Press Release September 2005 - Environmental Sustainability for a Secure Future - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Environmental Sustainability for a Secure Future

By Klaus Toepfer

Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

The award of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Peace to the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai was the clearest sign yet of the increasing acceptance by the international community that environmental security and human security are inextricably linked. That process has been evolving for some time, marked by milestones such as the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which gave birth to UNEP, the 1992 Earth Summit, the Millennium Summit and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.

These conferences have helped to raise the profile of the environment on the international development agenda, as well as in the minds of the public. They have also given rise to a growing body of important environmental agreements and commitments. Nevertheless, as the environment ministers of France, Germany and Spain pointed out in a forceful communiqué in May 2005, despite all these efforts we are driving the planet toward an ecological catastrophe. It would appear that we do not yet give environmental considerations the weight they deserve. The price will be paid by generations to come.

Earlier this month world leaders met at the 2005 World Summit in New York to debate essential reforms to the United Nations and review progress towards halving global poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals. These eight time-bound objectives represent a set of minimum targets for human development. Achieving them is essential if we are to fulfil the pledges made sixty years ago by the founding members of the United Nations to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

This phrase, “in larger freedom”, which appears in both the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has become especially prominent this year because of ‘In larger freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all’, the Secretary-General’s report for the 2005 World Summit. In his report, the Secretary-General notes that “humanity will not enjoy security without development, it will not enjoy development without security, and it will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.” He also explicitly links success in achieving these objectives with the sustainable use of the Earth’s environmental resources. “All our efforts to defeat poverty and pursue sustainable development will be in vain if environmental degradation and natural resource depletion continue unabated,” he writes.

In March 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment revealed that 60 per cent of the world’s ecosystems are in decline or even degraded to an extent that we can no longer rely on their services. These services include climate regulation, clean air and water, fertile land and productive fisheries. They are the services that help to keep disease and pests in check, that provide valuable new medicines and protect communities from natural disasters. The statistics are frightening. A third of all amphibians, over a fifth of mammals and a quarter of the world’s coniferous trees are threatened with extinction. Global fish stocks are down by 90 per cent since the dawn of industrialized fishing.

It is tempting to say that these services are invaluable, for indeed they are. For example, forests not only provide fuel wood, medicinal plants and food to as many as 1.6 billion people, their destruction releases up to 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. They also harbour countless species of plants and animals, many that we have not yet even catalogued, let alone studied for their potential benefit to humankind. Nevertheless, forests around the world are being felled at a rate of more than 250 square kilometres a day—more than 90,000 square kilometres a year, an area approximately the size of Portugal or Jordan.

Nonetheless, it is also possible to give a very real economic value to the ecosystem services that we so blithely destroy. By some estimates, the Earth’s atmosphere, wildlife, soils, water bodies and other natural resources are worth $33 trillion. For instance, the water purification, flood protection and other services provided by an intact wetland are worth as much as $6,000 a hectare. Once cleared for intensive agriculture that same wetland is worth just a third of this. You would imagine, then, that we would prize our wetlands, forests and other resources and actively conserve them as economically important natural capital. Sadly no. Over the past century, around half the world’s wetlands have been lost and drained. This outmoded thinking has to go. If wetlands, forests, rivers and the air we breathe were held in the same esteem as our cultural heritage, or valued as much as factories, shops or prime real estate, it would be considered gross vandalism to damage them in the way we do.

The economic impact of environmental degradation is also plain to see in the rising annual costs of weather-related disasters. According to Munich Re, one of the world’s biggest re-insurance companies, 2004 was once again a record-breaking year, with insured losses totalling $44 billion, mainly due to hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons. And these insured losses are only the tip of the iceberg. When disasters strike, it is invariably the uninsured poor who suffer most, through loss of life and hard-won livelihoods. They have the highest vulnerability to disasters and the least coping capacity. Years of endeavour can be wiped away in a minute. This point was graphically and tragically made in December 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than a quarter of a million people and devastated the lives of countless more. In the case of the tsunami, the world mobilized in an unprecedented show of solidarity to help the victims. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the many other silent tsunamis round the globe, many of which are environment-related.

