Remarks by Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director to Plenary of the Global Environment Facility Assembly

25 May 2010 - Honourable Ministers, delegates, Monique Barbut, Chief Executive Officer of the GEF, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to address the GEF Assembly here in Uruguay.

This is the Continent that in many ways will be at the centre of the international community's renewal, replenishment and re-commitment to the goals of sustainability over the coming two years.

Here we meet to discuss the future path of one of the central financing arms, established in the context of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

In Nagoya, Japan later this year member states will convene for the COP of the Biodiversity Convention. This will be followed by Cancun, Mexico where the international community will meet again to take forward the challenge, but also the opportunities of combating climate change under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Both of these are processes born at the Earth summit in 1992.

And in 2012, we will return to Brazil for the Rio + 20 summit—20 years on from a world that in some ways was just glimpsing the impact of humanity's unsustainable development path and warning of the consequences of inaction.

Today, many of those indicators have moved further into the red and we have new dials that are informing us of the seemingly overwhelming pace, scale and impact of the current development and economic growth models.

Dead zones in the world's seas and oceans for example were not a feature of Rio in 1992—they are now.

And while climate change was a key consideration 18 years ago, ocean acidification as a result of the build up of C02 alongside other emissions-related phenomena, are now part of a suite of emerging issues confronting a new generation of policy-makers and public.

This is in part as a result of the inordinate scaling up of science—we know far more today than we ever did about human beings and their relationship with the natural world.

Public awareness has never been higher; wealth in absolute or GDP terms (despite the recent economic and financial crisis) has soared and technologies including renewables once on the periphery are entering mainstream.

More people have access to water and sanitation than at any point in human history—but as a percentage the world is still confronted with more poor people than at any time in the past.

We live in the best of times and the worst of times—the world has responded to challenges but not with the magnitude and speed required.

The institutional landscape of which UNEP and GEF is part remains fragmented and diluted—indeed perhaps more so than a decade or so ago.

The financial resources available appear woefully inadequate in the face of poverty, access to electricity, environmental crises and natural resource scarcities now looming large.

No wonder that there are those who may be losing confidence with the multilateral system and the Breton Woods institutions.

Yet despite all these realities, new ones are also emerging which challenge the vacuum of the status quo and are setting some sectors and some economies on potentially transformational courses.

Indeed sustainable development innovations have, since 1992, been happening all around us; at times in pockets or in a stop start mode.

Sometimes inspired by political leaders or forward-looking businessmen and women or catalyzed by determined communities; local authorities and citizens.

But have we really succeeded in moving from the conventional towards the scalable and transformational approach we need to succeed in what is rapidly becoming a race against time.

Before I perhaps turn to these points, let me stress that part of that forward-looking response is reform—reform of institutions and of the International Environmental Governance architecture is essential and long overdue.

I applaud the Chief Executive Officer of the GEF for taking on a determined reform agenda. One can discuss and debate the direction, from involving and funding more agencies to the issue of direct access and graduation, but reform is being tried and suggested.

UNEP itself has been in reform mode, moving towards results-based management, sharpening its activities through its programme of work and medium term strategy and six thematic areas.

But there is only so far we can collectively go in what one might call incremental evolution.

The analogy is perhaps a small island developing state confronted by climate change—you can adapt, and adapt and adapt to the more intense weather events including storm surges and sea level rise.

But unless there is a fundamental and dramatic response to the central issue—climate change as a result of the build up of greenhouse gases, climate-proofing will be eventually a zero sum game with tragic consequences for communities and whole cultures.

The decision, in advance of the GEF Assembly, to replenish its funding to the tune of $4.25 billion is also a welcome move.

But faced with the scale of transformation- the size of the GEF replenishment and financing through other channels and institutions remains inadequate.

I would suggest that what is needed is not incremental reform and incremental funding increases, but a far more dramatic and fundamental shift in public policy and markets in order to unlock the financing needed to turn the promise of Rio 1992 into a reality.

We need to make economists more environmentally literate and environmentalists more economically savvy.

Because in a world captured and fascinated by GDP, only when we factor in the externalities such as pollution, natural resource destruction and other impacts, can a world of six billion rising to nine billion ever hope to secure a sustainable path I would suggest.

Some countries are making a break with the past models of progress. In response to the financial and economic crisis, the Republic of Korea announced it was investing 95 per cent of its stimulus package into green growth sectors.

Its five year green-growth investment plan will spend $60 billion while generating an estimated 1.8 million jobs.

A third of China's stimulus package is also directed to environment-related sectors and there are many more countries one could mention.

There are those who have suggested that the Green Economy is a developed economy agenda or may be a new Trojan Horse for environmental trade barriers.

Let me mention Kenya.

In Kenya, the government is investing in the rehabilitation of the region's largest closed canopy forests specifically because of new economic figures showing its continued degradation will cost the country $320 million in nature-based services annually.

Services such as water flows to major rivers, imperiling drinking water and hydro-electric generation alongside tourism and the tea industry.

Kenya is also attracting investment in geothermal and wind power after a simple change in the law—a feed-in tariff.

UNEP is supporting these and other country transitions through its Green Economy Initiative.

Indeed there are 30 or so developing countries or countries in transition now looking for advisory services on how to tailor their development path towards a Green Economy.

Let me add a further point to the relevance of the Green Economy to the developing country debate.

Last week we launched a preview of a landmark Green Economy report to be launched later in the year.

The preview report looked at fisheries. Economists estimate that an annual investment of $8 billion a year could raise catches world-wide to 112 million tones while triggering benefits to the industry, consumers, communities and the global economy totaling $1.7 trillion over the next 40 years.

This would also assist in fighting poverty by conserving and securing the primary protein source of one billion, mainly developing country people.

Where does the money come from—from the mainly developed country fishing subsidies that are causing stocks to crash in the first place.

It is no coincidence that the report was launched last Monday: this was the opening day of the Rio+20 Preparatory Committee meeting en route to the 2012 meeting in Brazil.

The Green Economy has been chosen as one of the themes for the Rio+20 meeting.

Bringing more intelligent economics, policy choices and market mechanisms into the debate is the logical, leap frog, for sustainable development.

Indeed the approach could offer a way of reconciling the perhaps sometimes antagonistic words sustainable and development with some transformational glue.

GEF's work of the past, nearly 20 years, is in many ways a portfolio of projects at the heart of this green growth paradigm.

It has and continues to show case ways in which smarter investments in areas such as land degradation and renewable energy to biodiversity, ozone depletion and persistent organic pollutants, can deliver multiple environmental, social and economic benefits.

At UNEP's last Governing Council, we announced the results of a UNEP-GEF project to save the Siberian Crane during the UN's International Year of Biodiversity.

Not only has the project boosted the birds' survival prospects, but in conserving and rehabilitating its migratory routes, the project has contributed to the improved management of seven million hectares of wetlands—natural infrastructure of high environmental and economic importance.

Embroiled in the sometimes intense debates surrounding the roles, responsibilities and future directions of different organizations, agencies and funding mechanisms in the international arena, we can all lose sight of the bigger picture.

A big picture is currently unfolding—one that glimpses a fundamental loss of the Earth's life support systems.

Through the GEF and via its implementing agencies, we can in consort with member states and the wider community, be the catalysts of an urgently needed and accelerated transition towards a green economy as we prepare for Rio+20 and beyond.

Change will happen, either by design or default: I am sure that given the choices we face and the choices we have in part illuminated by the proofing work of the GEF, we know which one we would choose for ourselves, our families and communities.


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