UNEP Chief stresses importance of environmental diplomacy at Africa Development Forum

Remarks by UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner at VII African Development Forum

Addis Ababa, 12 October 2010 - Environmental diplomacy may seem to some a new concept. But it is as old as the Entoto hills, near Addis Ababa.

Communities and countries on Continents including Africa have developed intricate ways and social responses to manage disputes and for diffusing tensions in order to cooperate, rather than enter into conflict, over shared natural resources.

The first recorded water treaty between 'nations' was agreed as far back as 2,500 BC between the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma. It was brokered to end a water dispute along the Tigris River.

When it comes to water, perhaps one if not the most fundamental natural resource and environmental asset of them all, today we have over 3,600 agreements across the world.

The need for environmental diplomacy in the 21st century is however rising sharply and across multiple issues-some of which remain local or regional, but others linked with global impacts.

And indeed even local impacts are becoming part of the global diplomacy landscape-one thinks of the Inuit in Canada who have filed a legal action against some developed nations alleging their emissions are linked to the loss of Arctic sea ice that endangers the health, food security and future of civilizations in the far North.

Africa, with just four per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is also a highly vulnerable region-this international climate change diplomacy is a key area of concern on this Continent as it is in the Arctic, small island developing states and other 'front line' locations such as low lying Bangladesh.

The escalating importance of environmental diplomacy is linked with a fundamental change in the scale and the reach of humanity's footprint-pollution can travel across Continents via the jet stream or in ocean currents from those who have generated it for economic development to those who are impacted, but who have not reaped any benefits from its production.

One only has to think of the plastic building up in places such as the Pacific and elsewhere which has come from waste discharged across the globe.

Or the way chemicals such as fire retardants emitted from multiple point sources across the planet have thinned and punched holes in the ozone layer-the Earth's protective shield against dangerous levels of the sun's ultra-violet ways.

Some of the poorest and most vulnerable including those on the Africa Continent can become victims as a result of pollution generated not by them but by others-environmental diplomacy is about finding fair and equitable solutions to such realities.

And perhaps more importantly of finding cooperative and forward-looking agreements between over 190 nations for managing-down impacts en route to sustainable development-agreements that recognize the historical responsibilities of some countries and increasingly the rights of generations yet born.

Rights to a healthy and productive planet that will allow the next generation to reach its full potential rather than being marginalized or short-change by an over-exploitative previous one.

Stockholm-the Birth of Modern Environmental Diplomacy

The modern era of environmental diplomacy can be traced back the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, Sweden.

It was the first effort of a globalizing society to address the environment as a main topic of the international politics-it came at a time when the footprint of humanity as a global phenomenon was just being glimpsed.

In many ways it was precautionary environmental diplomacy.

The Stockholm Declaration consists of a list of 26 principles; affirmed "fundamental right to freedom, dignity and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of quality" as the principle 1 through to:-

"The responsibility of states to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to environment of other state": principle 21.

Moreover another important achievement at the Stockholm Conference is the establishment of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as an international entity for environment action in UN system.

Environmental diplomacy crystallized in many ways into Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) to solve international environmental concerns.

The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Waste and Other Matter (London Dumping Convention, 1972).

The Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (1979) negotiated under the UN Economic Commission for Europe.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of World Flora and Fauna (CITES, 1973) to name but a few.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led many to believe that environmental diplomacy, supported by the peace dividend, might shape a world of the late 20th into the 21st century.

Rio-Environmental Diplomacy Surges Forward

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, called the Earth Summit), held in Rio De Janeiro Jun 5 to June 18, 1992 was indeed a moment of surging environmental interest-informed by rapidly evolving science.

More than 178 nations, with 118 heads of state or government, 8,000 official delegates, nearly 1,400 NGOs represented by 3,000 accredited observers, 9,000 journalists, and approximately 15,000 to 20,000 visitors attended at the Earth Summit.

For some, the most important achievement of the Earth Summit is perhaps Agenda 21 which is a blueprint to achieve sustainable development by implementing detailed action plans.

Meanwhile new MEAs were born-The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

A new UN political institution, the Commission on Sustainable Development, was also established in Rio.

Environmental diplomacy has since also become an important part of the trade agenda and other organizations, for example the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, have also taken up the environment as a key policy issue among nations.

Achievement or Failure?

On one level environmental diplomacy has achieved a lot-much of the machinery of the engine room has been rolled out and the tables, chairs and cutlery of the buffet car have been laid out.

The question is whether the train is actually moving and at what pace.

Does it know which direction to head, which of the proliferating tracks should it switch to, and is there enough steam anyway in the boiler to keep up with the unprecedented levels of environmental change emerging across the globe.

This at a time of a population standing now at over six billion, scheduled to rise to over nine billion by 2050.

Governments pledged to substantially revered the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010-it has not happened.

Some countries will meet their emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol, but many will not.

And while carbon markets have emerged and progress is being made on, for example Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, progress in many areas is far too slow.

A comprehensive new global climate agreements failed to materialize in Copenhagen last year despite the attendance of many heads of state and the UN process is struggling as it prepares for Cancun, Mexico.

One challenge is that the rapid growth in MEAs, alongside the huge numbers of organizations, bodies and institutions now involved in environment and environmental diplomacy and advocacy has generated a landscape that all too often can duplicate efforts at a time of increasingly scarce financial resources

  • More than 500 MEA has been endorsed, including 61 atmosphere-related, 155 biodiversity-related, 179 related to chemicals, hazardous substance and waste, 46 land conventions and 196 related with water.

The capacity of developing countries-in terms of financial but also human resources-to participate is also being stretched.

Meanwhile and for many years a convincing case on the importance of the economic and social importance of the environment in development, poverty eradication and sustainability has perhaps not been made or has failed to resonate with the necessary conviction among many countries.

Is this changing as the future, glimpsed originally in Stockholm 38 years ago, becomes reality?

In some ways yes.

Environmental diplomacy is evolving to try and see the multiple challenges facing humanity today more in the round-to bring coherence to the fragmented and perhaps piecemeal landscape this century has inherited from the previous one.

In terms of climate, there is an effort by some to try and convince over 190 nations that there are more areas that unite and to set aside the smaller differences that divide.

IEG and Rio+20

The overall challenge has crystallized around proposals and actions to strengthen the environmental authority of the UN: namely UNEP itself, under the theme of International Environment Governance.

Many of you will be aware of the process underway in this respect and options emerging on the table.

There is part of efforts towards strengthening the environmental pillar of sustainable development-because of a growing realization that while the economic pillar has prospered over recent decades the environmental one has remained weak in comparison alongside the social one.

Without all three pulling together, the structure is in danger of pulling apart and perhaps explosively under many scientific scenarios.

There have already been some gains-at UNEP's last Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Indonesia, governments agreed to test bringing some of the operations of the three global chemicals together in order to streamline and maximize their impact.

Meanwhile UNEP's Green Economy Initiative-a way of making environmentalists more economically savvy and economists more environmentally literate-is showcasing how environmental investments and smarter polices can assist countries in rising to challenges and in seizing opportunities.

Focus is now on Rio+20 in Brazil in 2012, where the Green Economy is one of the themes.

There is still time for environmental diplomacy to direct international affairs in a way that allows the world to design a development landscape that can meet the legitimate aspirations of both current and future generations.

Otherwise the future will be designed by default.

And environmental diplomacy may then be said to have failed as it gives way to another kind of diplomacy based on increasing tensions and perhaps conflicts in the world.

Thank you


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