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Challenges of Global Sustainable Development and the Responses of the Multilateral System

By Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Conference and Debate on the Challenges of Global Sustainable Development and the Responses of the Multilateral System (with an Emphasis on Climate Change) held at IBAMA

6 March 2007, Brasilia-- Ladies and gentlemen, honorable guests, dear colleagues and friends,

We are facing an unprecedented challenge not seen for a generation, perhaps longer. Human-kind is changing the heart beat, the pulse and the very corpus of the planet on a scale unthinkable in the past.

Environmental challenges of the last century were often perceived as local or national issuesa polluted lake or river, loss of individual species, contaminated land.

In the 21st century we now know we have gone beyond the local to fundamentally impacting the global life support systems that underpin existence on the planet.

The scale of environmental mismanagement is underscored in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,--a UN initiated and UN-led multilateral initiative whose findings were published in 2005.

The Assessment says around 60 per cent of all the ecosystems studied are being degraded or used unsustainably.

This has resonance here in Brazil, the country with 20 per cent of the worlds biodiversity.

It has significance for President Lulas recent announcement of a close to $5 billion investment in biotechnology.

Brazil is rising to the challenge of conserving that hugely important economic resource in a way that also has the potential to give other developing nations a new and dynamic direction.

Take the Amazon for example.

By a combination of advanced satellite monitoring such as the real time Deforestation Detection (DETER) system, legislation, better enforcement, creative infrastructure management, and through the promotion of alternative livelihoods, Brazil has cut the rate of loss of forests by some 50 per cent. Federal Protection of lands will this year hit nearly 12 per cent.

UNEP has been asked to assist in finding ways to transfer this technology and know how to developing countries.

Potentially this could be an excellent example of South-South cooperation and also exciting route for the Bali Strategic Plan on Technology Support and Capacity Building.

The central multilateral response to biodiversity loss and in meeting the 2010 target, to reverse the rate of the loss, is the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Its third pillar, namely Access and Benefit Sharing remains weak and its potential for poverty eradication and sustainable development largely unfulfilled. Resolving this impasse is a key issue for Brazil as part of its presidency of the CBD.

I share those concerns and have personally raised the issue with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, as part of her G8 Presidency. Let us see how far we, as an international community, can go.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Possibly the summit of this unsustainable trajectory is the pollution to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

These, among other activities, are causing a rise in the six key greenhouse gases that in turn are pushing the climate into unprecedented changes with wide ranging environmental and economic risks.

The multilateral response to climate change may be familiar to many in this room. Like the Millennium Assessment, one key area has been the science. You might like to call it consensus building.

In the late 1980s, UNEP along with the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Earlier this year, in February in Paris, one aspect of this consensus building achieved to my mind a full stop.

The IPCC Working Group I of its fourth assessment concluded that there was now a 90 per cent certainty that humans are altering the climate.

Anyone who still thinks that climate change is just a scary fairy tale, the work of anarchists or to do with sun spots is either an ideologist or a refugee from a dying star.

The IPCC will go further with its Working Group II and III reports scheduled over the next few weeks.

Some details of the III Working Group, designed to inform policy makers and galvanize a multilateral response, have already been leaked to the media.

If they are correct, and on this, I am sworn to secrecy, we have far less than a generation to act if we are to avoid dangerous climate changekeeping the global temperature increase at below two degrees.

The other multilateral response has been the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its 1997 Kyoto Protocolthe first legally binding treaty on greenhouse gas emission reductions.

If you asked me 12 months ago, whether this multilateral response was alive and kicking, I would have said it was alive but kickingwell hardly.

As so often has been the case with the multilateral environmental agreements, the reluctance of the few has stymied the rest leaving the process paralyzed by the minority.

But, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,

The momentum of recent months has put new wind in the sails driven partly by the science but also by the twin issues of energy security and economic calculations on both the costs of inaction and of action.

There has also been in a sense an expansion of what one might call the multi-lateral constituencies and a re-discovery of the power of Agenda 21--another offspring of the Rio Earth Summit which is, in some ways, reaching a level of maturity via the climate change question.

Across the world, concerned consumers are demanding action and indeed taking it through climate-change purchasing habitsone thinks of the rise in sales of green energy in homes and the demand for more fuel efficient and hybrid cars.

Now we also have requests in Europe that supermarkets carry labels setting out the carbon footprint of agricultural produce, so called carbon counting or carbon miles.

This citizen-led response is being echoed by local authorities with over 300 cities in the United States alone setting emission reduction targets and goals in the spirit of Kyoto.

