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Klaus Toepfer's Message to the Volvo Environment Prize Seminar in Honor of Dr. Mostafa Tolba

Message by the Executive Director of UNEP, Mr. Klaus Toepfer, on the Occasion of the Volvo Environment Prize Seminar on the Environmental Aspects of Urbanization, held in Honor of Dr. Mostafa Tolba, retiring Volvo Environment Prize Committee Member and Former Executive Director of UNEP

Dear friends and colleagues,

Please accept my apologies for not being here today to share in your collective wisdom concerning what is perhaps the greatest challenge for sustainable development in the coming decades.

For the first time in human history, more people live in towns and cities than in rural areas. The demands they are making, and will continue to make, on the global environment are profound.

Urban expansion presents considerable challenges: for air quality, for the marine environment, and for the many environmental services on which urban populations depend.

Protecting those services, while at the same time helping the world’s growing urban population to live healthy, productive and peaceful lives, will test the ingenuity of the world’s greatest minds.

I am glad to note that many of those minds are gathered here today, not least the four distinguished winners of this year’s Volvo Environment Prize.

It has been my pleasure to sit on the selection committee for this Prize since shortly after I became Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, and I would like to acknowledge the dedication, commitment and vision of all my colleagues on the jury.

I would also like to thank you all for allowing me the opportunity to honour, on your behalf, the considerable achievements of our colleague, Dr. Mostafa Kamal Tolba.

Dr. Tolba has sat on the Volvo Prize Committee since its inception, as befits an elder statesman of the environment movement. During that time he has helped to honour the achievements of some of the greatest innovators and leaders in the field of sustainable development.

I am sure everyone would agree that his name, too, belongs among this company.

Certainly, we at the United Nations Environment Programme recognize his extraordinary contribution, which is why we awarded him the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize in 1993.

That Prize, like the Volvo Prize, is presented only to those people whose lifetime achievements are held in the highest esteem by their peers.

Dr. Tolba has been an eloquent and tireless defender of the environment for most of his life.

He was already a well-respected scientist when he led Egypt’s delegation to the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which established UNEP as the environmental conscience of the United Nations.

He was UNEP’s first Deputy Executive Director, under Maurice Strong, and became UNEP Executive Director in 1975. He held the position for the next 17 years, shaping both the organization and the global landscape of environmental discourse.

Dr. Tolba’s influence during his tenure helped ensure that the environment assumed an ever-greater role in global thinking and action. He applied his belief that environmental decisions are inseparable from socio-political decisions in all his consultations with political leaders.

His negotiating skills and scientific knowledge contributed to the Montreal Protocol, the historic 1987 agreement to protect the ozone layer which is rightly hailed as among UNEP’s most significant achievements.

It is most fitting that today’s celebration of Dr. Tolba’s achievements should also include Professor Mario Molina, whose groundbreaking work was the catalyst for convincing the world’s governments to act.

To this day the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer remains the world’s most successful multilateral environmental agreement.

Its embodiment of the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, its financial commitment to helping developing countries meet their obligations, and its history of negotiation and compromise towards a common end provide a model for the solution of other important and sensitive environmental issues — for instance climate change, which is increasingly the underlying theme of all environmental discussion.

But, ladies and gentlemen, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the Montreal Protocol weren’t the only significant environmental treaties negotiated during Dr. Tolba’s tenure at UNEP.

The period also saw the negotiation of the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

At the Earth Summit in Brazil, in 1992, he was at the helm of the negotiations when the Conventions on Climate Change and Biological Diversity were signed.

He also successfully worked for treaties to protect the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and during the Iran-Iraq conflict in the 1980s he often had the warring parties at the same negotiating table to discuss common environmental interests, a direct precursor to UNEP’s current growing interest in the links between environment and security.

This theme is, I know, close to Dr. Tolba’s heart. Born in Egypt, a country whose economy depends on the waters of a river that flows through many countries, he has always been aware of the link between environment and politics, and has always believed that common environmental interests should override political differences, even conflicts between nations.

This is something I too believe, and I would maintain that it is these common environmental interests that provide a foundation for peace, and not for conflict.

The route for that path has been mapped out by many great men and women over the past decades. Dr. Mostafa Kamal Tolba is most certainly one of them.

Thank you.




Further Resources

Volvo Environment Prize
Official Website

Biography of Dr. Mostafa Kamal Tolba
Former UNEP Executive Director and 1993 Sasakawa Prize Winner

Other UNEP Environmental Prizes


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