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Achim Steiner on Mobilizing African Leadership for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20)

Statement delivered at the African Union Commission -United Nations Environment Programme -UN Economic Commission for Africa -African Development Bank Round Table on Rio+20

Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, 29 June 2011 - H.E. Mr. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, President of Republic of the Congo and heads of state from across Africa

Jean Ping, Chairperson of the African Union Commission

Mr. Abdoulie Janneh, Under-Secretary-General and Executive

Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa

Mr Donald Kaberuka, President of the African Development Bank

Thank you for inviting me to this important meeting and roundtable in the presence of such distinguished and knowledgeable speakers and guests.

We are here to contribute to the focusing and formulating of Africa's collective position on Rio+20 in Brazil next June.

Rio+20 can be another date in the long and demanding international calendar of events-or it can be an opportunity for this generation of world leaders to catalyze a paradigm shift in Africa's 21st century growth and its cooperative relationships across the developing and developed world.

Africa is a region with perhaps the most to gain from a world-wide shift towards a Green Economy.

  • An abundance of the kinds of natural resources that in many other parts of the world are becoming constrained and highly sought after including 40 per cent of the world's biodiversity and 16 per cent of world forest cover.

  • The potential for generating high levels of clean, sustainable and renewable energies able to propel lives and livelihoods in a way that maximizes development and minimizes humanity's pollution footprints nationally and internationally while combating poverty.

  • An opportunity to broaden the economic sectors from oil, minerals and agricultural 'extraction' to sectors that meet the needs of one billion Africans now and an estimated 2 billion by 2050 while supplying global markets with the goods and services likely to be in demand over the coming decades

  • An opportunity too to find better, decent 'green jobs' for the 10 million new young people a year looking for work in areas from natural resource management to sustainable agriculture and high-tech, clean tech jobs that are likely to grow 21st century economies but in a way that keeps humanity's footprint within planetary boundaries.

In short, Rio+20 could represent an evolution of sustainable development that recognizes and values Africa's assets in a way that reflects the economic, social and environmental realities of a world markedly different from Rio 1992.

Your meeting here in Malabo does not come in a vacuum.

Africa has already signaled political commitment on the Green Economy through several endorsements such as 13th AMCEN in June 2010; 7th African Development Forum; AU Summit January 2011 and the Conference of African Ministers of Economy and Finance CAMEF in March 2011.

Over recent weeks and months Africa's ambassadors and experts have provided dynamic and forward-looking proposals on a continent-wide position running up to Rio+20.

Special thanks are due to the Republic of the Congo and Kenya for the agenda item "Africa's Preparation for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20): Common Positions and Strategies in Facing the Challenges of the Green Economy and International Environmental Governance"

Some countries quite rightly have pointed out pitfalls that need to be addressed in respect to a Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Green tariffs or trade barrier or new kinds of conditionalities in terms of aid, being among those concerns.

But I think there is also an emerging clarity that the greatest risk to Africa and indeed economies across the world is too allow concerns about risks to paralyze the bigger prize.

And that risks of the kind raised are inherent in any economic model, green or otherwise.

Indeed when I read the preparatory documents and hear the voice of Africa's leadership, academia, business and civil society, I have a sense that most if not all countries here have internalized many of those concerns as 'issues to watch out for' rather than issues that are fundamental road blocks to broad cooperative agreements in Rio.

On the second theme of Rio+20- an institutional framework for sustainable development- and in particular in respect to international environment governance, the pros and cons of a body such as a World Environment Organization needs to be firmly focused on a framework for empowerment and delivery.

Empowerment of the environment ministers of Africa to achieve the full potential of their portfolios in respect to delivering the third pillar of sustainable development in cooperation with their counterparts in other parts of the globe.

And in a way that matures the third pillar not for itself, but in order to also deliver social and economic outcomes.

In specific, improved International Environment Governance needs to:-

  • Strengthen the science-policy interface with full participation of developing countries

  • Increase the effectiveness, efficiency and coherence of the UN system to respond to the needs of developing countries

  • Establish a strong link between environmental policy and the appropriate financing processes and mechanisms


Many African countries have included environment in their development priorities and some have provided environmental safeguarding in their constitutions.

However, the means for implementation to support their commitments have lagged behind-an area a reformed system of IEG could address.

The work of UNEP and many, many others including governments and research institutes in Africa, underline that a Green Economy is emerging everywhere including in least developed countries with positive impacts on lives and livelihoods as well as environmental sustainability.

From the growth of sustainable and organic agriculture in for example Uganda and Malawi; the dramatic explosion of renewable energies in a countries like Egypt and Kenya and the plans for solar in South Africa, to ecosystem restoration and sustainable tourism in Rwanda and Namibia to forest management in the Republic of Congo and Gabon, we know its happening here, not in theory but in practice.

It is likely to flower and flourish faster with an institutional framework that fosters rather than frustrates such transitions and recognizes the needs and aspirations of developing economies in Africa and elsewhere.

There is a tendency, when faced with a big UN conference to draw up negotiating positions and steel oneself to plough through texts line by line.

Rio+20 is designed to be different.

On IEG, we need to look more to implementation than institutions.

On the Green Economy, to the big ticket items where broad and cooperative public policy can shift markets, catalyze national and regional action and global financial flows onto a sustainable path.

  • Whether it be an evolution of indicators of wealth, that take the world beyond the narrow definitions of GDP to indicators that reward economies that adopt public policies and produce goods and services that strengthen the three pillars, rather than weaken them.

  • Or whether it be looking at peverse subsidies that perpetuate not only environmental damage but poverty and dependence.

  • Or they way government purchasing policies can, when clearly and transparently implemented, favour companies trying to do the right rather than the wrong thing.

  • Or ways, both legal and practical, of implementing international environmental agreements on climate change to desertification and biodiversity to chemicals management.

And Rio+20 needs to achieve something else. The world of the here and now is no longer shaped exclusively by the state, more the state is an enabler.

In the run up to and at Rio+20, there needs to be a forum and an exchange of big ideas between governments, business and civil society in order to reach common cause: that will be important for Africa's position as well as the position of all regions.

An issue that will be important for us to also consider here today.

Rio+20 has already achieved a great deal not least in Africa.

  • A broad intellectual debate about the kind of development nations want; a rich analysis of what sustainability in the 21st century means and how it relates to different economies at different points in their development path

  • A cataloguing of transitions underway and a deeper understanding of how, practically that has been happening and where there are constraints

  • Greater understanding of the science and of how ecosystems such as forests and marine ecosystems like mangroves and sea grasses can generate multiple benefits from water supplies to coastal defenses and fisheries which, with the right kind of cooperative support offers improved livelihoods, resilience and new market-based opportunities

The challenge now and for Rio+20 is to accelerate and to scale all this up in a way that meets Africa's challenges, by unleashing its inordinate potential as a major force in a sustainable 21st century and by framing how evolved institutions can implement this forward-looking agenda.

Thank you for inviting me to share in this important meeting

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director UN Environment Programme (UNEP)



Further Resources

United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20)

UNEP: Green Economy Initiative


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