Speeches September 2011 - Remarks by Achim Steiner at the Annual Conference of French Ambassadors - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Remarks by Achim Steiner at the Annual Conference of French Ambassadors

Sustainable Societies: Responsive Citizens

7-10 minutes

Bonn, 3 September 2011?Thank you for inviting me to address this important meeting.

Unequivocally and unreservedly the process that is leading to Rio+20 needs not only the voice but the passion, experience, vision, creativity and determination of civil society.

Without your involvement and without the broad alliance represented in this room bringing its full potential and focus, this process is unlikely to succeed in terms of delivering a defining, decisive outcome.

Major groups, from women and trades unions to the private sector, environmental NGOs and indigenous peoples, know more than anyone that we live in an increasingly unequal world; that the environmental services upon which we all depend?and especially the poor?are also fast hitting limits as a result of decades of pollution, damage and degradation.

Enlightened sections of the private sector can already see the writing on the wall?we live on a planet where climate change and the loss of productive ecosystems can and will increasingly disrupt global supply chains.

Those of you who work in communities and on the ground daily confront the mismatch between the ambition of the Stockholm Conference of 1972 and the Rio Earth Summit of almost 20 years ago and the reality of today.

An extraordinary level of achievement has occurred in some areas?millions have been lifted out of poverty in places like China and India and the world's network of protected areas for example has grown substantially.

But the development path of the intervening years has by-passed far too many; brought prosperity to the few rather than the majority and is running an ecological bill that is paid by the poor and the vulnerable every day and will ultimately be picked up by the coming generation.

The status quo is simply a road to nowhere rather than a Road to Rio 2012.

The Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication stirs strong emotions-this can only be welcome, we need a strong and animated discourse but only so long as it is more light than heat that is generated.

For some the Green Economy represents the logical evolution of sustainable development, a path to making economies more responsive to the needs and aspirations of all peoples?a way of making globalization a servant rather than a master.

For others it smacks of some kind of green gloss, conspiring to maintain the existing economic order but in a way that provides a feel good factor.

Let me stress that when UNEP became involved in the Green Economy in 2008, we were building on existing work pioneered by NGOs and civil society.

And that from the outset, it has been UNEP's intention to provide both a re-think and the supporting analysis of how to shape the global economy in a way that provides growth but also transformative social and environmental outcomes.

I am more than happy to discuss further the Green Economy.

But given the time I have for this keynote, I would like to focus the reminder of my speech on the other key theme of Rio+20-namely an institutional framework for sustainable development and address the International Environment Governance (IEG) dimension.

In part because of the two themes, this one is perhaps less mature in the discussions and preparations and in part because it requires your engagement and leadership in order to sharpen and shape a meaningful and forward-looking outcome.

Civil society was crucial to the establishment of UNEP, but almost from the outset there have been calls from many quarters for UNEP to be strengthened.

Today, and as a result of Rio+20 and our collective experience of 40 years, those calls are re-surfacing with a vigour perhaps not witnessed since Stockholm.

To date several regions including Africa have signaled a determination to take up this course.

Why? Because the landscape that has emerged in terms of the structures and institutions is simply too fragmented, time-consuming and piecemeal in its present form.

And the over 500 Multilateral Environment Agreement (MEAs), many with their own assemblies and governing bodies, have become an administrative burden for many developing countries stretching limited financial and human resources.

A summary of the number of meetings and decisions taken by Conferences of Parties of 18 major MEAs between the years 1992 ? 2007 shows that 540 meetings were held at which 5,084 decisions were taken

If one wishes to be direct, we have been merely dealing with symptom upon symptom, giving the impression that challenges have been addressed but in fact masking root causes and root solutions. This approach has also prevented a more synergistic and effective approach from emerging.

So we have a management regime that to date is failing this generation's search for sustainable development and will certainly short change the next unless a more effective, stronger, coherent and focused governance system can be established.

One that can provide a top to what one might term the bottom which is represented by the pathways and promise of a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy.

The key question engaging governments and wider society currently is not just whether a global organization for the environment is needed?certainly many concede that the status quo is not an option.

