Guest Article: Lessons from 25 Years of Connecting Expertise for Environmental Governance | SDG Knowledge Hub

By Olga Algayerova and Elisabete Quintas da Silva

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. But striking a balance between this and economic success is a challenge for governments.

Getting this balance right is in the very D.N.A. of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Achieving them requires a holistic, coordinated, and cross-sectoral policy approach. To support countries, Environmental Performance Reviews (EPRs) conducted by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) offer a powerful tool to ensure the right wind for the sailboat of environmental governance.

Looking Back: Evolution of the EPRs

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 1994-1996, the Committee decided to: continue EPRs under its auspices; review the performance of non-OECD countries of the UNECE region in meeting their domestic environmental policy objectives and their relevant international commitments; and help monitor national progress in the implementation of Agenda 21, one of the key outcomes of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro UN 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, also 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 the US). To this day, the Expert Group on EPRs, having had its mandate revised and renewed multiple times, remains a key feature of this intergovernmental mechanism. Through the Expert Group, countries mobilize their collective expertise to help one another resolve 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 the countries under review and UNECE. 

Taking Stock of Impacts

During the past quarter of a century, the 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 have participated in reviews, including OECD, UNDP, UNEP, WHO, UNOCHA, UNICEF, the European Environment Agency, the European Commission, and the European Investment Bank, bringing their knowledge and experience and providing support on the ground.

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.

In the most recent review published, UNECE provides 99 recommendations for Uzbekistan that can help design its green recovery policies in the aftermath of COVID-19, in order to improve the environmental situation and the wellbeing of the population, while greening the energy, agriculture, transport, housing, industry, and health sectors. 

Amid the challenging last 12 months, progress in the region 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 a strong emphasis on closely following up on the reviews with implementation. Reviewed countries are assisted through national and regional workshops (for example on energy and the environment, transport and the environment, and the SDGs), UN 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 attracted the attention of countries outside the UNECE region, leading to requests to share the know-how developed at UNECE with its sister UN regional commissions. EPRs for Morocco – for which the second review is currently underway – and Mongolia in 2018 in cooperation with ESCWA and ESCAP paved the way for strengthened interregional efforts that we stand ready to support further.

Heeding New Calls

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.

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 (GHG) mitigation. At governments’ request, the EPR Programme will enhance assessment of the green economy 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.

This guest article is authored by Olga Algayerova, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and 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.

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