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Connecting expertise for environmental governance: lessons from 25 years of UNECE Environmental Performance Reviews

Connecting expertise for environmental governance: lessons from 25 years of UNECE Environmental Performance Reviews

3rd EPR of North Macedonia country mission, September 2018 EPR experts visit Galičica National Park to learn about management approaches.

By Ms. Olga Algayerova, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of UNECE, and Ms. Elisabete Quintas da Silva, Head of Department, Sustainable and Efficient Use of Resources Operational Programme, Government of Portugal, and Chair of the UNECE Committee on Environmental Policy. 

This article was originally published by IISD at:…

The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030), launched on World Environmental Day 2021, kicked off an unprecedented effort to heal the earth. Protecting and reviving ecosystems is vital to improve livelihoods, counteract climate change and halt the collapse of biodiversity.  

Striking the balance between our environment and our economies is in the very D.N.A. of the Sustainable Development Goals, and requires a holistic, coordinated and cross-sectoral policy approach. To support countries to take action, Environmental Performance Reviews (EPRs) offer a powerful tool to ensure the right wind for the sailboat of environmental governance.  

In 2021, countries celebrate 25 years of EPRs at UNECE, following the establishment of the Environmental Performance Review Programme by the UNECE Committee on Environmental Policy in 1996. The mandate for EPRs was given by ministers in charge of the environment at the Second Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference in 1993, held in Lucerne, Switzerland.   

Following a pilot EPR of Estonia conducted from 1994 to 1996, the Committee decided to include EPRs as a continuing activity under its auspices, to review the performance of non-OECD countries of the UNECE region in meeting domestic environmental policy objectives and relevant international commitments, and to help monitor national progress in the implementation of Agenda 21, one of the key outcomes of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The experience gained from the pilot EPRs of Belarus, Bulgaria and Poland, conducted from 1994 to 1997 by OECD in cooperation with UNECE, helped shape the Programme.  

In 1997, the Committee set up the Ad Hoc UNECE Expert Group on Environmental Performance, initially composed of representatives of 11 countries (Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Netherlands, Switzerland, Ukraine and United States of America). To this day, the Expert Group on EPRs, having had its mandate revised and renewed multiple times, remains a key feature of this inter-governmental mechanism: countries mobilizing their collective expertise to help one another address pressing environmental challenges. The Group is currently composed of experts from Estonia, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Montenegro, Romania and Switzerland, operates under the leadership of Estonia, and provides expert reviews in close cooperation with countries under review and UNECE.   

During the past quarter of a century, our EPR Programme has enabled reviews – at governments’ request – of the environmental performance of some 25 countries. More than half of these countries had their environmental performance reviewed three times, tracking trends over time and striving for continuous improvement. Other organizations – OECD, UNDP, UNEP, WHO, UNOCHA, UNICEF, the European Environment Agency, the European Commission, the European Investment Bank – have joined many of the reviews, bringing their knowledge and experience and providing support on the ground.  

In the most recent review published, UNECE called upon Uzbekistan to use the recommendations of its 3rd EPR to design its green recovery policies in the aftermath of COVID-19. The review equips the Government with 99 recommendations to improve the environmental situation and the wellbeing of the population, while greening the energy, agriculture, transport, housing, industry and health sectors.  

Progress in the region over the challenging last 12 months includes the adoption by the Committee of the recommendations of the 3rd EPR of Romania, and preparation for the review of Azerbaijan.  

Crucially, the success of the EPRs is grounded in countries’ strong emphasis on closely following-up implementation. Reviewed countries are assisted through national and regional workshops (for example on energy and the environmenttransport and the environmentand Sustainable Development Goals in EPRs), United Nations Development Account projects for priority policy development, and support for the preparation of road maps to put EPR recommendations into practice. Countries’ engagement speaks for itself: Kazakhstan re-established a dedicated ministry on the environment as an immediate response to one of the key recommendations of its 3rd EPR.   

The efficiency and effectiveness of the EPR methodology have also attracted the attention of countries outside the UNECE region, leading to requests to share the know-how developed at UNECE with its sister United Nations regional commissions. EPRs for Morocco – for which the second review is currently underway – and Mongolia in 2018 in cooperation with UNESCWA and UNESCAP paved the way for strengthened inter-regional efforts that we stand ready to support further. 

This year, we continue the third cycle of EPRs, focusing on environmental governance and financing in the context of the green economy, countries’ cooperation with the international community and environmental mainstreaming in priority sectors. Since 2017, our EPRs have helped six countries in the region analyse their performance against the SDGs, with each EPR addressing between 40 and 65 SDG targets.  

Countries’ provision of voluntary financial contributions and expertise is testament to their recognition of the value of the unique EPR Programme, which has been praised and supported by ministers at their Environment for Europe conferences. This appreciation is also reflected in the high demand from countries wishing to be reviewed: Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine have already expressed their willingness to participate in their next EPRs, and we hope to be able to fully heed their call.  

The good news is that countries will continue to benefit from the concrete recommendations of EPRs beyond 2022, following the adoption of the fourth cycle of EPRs by the Committee on Environmental Policy in November 2020 and its expected endorsement by ministers at the Ninth Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference, to be held in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 2022. This updated form also serves to illustrate how the review process continues to respond to countries’ evolving needs, strengthening for example the in-depth assessment of climate change impacts on priority sectors, mainstreaming climate adaptation, and greenhouse gas mitigation. At governments’ request, assessment of the green economy will be enhanced to address the circular economy, which is increasingly high on the region’s political agenda. 

Together, let us build on this legacy of joint action for environmental governance as we step up efforts to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.