Environment, Poverty and Social Development

23 May 2003, Copenhagen, Denmark

Global Conscience Conference on Environment, Poverty and Social Development

By Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme


The UN Secretary-General has recently expressed the view that many ills that confront this earth, such as wars, diseases, famines and environmental insecurity, have their root causes in poverty.

The consequences of not dealing with the glaring inequality between rich and poor were also spelled out last year in an article for the UNEP magazine Our Planet by the United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Sustainable development, he said, is “a security imperative”. Poverty, environmental degradation and the despair that they breed are “destroyers of people, of societies, of nations.” They provide the ingredients for the destabilization of countries, even entire regions.

Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit the number of people living in absolute poverty, particularly in developing countries has increased. According to the 2003 UN Human Development Report, there are 900 million people living in absolute poverty in rural areas. The trends are not much better in the cities, where 1 billion people live in slums. More than 1 billion people lack access to clean water supplies and more than 2 billion people worldwide lack access to adequate sanitation.

The first Millennium Development Goal is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. The targets, which have to be achieved by 2015, are to

· reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day; and to

· reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer hunger.

The links between poverty and environment

· Livelihoods. The poor often depend directly on a diversity of natural resources and ecosystem services for their livelihoods. They are the most severely affected when the environment is degraded or their access to natural resources is limited or denied.

· Health. The poor suffer most from unclean water, indoor air pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals. Environmental risk factors are a major source of health problems in developing countries.

· Vulnerability. The poor are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards (such as floods, prolonged drought and attacks by crop pests) and environment-related conflict, and have the least means to cope when they occur. (For example many people in Central America have yet to recover from the effects of Hurricane Mitch)

UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook 3 shows that the environment is deteriorating in many regions due to natural and man-made pressures. Such pressures include climate variability, rapid population growth and rising consumption trends that are leading to over-harvesting of resources and the pollution of air, water and land.

The report also points out that these environmental changes impact human livelihoods by reducing food security, increasing vulnerability to natural hazards and disease, and limiting opportunities for economic growth.


UNEP’s Governing Council has agreed that two broad issues urgently need more scientific study.

One is the link between environmental degradation and conflict. Unravelling this will become even more pressing in the 21st century as the number of people living on this planet rises beyond the current 6 billion.

The other is the link between poverty and the environment. Or, put the other way, the link between a healthy environment and wealth and prosperity. Instinctively, these relationships seem to exist, but quantifying and pinpointing them precisely needs more examination.

These issues are increasingly the focus of much of UNEP’s work.

In March this year, the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum issued the “Jeju Initiative”, aimed at accelerating action to address environmental decline, particularly in the areas of water, sanitation and human settlements.

At the heart of the Initiative is the issue of poverty reduction. The Ministers and other Heads of Delegation who drafted the Initiative observed that a sustainable approach to poverty reduction, economic development and the improvement of public health necessitates the incorporation of environmental issues in national poverty reduction and sustainable development strategies.

Upon request from its Governing Council, UNEP has developed a conceptual framework analyzing the links between poverty and environment. This will help governments to better integrate key environmental concerns into socioeconomic frameworks, including poverty reduction strategies.

UNEP will now test this conceptual framework on the ground in seven African countries: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Mauritania, Mali and Rwanda.

The object of UNEP’s work will be the formulation of national guidelines to mainstream environment into national development plans and poverty reduction strategies.

On the ground it means that environmental benefits in terms of development will be empirically measured in areas such as energy, fisheries, agriculture, the role of small and medium enterprises, access to water etc. This work will be undertaken in close collaboration with the private sector.

There are a number of underlying principles for achieving the goals of sustainability, poverty reduction and human well-being:

· Development that emphasizes managing and preserving the natural carrying and productive capacity of ecosystems;

· A more balanced approach to production and consumption in the developed world;

· Fairer terms of trade, with a bias towards primary products from developing countries; notably products from agriculture, forests, fisheries and minerals;

· Gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.

· Access by the poor to markets, credits and ecosystem services

· Attention to both the material (income, education, health) and non-material (cultural and spiritual) constituents of human well being;

· Addressing the vulnerability of the poor to climate change and other environmental hazards such as droughts, floods and pollution.


The short answer is that we HAVE to do it at the same time. The two issues of poverty and environmental deterioration are closely linked.

