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Climate Change: How Impacts Us All, UNEP Executive Director Addresses the 60th Annual DPI/NGO Conference in New York

New York, 5 September 2007 - Madame President, Madame Deputy Secretary General, my colleague Under Secretary General Akasaka, excellencies, permanent representatives and missions, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues

In some ways I just have to put my speech away because the deputy secretary general essentially said everything I was going to say. I think this is best proof that climate change has taken centre stage in the United Nations and I want to thank you for the speech you have just delivered.

2007 is a remarkable year—a remarkable year both in terms of the issue of climate change but also in terms of a number of other key points.

For the first time in the history of the planet we are confronted with a phenomenon, an environmental change phenomenon that binds us together in a way that has never been witnessed before.

Whether you are rich or poor; whether you are northern or southern; small-island or large land-locked nation; farmer or industrialist- climate change or global warming with all its consequences is a challenge to your existence, to your life, to your dreams about the future and the dreams of our children.

No one can escape from climate change and more importantly we cannot solve it unless everyone on this planet joins forces. I do not believe we have had ever in the history of human kind such a challenge and it is a challenge that in many ways has taken a remarkably long time as Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Kiyotaka Akasaka, has just noted.

The interesting thing that happened in 2007 is that a scientific report, something that most of us would struggle ever picking up and reading, has taken centre stage.

A report—perhaps the most important report that this institution has facilitated in recent years—that has galvanized public attention across all nations, sectors and parts of our society to an extent that even I would not have believed possible just a year ago.

I think what happened in 2007 is that the peoples of the world finally said to their government leaders and business leaders "what are you doing about this issue of climate change? You can no longer simply sit back. We may not understand the science and the economics fully but we are beginning to see what this means by the data and the science being presented to us. So what on earth are you doing about it? Because what you seem to be doing simply isn't enough".

Ladies and gentlemen, that is why suddenly we are discussing climate change in a totally different context - politically, economically, regionally and nationally.

It is still a discussion that is driven largely by the threat of global warming and what it implies for all of us in our different lives. But it is more than that. This is an issue - a phenomenon - of change of such gravity and such far reaching consequences, that it touches on probably all the aspects of the work represented in this hall.

In that sense it is not just another issue but I believe it is the transformative issue of the early part of the century. Transformative in a number of ways: Transformative in that it challenges a century of environment verses economics and of economy versus the planet. In other words it stands on its head all that we have been taught throughout the 20th century.

Madam President, you talked earlier about the fact that economic growth is not a contradiction to sustainable growth.

Climate change is starting to bridge that intellectual divide - ecologists are becoming more informed economists and economists are becoming more intelligent environmentalists.

It is also challenging other notions including a fundamental paradigm that I know is very dear to all of you: namely equity.

Colleagues, climate change is a fundamental challenge to notions of global equity, inter-generational equity and equity between rich and poor. It questions the premise upon which some of our societies have built their social and political models over the centuries.

We used to think that the difference between being poor and rich was one of deprivation or one of luxury. However if you look at the last few weeks, extreme weather events have been causing floods across many parts of the world - from the UK to Mauritania to China and Bangladesh and India to name just a few.

These events also underline that it is the poor who are in the front line of bearing the consequences of these kinds of extreme weather events which are consistent with the science of climate change.

So in a very real sense, climate change threatens virtually every aspect of your work whether you are in the field of health, in the field of rural development, in the field of gender or in the field of poverty alleviation.

It also threatens the UN's entire body of work and the targets we have set ourselves under the Millennium Development Goals.

There are still some out there who argue that we've always had extreme weather events, we have lived through centuries in which things change and that is how this planet works.

First of all I think we now have enough evidence to show that the parameters of change are different. We also now live on a planet with almost 6.5 billion people.

We have an infra-structure that we simply cannot afford to lose or risk in a way that some people argue we could have done when we were just a billion people 300 years ago.

For example climate change could threaten almost one third of Africa's coastal infra-structure by the end of this simply as a result of sea level rise.

Just a few months ago in Italy there was grave concern that power stations would have to be switched off. This was because snow fall was so low in the Alps there were concerns that there would be insufficient melt waters to sustain river flows and thus power station cooling systems.

If you want to understand the magnitude and complexity of climate change you do not have to look 50 years down the line—even this year's reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have already been overtaken.

Ladies and gentlemen in Greenland we have just learnt that they have been growing potatoes for 5 years. The director general of agriculture, only a few days ago in a television interview, was predicting that in 2 – 3 years strawberries will be grown in Greenland.

For Greenland that is a good thing he said and he is perhaps right. Yes, there may be some areas where change could be interpreted as positive if ice melts, land becomes available and you can grow crops. But these examples are almost isolated ones in an otherwise unbearably serious set of consequences that we now know about.

Let me touch briefly on two other aspects. Climate change is often associated with essentially a loss of the way of life as we know it today and in the richer countries this is interpreted as a loss of the comforts we have come to know.

Combating climate change is also associated with a high price and one that we are told we cannot afford to pay. But I am still struck by the work that both Nicholas Stern and the IPCC have done and which the Deputy Secretary-General has just mentioned.

Work perhaps crystallized in one figure—that figure is that it may only require one, one thousandth, of our GDP over 30 years to avoid the sobering consequences of unchecked climate change.

Faced with such a calculation, one wonders why there is still debate around climate change being too costly to address.

I think there are two fundamental reasons here. One is that for those who argue the future in terms of their current economy and also their current economic interests - be it a business that has developed technology that sells well today but will not sell tomorrow in a low carbon economy - clearly transition bears a price.