Industry and financial institutions are also pushing for caps on emissions and regulationsuncertainty is the killer of commerce, certainty in the carbon markets is seen as an economic opportunity and a way of guaranteeing future market stability.

This push was underlined only days before President Bushs State of the Union address. Ten leading corporations therefrom power and electrical appliance companies to aluminum smeltersformally requested emission caps.

I was recently in Moscow, where Russian companies were asking for the same kind of thing.

Later this week, this enthusiasm by investors and corporations in the developing world will be underlined at a meeting at Bovespa that I am scheduled to attend.

The Brazilian stock exchange, along with South Africa, is setting the pace among developing countries in the establishment of sustainability indexes.

The momentum driven by companies and consumers has a political dimension. If voters and the business sector want action on climate change, this can only give governments the legitimacy to act multilaterally.

The UN itself is responding with organizations like UNEP working on mainstreaming environment and climate in its poverty eradication and wider work.

Climate change, possibly the ultimate so called cross cutting issue, is proving an opportunity in terms of reforming the UN to deliver as one.

At the last climate convention meeting, UNEP and UNDP put together a new initiative to assist developing countries better access the carbon funds and adapt to climate change.

It has funding from Spain and Sweden and more countries look set to join as financial supporters.

The focus has been on sub-Saharan Africa where many countries are losing out on the multi-millionset to become multi-hundred billion dollar-- Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism.

Latin America is in a similar situation. Brazil is the worlds third largest player in CDM market. I believe it could use its experience and expertise to assist smaller countries in the region.

The UN Climate Change Convention is also driving new thinking on forestry management with clear implications for water to biodiversity management.

In doing so, it is also assisting towards other targets such as those in the Millennium Development Goals and those agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We will have wait until the end of the year during the next round of climate change talks in Bali, to see whether the multilateral response to climate change can make the next critical step.

Whether the momentum this year, supported by consumers and corporations, can assist governments to the next important movethe leap towards a really inclusive emission reduction regime that takes the world beyond 2012 towards the 60 per cent to 80 per cent emission reductions deemed needed to stabilize the atmosphere.

One string to this bow will be alternative fuels including biofuelsan area in which Brazil, through the conversion of sugar cane into ethanol, is a pioneer.

Targets for biofuels have been drawn up by Brazil, the United States and Europe among others. But there is concern among consumers and the energy industry that forests and other ecosystems could suffer unless there are clear guidelines, norms and rules of engagement.

Certainly industry it looking for a multi-lateral response and UNEP is examining how this playing field could be laid out.

Last week, Brazil along with the US, South Africa, India, and the European Commission launched an international biofuels forum.

I believe unless sustainability is factored in, such a forum may run the risk of satisfying only certain constituencies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would not wish to give the impression that a multilateral solution to climate change is the ultimate flag around which all sustainability issues can or should rally.

There are many areas where the solutions rest elsewhere. One thinks of fisheries where one of the real challenges is to reform the multilateral trading system under the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization.

But it is my conviction that a renewed understanding as to the importance of multilateralism is emerging as a result of climate change and as a result of need to give globalization and international markets a more intelligent trajectory.

UNEP is certainly working in a renewed spirit of cooperation with the development, industrial and trade arms of the UN.

Governments, as a result of the Secretary-Generals High Level Panel on UN reform, are also assessing the future of UNEP in recognition that the environment pillar of sustainable development needs strengthening to meet the challenges.

The alternative to multilateralism may be a fragmented world of competing power blocks, of protectionism and continuing poverty for far too manythis is not a recipe for reversing environmental degradation and achieving sustainability.

I believe the multilateral response to many sustainability issues has achieved milestones in terms of laying out the risks and to a certain extent, highlighting the opportunitiesin building consensus on the magnitude of the problems we face.

It has now begun achieving important steps on the policy response.

If we can move 191 nations together to really combat climate change--if we can successfully complete the Doha Round-- then I really believe we will have given multilateralism a renewed delivery-orientated life upon which true sustainability can begin to flourish now and for the future.

Thanks for your attention.




Further Resources

Statement by Steiner on the Publication of a Paper on Montreal Protocol & Climate Change

UNEP Resources on Climate Change

Tapping Termite Technology for Green Gold Mining
Editorial By Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, who is visiting Brazil between 5 and 7 March 2007

GC 24 / GMEF Website

Steiner Speaks of Brazil's Evolving Water Management Initiatives at GEO Launch in Brasilia


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