Among the lessons coming out of the tragedy of the Indian Ocean tsunami is that, in many instances, a little more environmental care and awareness could have mitigated the effects of the disaster. It is a lesson we see repeatedly, even if we do not seem to learn from it. It is a sad fact of today’s world that environment-related tragedies have become all too predictable. Time and again we see ordinary natural phenomena, such as heavy rains or prolonged dry spells, triggering extraordinary and sometimes catastrophic events. Across the globe billions of people are living on the brink of disaster. Global population growth, combined with the effects of climate change, mean that the number of vulnerable people will continue to increase unless governments and the international community truly commit to learning from these events.

Environmental neglect, coupled with poverty, can turn natural hazards into disasters. It is also the anchor that keeps poor people mired in poverty, creating a vicious circle from which, for too many people, there is little hope of escape. This is particularly evident in Africa, the continent that is most obviously lagging behind in terms of achieving the Millennium Goals. The decline of ecosystem services, the threat of climate change and the burden of HIV/AIDS threaten to condemn millions of Africans to continued poverty for generations to come. Thankfully world leaders have woken up to the fact that this is not just a problem for Africa, but for the world, agreeing, for instance, to cancel the debts of the world’s most highly indebted countries and generally boost levels of aid.

As the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change noted in December 2004, “today’s threats to human security recognize no national boundaries, are connected, and must be addressed at the global and regional as well as the national levels.” The panel identified six clusters of threats to human security. Included among them are the economic and social threats posed by poverty, infectious disease and environmental degradation. Between them they are responsible for millions of preventable deaths each year, presenting a formidable obstacle to sustainable development, and threatening global security.

It is no coincidence that 90 per cent of current conflicts are found in the poorest 30 per cent of countries. Nor is it a coincidence that the poorest countries have the greatest environmental challenges. Poverty destroys the environment. Environmental degradation breeds poverty. Furthermore, it is also clear that, as global resources come under increasing pressure from soaring production and consumption, and as environmental conditions continue to deteriorate, we will have to be increasingly alert for the warning signs of potential conflict. It is plain to me that protecting and sustainably managing the environment is the peace policy of the future.

What I find increasingly heartening is that this analysis is no longer just the province of environmental professionals. Colin Powell, the recent United States Secretary of State, has called sustainable development a “security imperative.” Poverty, environmental degradation and the despair they breed are “destroyers of people, of societies, of nations.” They provide the ingredients for the destabilization of countries, even entire regions.

I am also heartened to see that environmental protection is also being increasingly linked with sound economics. At a recent meeting with G8 ministers, Chancellor Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom—significantly not an environment minister but a finance minister—said: “If our economies are to flourish, if poverty is to be banished, and if the well-being of the world’s people enhanced, not just in this generation but in succeeding generations, we must make sure we take care of the natural environment and resources on which are economic activity depends.”

These are the kinds of voices we need to hear more and more. Our political, economic and physical security all depend to a great extent on how we manage our environment. In this 60th anniversary year of the United Nations we need to renew our efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development. Business as usual is not an option. We need to capitalise on the pledges and progress represented by the Millennium Declaration, the Kyoto Protocol and the Monterrey Conference on Financing for Development, and ensure that we maintain and increase the momentum for creating a world in which the wishes of the founders of the United Nations are truly fulfilled.




Further Resources

Statement by the Secretary General on the Occasion of the International Day for Peace

UNEP Activities in Post Conflict Assessment

UNEP Resources on War & the Environment

International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War
Statement by the Executive Director of UNEP on the Occasion of the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflicts - 6 November 2004

Conflict & the Environment in West Asia

Kosovo Conflict Hot Spots Cleaned Up
UNEP Press Release

Afghanistan: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment
UNEP Post Conflict Assessment Unit


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