Nairobi, 9 January 2004 - Links between global warming and heavy metal pollution, soil microbes and bumper crop yields and the degree to which a degraded environment can trigger political instability, are likely to be among the pressing issues facing scientists trying to unravel the fate of planet Earth.
Next week, some of the world's leading experts will gather at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to try and pin point "knowledge gaps" in a bid to better forecast the impact of human-kind’s actions on the environment of the 21st century.
Areas in need of strengthening include the health effects of chemical hazards, the impacts of urbanization and megacities on the wider world and improved understanding of the planet’s biodiversity.
Scientists are also keen to address how actions taken to solve one environmental crisis might impact on other areas of environmental, economic and social concerns.
The overall aim of the week-long set of meetings involving scientists, government officials and members of other organizations such as the European Environment Agency and the Convention on Biological Diversity, is to assess how best to boost UNEP’s science base.
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: " Sound science is vital. Governments cannot be expected to change industrial, agricultural and other practices without accurate and authoritative evidence that these are not only cost-effective but will genuinely make a difference, that they will help deliver sustainable development. So we need to plug the remaining gaps and better understand what is known in the jargon as ‘interlinkages’, in essence the consequences of our actions, across a wide range of issues ".
In advance of the meeting, UNEP organized a survey to identify areas of concern. Between a third and half of those who responded cited issues such as environment and poverty, environment and trade and environment and conflict as important areas for improved scientific research.
Other areas in need of strengthening include studies on the disturbance of the global nitrogen cycle as a result of agricultural fertilizers and traffic fumes; biodiversity assessments of marine and fresh water environments; the wider impacts of changes in land cover as a result of forest loss and agriculture and the health and environmental effects of a build up of toxic chemicals.
Governments were also questioned about their views on a proposed Intergovernmental Panel on Global Environmental Change, mirroring the existing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and other institutional arrangements to strengthen UNEP’s scientific base.
The IPCC was established by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization to assess the impacts and suggest solutions for combating climate change.
Over 30 governments expressed support or considered a global environmental change panel useful. Almost 20 governments rejected the idea.
Notes to Editors
Scientists will be meeting at UNEP headquarters on 12 and 13 January; an estimated 100 ministers and government experts meet from 14 to 15 January and the intergovernmental consultations will take place on 16 January.
General Assembly Resolution 2997 (XXVII) of 1972 established UNEP and provided it with a very broad mandate that amongst others, called on UNEP to keep the global environmental situation under review. UNEP’s catalytic and coordinating role puts the organization at centre stage to ensure that the global assessment process is carried out in a timely, policy-relevant, cost-efficient and cost-effective manner.
Environmental ministers at the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment (GC/GMEF) Forum in Cartagena in February 2002 agreed that the increasing complexity of environmental degradation required an enhanced capacity for scientific assessment, monitoring and early warning. The ministers recommended that: “Further consideration should be given to strengthening UNEP's scientific base by improving its ability to monitor and assess global environmental change including, inter alia, through the establishment of an intergovernmental panel on global environmental change.”
The GC/GMEF at its twenty-second session (Nairobi, February 2003) discussed the issue of the intergovernmental panel but could not reach consensus on whether or not the Panel was needed. GC/GMEF decided that further consideration of this issue was needed and initiated a consultative process outlined by GC/GMEF decision GC.22/1/1A. It invited governments, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and scientific institutions to submit to the Executive Director their views on the following questions:
What are the likely gaps and types of assessment needs with respect to the environment and environmental change?
How are the United Nations Environment Programme and other organizations currently meeting those assessment needs?
What options exist with respect to meeting any unfulfilled needs that fall within the role and mandate of the United Nations Environment Programme?”
UNEP had an excellent response to the questions. An independent analysis and synthesis of responses was carried out under the auspices of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE). The key findings were then presented in a synthesis report that is available on the web at http://science.unep.org/synthesisfinal1.pdf together with all individual responses http://science.unep.org/searchquestionnaire.asp.
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UNEP News Release NR 2004/02