The Untold Story of the World's Leading Environmental Institution

From One Planet

The Untold Story of the World's Leading Environmental Institution

UNEP at Fifty

By Maria Ivanova

Foreword by John W. McDonald

The past, present, and possible future of the agency designed to act as “the world's environmental conscience.”





The past, present, and possible future of the agency designed to act as “the world's environmental conscience.”

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) was founded in 1972 as a nimble, fast, and flexible entity at the core of the UN system—a subsidiary body rather than a specialized agency. It was intended to be the world's environmental conscience, an anchor institution that established norms and researched policy, leaving it to other organizations to carry out its recommendations. In this book, Maria Ivanova offers a detailed account of UNEP's origin and history and a vision for its future. Ivanova counters the common criticism that UNEP was deficient by design, arguing that UNEP has in fact delivered on much (though not all) of its mandate.

Drawing on extensive interviews she conducted with UNEP's past and present Executive Directors, staff, and two former UN Secretaries-General, Ivanova provides rare insight into the organization's functioning. She shows that UNEP was able to resolve problems and launch important processes when it had financial and political support. Its failures and limitations came when the environment slipped as a priority, leadership faltered, and connectivity was challenged. UNEP's fiftieth anniversary, Ivanova argues, presents an opportunity for reinvention. She envisions a future UNEP that is the go-to institution for information on the state of the planet, a normative vision of global environmental governance, and support for domestic environmental agendas.


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262542104 384 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 29 b&w illus.


John W. McDonald.


  • "Maria Ivanova has produced a fascinating history based on a dozen years of intensive research, nearly 200 interviews, including with all of UNEP's seven executive directors, attendance at all manner of international meetings, and bouncing her ideas with the vibrant environmental governance community of scholars, who form a particularly special breed. By any standards this is grounded research of the highest quality."

    Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development


  • "Ivanova's book, by far the most profound and insightful analysis of UNEP, combines the author's research rigor with her heartfelt humanity.”

    Christiana Figueres

    Executive Secretary, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010–2016)

  • “Many promise but few deliver the kind of solid scholarship with policy pertinence as Ivanova has done for the ideational impact of UNEP, the undervalued 'anchor' in the battle to thwart the existential threat of climate change. Thoughtful, original, and hard-hitting.”

    Thomas G. Weiss

    Presidential Professor of Political Science, CUNY Graduate Center

  • “A must-read for scholars, policymakers, activists, and industry—especially those tasked with leading humanity out of the current global environmental crisis.”

    Zakri Abdul Hamid

    Former Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia

  • "Ivanova's authoritative history of UNEP tells the story of how we have tried, succeeded, and failed to protect the environment. As multiple global crises trace their origins to nature's destruction, this is essential reading."

    Rachel Kyte

    Dean, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

  • “Ivanova's in-depth, down-to-earth analysis of the evolution of UNEP provides essential lessons and perspective for enhancing global environmental governance. A genuinely captivating book!”

    Ado Lõhmus

    Permanent Representative of Estonia to UNEP and Vice-President of the UNEA-5