But how it would be configured, and what would it do that would prove to be transformative.

Let me share some elements under discussions and consideration.

? Firstly, it would require the authority to allow ministers responsible for the environment to achieve some parity and equity with their economic and social counterparts.

UNEP has a Governing Council that meets annually, but the decisions taken by environment ministers are referred to New York where they can be agreed or quite literally dismissed as part of the General Assembly process.

In addition, it may surprise some to learn that UNEP's Governing Council does not have provision for universal membership of member states to date.

A body with the kind of decision-making authority of a World Trade Organization or a specialized agency such as the World Health Organization could remedy this disconnect between ambition and reality.

? Equally, there is a need for an anchor institution to provide authoritative policy guidance to the MEAs in order to address fragmentation and build a far more strategic direction between all the distinct parts of the current environment corpus.

A more authoritative and strengthened body could also get to grips with the issue of financing. Currently decisions over how funds allocated for the environment internationally are spent are often taken in parallel fora such as the Global Environment Facility.

Meanwhile the lack of a central and anchoring policy framework is leading to increased costs, inefficient targeting of scarce financial resources and curtailed consequences for achieving sustainability.

? Another glaring gap linked with the existing governance arrangements is implementation.

To put it simply the world invests significant time, skill and capacity in negotiating and agreeing treaties, targets and timetables but far less in actually making these agreements happen on the ground and where it matters.

Any new structure must therefore address this disconnect by perhaps having a dedicated implementation arm able to support financially and build the capacity of developing and least developed countries to meet their commitments regionally and nationally.

? Other important elements include building accountability into existing and future environmental agreements and decisions, backed up by peer review and review mechanisms. The African Union, the WTO and the Human Rights Council offer examples.

The effectiveness of systems of implementation and accountability can also benefit from partnerships with civil society and their knowledge, networks and independent scrutiny.

? Finally science: Sound science underpins sound policy-making, but all too often that wealth of scientific knowledge available to governments is unfiltered or unfit for cooperative decision making.

A comprehensive science-policy interface spanning the full range of environmental challenges and sectors and capable of building scientific capacity in developing countries, is another key link in this forward-looking governance debate.

Overall such reforms will also contribute to other goals such as those enshrined in principle 10 on improved access to information, public participation and access to justice in environment matters.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The institutional framework for sustainable development needs to be more than environment.

But without a strengthening of international environment governance whatever is potentially agreed in Rio+20 will only contribute to a persistence of the challenges, rather than the delivery of the opportunities and the imperative for a more intelligent and equitable 21st century development.

As leaders from civil society, here in Bonn to shape and sharpen your position for June 2012 you come from many backgrounds and points of view.

But we all share the same fundamental convictions that a moment in history may be emerging where it is time to discard those actions, policies and premises that have led to dead ends in favour of scaling up and accelerating those that have worked while embracing paradigm shifts to overcome outstanding hurdles to sustainability.

Both the Green Economy and the reform proposals for an institutional framework represent risk?but this is not a moment in time to play safe or play to entrenched positions given what is at stake.

The world is looking for leadership and the world is looking for ambition and a resolution to the divisions of the modern world.

The public is not just looking to their elected leaders for clear, cooperative and conclusive ways forward, they are looking to institutions such as the UN and civil society organizations for clarity and a clear voice on the issues at hand.

Meanwhile governments and regional groupings are looking to you for support in finalizing their inputs to New York by the 1 November deadline.

Rio+20 can be yet another meeting in the long calendar of international events?or like Rio 1992, it could be something very special that will be discussed with satisfaction and the surety that the world came together and made a difference in the progress of humanity.

It is for this generation of political leaders to demonstrate that they are up to the task and equal to the previous generation of leaders.

Concurrently, it is for this generation of civil society leaders to demonstrate here in Bonn and beyond that they too have the wisdom, willingness and way forward to steer, guide and inspire the political process to a remarkable outcome in nine months time.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director UN Environment Programme addressed the annual conference of French Ambassadors