment, Environmentalism, and International Society in the Long 1970s.” In The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective. Edited by Niall Ferguson, Charles S. Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel J. Sargent, 263–278. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2010.

    For students of the political context of environmentalism. In the 1970s, the superpowers and their allies found that environmental issues suited their situations: little of immediate value seemed to be at stake, and an international community of scientists existed that could be enlisted to support negotiations. With looser constraints, the arena for environmental diplomacy widened, some agreements were reached, and some trust was built, in turn making détente a bit deeper.

  • Soroos, Marvin S. “Global Institutions and the Environment: An Evolutionary Perspective.” In The Global Environment: Institutions, Law, and Policy. 3d ed. Edited by Regina S. Axelrod, Stacy D. VanDeveer, and David Leonard Downie, 24–47. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2011.

    The chapter divides the history of environmental institutions into the quite-standard three eras: Pre-Stockholm (prior to 1968), Stockholm (1968–1986), and Rio (1987 to early 2000s). Soroos argues that a fourth era is now taking shape in response to a growing concern about climate change and the need to renew energy infrastructure. In the process, he profiles global institutions that have had a significant influence on environmental affairs.

  • Weiss, Edith Brown. “International Environmental Law: Contemporary Issues and the Emergence of a New World Order.” Georgetown Law Journal 81 (1993): 675–710.

    An early stocktaking. The author concludes that the contemporary international environmental agreements evidenced a recognition of the benefits of international cooperation and an increased willingness to agree to obligations directed to protecting the environment. Weiss predicts (correctly) that this commonality of interest would not be enough to avoid long-term clashes among states about what constitutes an equitable allocation of burdens and benefits for environmentally sustainable development.

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