As the Copenhagen climate conference staggers toward the finish line of a star-studded plenary of political leaders on Friday, a number of influential countries — including France and Britain — have been calling for the creation of a new, global regulator to act as the world's environmental steward, equipped with still unspecified powers.

Similar discussions, it appears, have also been taking place for several months inside the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the world's current environmental watchdog.

According to documents obtained by Fox News, a high-level group of dignitaries from 38 countries, including a bevy of environment ministers and other top environmental bureaucrats, held their first meeting under UNEP auspices last June in the Serbian capital of Belgrade to begin hammering out details of the task of "improving international environmental governance."

The group's plan, according to an elaborate timetable presented at the meeting, was to present its ultimate conclusions on the topic at a meeting of UNEP's supervisory Governing Council, along with a tandem meeting of the world's environmental ministers, entitled the Global Ministerial Environment Forum, in Indonesia next February.

(In the baroque shorthand common to most U.N. institutions, the entire elaborate exercise is now known to insiders as the Belgrade Process.)

Click here to see the plan and timetable.

"We should not shy away from thinking big," those attending the Belgrade meeting were abjured by UNEP executive director Achim Steiner. He also urged the gathering to come to some definite conclusions "within the next two year period in the run up to the twentieth anniversary of the Rio Summit."

The so-called Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janiero in 1992, is universally regarded as the kick-start to environmental activism that has culminated in the Copenhagen effort to drastically cut global carbon emissions and also begin a dramatic re-ordering of the world economy.

"The scale of environmental change mandates us to act swiftly," Steiner declared, according to a copy of his speaking notes obtained by Fox News. He added, however, that "it is up to ministers and their governments to take a decision on the way forward."

Click here to read the speaking notes.

Just how far, and how fast, UNEP hoped to go with its expansive thinking is unclear from the documents obtained by Fox News. But among other things, the conferees appeared to be relying for at least some of their inspiration on discussion papers presented by Steiner at the last meeting of his Governing Council and ministerial forum in Nairobi last February.

One of the papers was entitled "Globalization and the environment — global crises: national chaos?" It outlined a forbidding world scenario of "multiple global crises related to food, fuel, freshwater and finance," capped by the threat of "climate change," then added that "the situation also presents real opportunities to make profound changes in our economies: moving toward a green and low carbon economy."

"The crises the world faces also provide an opportunity to examine the capacity of its governance structures at the national and global levels and to assess whether they are adequate to meet multiple environmental and development challenges and to capitalize on emerging opportunities," the paper declared, in the typically turgid language of U.N. documents.

A second discussion paper describes most of the world's efforts to meet environmental challenges through the U.N. so far as "incremental," and "piecemeal." In fact, a special U.N. investigative unit in 2008 described a tangled network of U.N. environmental institutions, treaty bodies and other arrangement that often overlapped, duplicated their efforts, and starved the U.N. subsidiary branches specifically charged with protecting various parts of the environment. The same report sharply criticized UNEP for failing to coordinate or even keep track of the proliferating environmental initiatives, and allowing real environmental protection to be superseded by an emphasis on "sustainable development" goals.

The UNEP discussion paper also acknowledges the confusing welter of U.N. agencies, programs, funds and other entities, multilateral environmental agreements and financing mechanisms, not to mention "private sector interests and civil society organizations." But rather than point to a definitive answer, it asks a series of relatively opaque but leading questions. Among them:

• Does the "scale and nature of current environmental challenges and opportunities" suggest that "a more transformative change may need to be considered?"

• Does the "debate on international environmental governance" need to be changed into "a debate on global environmental architecture"?

• Would a global meeting on the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit "provide an ideal opportunity to set a new direction for global environmental architecture that is better equipped to address future environment and development challenges and opportunities"?

The nature of the questions was clearly intended to push the participants at the meeting in the direction of agreement.

What the elaborate Belgrade Process may suggest is still unknown. But an even more pressing question is whether the UNEP process itself will still be relevant at the end of the Copenhagen meeting, especially after President Barack Obama arrives on Friday and pressure rises from the assembled world leaders to announce some kind of global environmental deal — however tenuous — as a successful outcome.

An attempt by Fox News to contact a UNEP official associated with the Belgrade Process, and ask further questions about the relationship between the Copenhagen deliberations and UNEP's internal thinking about world environmental "architecture" was unsuccessful.

The official queried by Fox News, like most of his top-level colleagues, was buried in the hubbub and horse-trading of Copenhagen.

George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.