So the costs of adapting and also mitigating climate change, do not simply affect everyone equally—not everyone will pay the equivalent of 0.1 per cent of global GDP.

That means that we need to find ways in which we can make the transformation to a low carbon economy not only happen, but happen in an equitable way. You cannot simply argue that an economy like Germany faces the same challenges as Brazil or Kenya or Indonesia or China.

This represents the challenge for international cooperation in the 21st century and is also at the heart of the difficulties we are facing in terms of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the debates and discussions about what will follow the current Kyoto protocol.

But there is another dimension that I find is often under played. This is the fact that responding to climate change and moving towards a transformed low-carbon economy is not just a cost factor. If you use less fuel you will have a direct economic benefit, you also have less pollution and you will have less health problems.

For example we know that today, in a nation like China, a terrible price of development is being paid by hundreds of thousands of people—literally with their lives - as a result of air pollution.

Meanwhile, in adapting and mitigating climate change we can also address in part the costs of development that in the past have neglected the price that development exacts on human beings let alone on nature and nature-based assets.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I mentioned air pollution in China but there is another side to China's story which makes me optimistic. China faces perhaps some of the greatest environmental problems a nation has ever faced.

But there is also an engagement and an interest to address those problems at the highest level of government—an engagement and an interest that I would sometimes wish you could see mirrored in other countries across the globe.

So ladies and gentlemen, climate change is a challenge in terms of adaptation and mitigation but its also an opportunity and this is where what UNEP does is to me very important.

Our institution, among its many activities, produces every year an assessment of investments in renewable energy—the latest report shows that last year the world exceeded the figure of 100 billion dollars - a 40% increase in investment in the renewable energy sector.

Why is it that it took so long for people to suddenly recognize the possibilities that we actually have? How can a country like Germany move from being a non-entity in renewable energy sector in the 1990s to become the world's number one wind power electricity producer in the planet in just 7 – 8 years?

How did a country like Brazil manage to create one of the cleaner electricity matrixes on the planet?

It is because public policy, long term development planning and commitment by government leaders to facilitate transitions make a big difference.

A country like Denmark has managed to grow by over 70% in GDP terms over the last 25 years. It has done so without using one additional kilowatt of electricity than it use 25 years ago.

So economic growth, energy efficiency, sustainability are not contradictions. In fact I believe they hold the key at the beginning of the 21 century to making our economies more viable and to enable economic growth to take place.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, let me end by referring to one more issue that preoccupies me—an issue that I think you in this hall here today should take to heart.

The role of the United Nations is often much maligned, criticized and permanently faulted for the woes of the world.

In the domain of climate change, I think the United Nations has every reason to say here is proof of why this institution - or at least the idea of this institution - at the beginning of the 21st Century is far from redundant and more relevant than it has ever been before.

On the issue of climate change, it was the United Nations that picked up the science of the world researchers.

It was the UN, and through the context of UNEP and many of my predecessors, that climate change found its way into the Inter-governmental arena even when it was only just being registered and still laughed at or smiled at in the mainstream view.

It was the United Nations that brought together a convention called UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

It was with colleagues at the UN's World Meteorological Organisation that UNEP facilitated the establishment of the IPCC - - a most extra-ordinary process involving more than 2000 scientists involved in reviewing the world's science.

The IPCC has taken an issue from being a contested ideological - and often denied - phenomenon to being a universally accepted fact and a basis for acting as a global community in 2007.

That is the United Nations at work. In just a few months that challenge will be once again, in crystal clear terms, on the tables of the world's capitals when the conference of the parties to the UNFCCC meet in Bali.

We have reached a moment where, if we do not find an answer of what together we do after 2012, I wonder what government leader will be able to stand before his/her peoples and explain the alternatives. There is simply no alternative to collective, urgent, global action.

I have been Executive Director of UNEP for just over a year and please let me stress that I am not in any way naive nor am I becoming too embedded in the system not to recognize how much is wrong with our system.

But quite frankly, the things that are wrong in our system have to do with almost minor issues when you compare them to the bigger problem.

Yes we have bureaucracy, we have dysfunctionality and we have competition amongst entities. In many ways the system sets us up to compete amongst each other through the funding mechanisms that operate in this world.

But these are the kinds of views of those who come later—of those who have the luxury to criticize those who went before and had to create the system often through very difficult political compromises.

However there is another reality—every day in this family of institutions, hundreds of thousands of people stay alive because we in the United Nations are empowered by the member states to go out there and feed people, protect them, keep them alive and eradicate diseases.

These can often be abstract notions within the debates and papers held and presented here in these halls and conference rooms.

However if you are a refugee today in a camp, or you are a child who receives a meal in a school, you know that this institution often makes a difference between life and death.

These are truths that we tend to forget when we discuss, let's say, the greater complexities here at the UN.

So I want to appeal to you all at this point in time, where there are few who actually stand up for the UN, to think long and hard.

It is very easy to criticize, it is very easy to find mistakes and we all know they happen every day here as they happen in every other institution and body on this planet. But I sometimes feel that the world is almost at a point where it is losing its perspective on the United Nations.

So I appeal to you as representatives of civil societies - who care about the UN, who know more about it probably more than other citizens but who also understand the realities - -to go back to our societies, our nations and our communities.

Ladies and gentlemen, make people aware that they are in danger of losing some of the greatest assets that they will need if we are to live together as a community of nations and peoples in the 21st century.

Make this theme part of the spirit of this discussion here in New York this week. Thank you




Further Resources

60th Annual DPI/NGO Conference on "Climate Change: How Impacts Us All"
United Nations, New York, 5 - 7 September 2007

UNEP Resources for Civil Society

UNEP Resources on Climate Change


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