Poverty is one of the most toxic elements in the environment.

Eradicating poverty must be a priority. However, the problem is encapsulated by the question: Do we have enough resources to do it?

Almost 1.3 million people worldwide live on less than a dollar a day. The poorest 40 per cent of the world’s people account for only 11 per cent of world consumption. The top 15 per cent, on the other hand, account for 56 per cent of consumption.

According to the Ecological Footprint Sustainability Measure, an independent measure based on UN statistics, if everybody on Earth were to live like an average person in a high-income country such as Denmark, we would need an additional 2.6 planets to support us all.

Unsustainable consumption and production patterns are the greatest challenge to environmental protection and poverty eradication.

The WSSD Plan of Implementation says we must de-link economic growth and environmental degradation. It calls for “a 10-year framework of programmes towards sustainable consumption and production patterns”.

To achieve this we need to utilize the tools of life-cycle analysis and national science-based indicators; adopt the polluter-pays principle; and develop awareness raising programmes.

In relation to sustainable consumption the WSSD Plan of Implementation also encourages measures such as corporate environmental and social responsibility and accountability, through initiatives such as ISO standards and the Global Reporting Initiative; public procurement to stimulate markets; and the internalization of environmental costs and use of economic instruments.

It called for the development and dissemination of alternative energy technologies, with a greater share of the energy mix to renewable, improved efficiencies and cleaner fossil fuel technologies such as cleaner coal; better vehicle technologies and public transportation systems.

And we need to minimize waste and maximize re-use, recycling and environmentally friendly alternatives; put the highest priority on waste prevention; and soundly manage chemicals throughout their life-cycle.

These are the principles on which environmental sustainability and poverty eradication can be built.


There is a close link between environmental sustainability and employee’s rights and working conditions. Just as the poorest people are most vulnerable to environmental risk factors, so are the poorest employees. They do the dirtiest jobs, have the least job security, and suffer more in terms of impact on health.

UNEP promotes sustainable employment and corporate environmental responsibility and accountability through its involvement in initiatives such as the Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative.

UNEP is planning to develop a Global Compact training package and training courses to introduce the principles of the Compact in an integrated manner. The training material will be promoted in cooperation with UNDP and UNIDO in developing countries.

The overlap between environment and labour principles is very clear in areas such as environment, health and safety. UNEP has a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions to address worker issues and environmental management.

Women and poverty

We cannot talk about poverty reduction and employment rights without raising the issue of women, whose work throughout the developing world is often undervalued as well as underpaid.

The third Millennium Development Goal is to promote gender equality and empower women. This could prove to be the most important goal in achieving sustainable development. We must breathe life into the gender dimensions enshrined in the UN Millennium Development Goals, we must build on the outcomes of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the 1995 Beijing Conference and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and cement these at the Beijing Plus 10 Conference on Women and Development next year. If we ignore the role of women, all our collective hopes and aspirations for a better and more stable world, will be harder to achieve.


According to the UNDP Poverty and Environment Initiative, there are four priority areas for sustained policy and institutional change for reversing environmental decline and making environmental management work for the poor:

· Improving governance to create a more enabling policy and institutional environment for addressing the poverty-environment concerns of the poor, with particular attention to the needs of women and children.

· Enhancing the assets and capabilities of the poor to expand sustainable livelihood opportunities and to reduce the vulnerability of the poor to environmental hazards and natural resource–related conflict.

· Improving the quality of growth to promote sound environmental management and protect the environmental assets and livelihood opportunities of the poor.

· Reforming international and industrial-country policies to address the poverty and environment concerns of developing countries and the poor and to ensure greater access to global public goods.

Just this month, the United Nations envoy for the world's poorest countries ended a three-day visit to Senegal with the message that the very survival of developing countries depends on their access to world markets. That access is hampered by subsidies to sectors such as fisheries and agriculture.

The OECD estimates that total agricultural subsides are £300 billion dollars a year. That is $50 dollars for everyone on the planet. A sickening sum when you consider that 1.3 billion people live on less than $1 dollar a day.

According Mali’s Finance Minister Bassary Toure, the money that the developed countries put into agricultural subsidies is five times what they give the developing world as development assistance.

While the developed world continues to subsidise its farmers the people of the developing world will continue to harvest the costs.


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