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The United Nations Response to the Environmental Challenges of the 21st Century

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Exeutive Director the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) addresses the 117th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union

Geneva, 8 October 2007 - Distinguished Parliamentarians, UN colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to this 117th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

I am particularly delighted to be here given this meeting's focus on the UN and the newly established IPU Committee on UN Affairs.

I believe your decision to establish this committee reflects a fundamental - and to some extent re-discovered truth-namely that multilateralism is even more relevant today than ever before.

That many of the challenges faced by this and future generations-both persistent and newly emerging-can be best tackled by nations united rather than through bilateral deals on the side that favour one group of countries over the legitimate interests and needs of another.

UN Reform and Relevance

The Committee also, I hope, reflects a sense that the UN is shedding its 20th century skin and evolving into a more efficient, creative and responsive organization fitted for the 21st century.

We still have some ways to go, but under the UN reform initiative initiated by the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan - and being taken up vigorously by the new SG, Ban Ki-Moon- we are being gradually transformed and really beginning to 'deliver as One".

We have, in the new Secretary-General, someone who understands that the UN needs to re-connect with the concerns of citizens and communities as well as governments.

In 2007, "We the People' are looking to their leaders-be they Members of Parliament; Prime Ministers or Presidents or senior officials in the UN-for urgent action on perhaps one topic above all and a topic that connects so many environmental and development concerns.

That topic is climate change. Only some weeks ago, the Secretary-General hosted a High Level Event for world leaders at the UN headquarters in New York on climate change.

Proof, if proof were needed, that Ban Ki-Moon is determined to put global warming at the top of the global political agenda and determined to build the trust so urgently needed if we are to succeed in combating climate change.

Under his leadership, the UN is also determined to demonstrate its 'sustainability credentials' by action on the ground and by good housekeeping at home.

Reviews are underway across all agencies and programmes to establish a strategy for a carbon neutral UN and to make the refurbishment of the UN headquarters in New York a model of eco-efficiency.

I hope the IPU can share the SG's vision and ensure that member states fully support such proposals.

So ladies and gentlemen, I hope in this speech to reflect and demonstrate this positive transformation underway within the UN as it relates to the environment and sustainable development generally.

But also in respect to the wider landscape where environment interfaces with issues such as security and human rights up to gender issues and trade-issues, many if not all of which are firmly on your national parliamentary agendas too.

Indeed, I was fascinated to see that legislators here today will be debating an emergency item "Disaster risk reduction and parliamentary support to build action and resilience against climate risk".

You will be debating an environmental change phenomenon but with huge ramifications for economies; livelihoods; health and human security.

Brundtland and Achievements Since

Ladies and gentlemen, we need to look a little back to go forward.

We meet here in Geneva in the 20th anniversary year off the UN-commissioned Brundtland Commission report "Our Common Future" which in many ways popularized the phrase sustainable development.

It is also a report as fresh, relevant and as poignant today as it was in 1987.

In a few days, 25 October to be precise, UNEP will launch its 4th report in its flagship Global Environment Outlook series.

GEO-4 takes it departure from Brundtland, assesses the state of the environment today and outlines plausible scenarios for the future.

If you read GEO-4, you might wonder what we have all been doing over the past 20 years.

In some ways this would be a justifiable pessimism but it is also ignoring some important milestones which the international community and the UN-in partnership with governments; parliaments; the private sector and civil society-have achieved.

20 years ago UNEP assisted in the negotiation of the Montreal Protocol-the treaty established to save and repair the ozone layer following evidence it was under attack from consumer and industrial chemicals.

Montreal, which celebrated its birthday only some weeks ago in the city of its birth, has so far phased out 95 per cent of ozone damaging chemicals.

In the late 1980s UNEP, in cooperation with the UN's World Meteorlogical Organisation, set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess emerging scientific evidence that increased burning of fossil fuels was changing the climate.

(I'd would like to return to the IPCC in a few moments.)

And in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, conventions covering biological diversity; desertification and of course the framework convention on climate change were agreed.

A $ 3 billion funding mechanism, the Global Environment Facility, was soon established to assist developing companies meet the environmental and sustainability challenge.

The Kyoto Protocol on climate and the Cartagena Protocol on Living Modified Organisms have also come to pass alongside countless other agreements, guidelines and initiatives.

The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation was agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 and re-confirmed at the World Summit in 2005.

The reality is however that the intentions and good work has failed to match the speed, pace and magnitude of the challenge particularly in the translation of global agreements to legislation and action at the national and regional level.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, requested by the former Secretary General; funded in part by GEF; coordinated by organizations including UNEP and involving 1,300 scientists and experts, is the reality.

Some 16 of 25 ecosystems-natural services such as wetlands, forests and coral reefs-degraded or managed unsustainably.

Agricultural land is the only one truly enjoying a bumper time at the expense of most of the others.

Coal, oil and gas-fossil fuels that were powering the vehicles, homes and factories or our grandfathers let alone our great grandfathers-almost completely dominate the energy and electricity production of the globe.

The Millennium Development Goal to "reduce by half the proportion of the world's population living on less than $1 per day" has lifted some 250 million out of extreme poverty since 1990.

But in Africa, especially sub Saharan Africa there remain fears that none of the seven MDGs will be met by 2015.

A recent report by scientists has concluded that all commercial fish stocks could have disappeared by 2050.

At WSSD governments agreed to establish a network of marine reserves-one management tool that might assist fish stocks.

At current rates of listing, this will only be achieved in 2085 or more than three decades after the world's fishing fleets have been mothballed for lack of stocks to catch.

Why Have We Not Achieved More

There are scores of reasons why, faced with the ever impressive science designed to inform national policy-makes and legislators, governments have ambled rather than run.

One, perhaps simple answer is that the scenarios of environmental Armageddon have often been sketched out in time frames of centuries or at best half centuries-well beyond the term of most politicians and indeed the lives on many making decisions on a given day.

There has also been a great deal of finger-pointing between nations with governments in the North haranguing and harassing those in the South over, say rapid forest loss forgetting that deforestation was the path they chose in their early development.

And failing to applaud the measures many are taking-Brazil has for example cut its rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 50 per cent in the past three years with little or no applause.

On greenhouse gas emissions, China and India are now often characterized as to blame for global warming.

This is despite the fact that the rapidly developing economies emissions are recent phenomenon whereas developed countries have been polluting for some 200 years.

And also ignores the fact that on a per capita basis they are still far below countries like the United States and nations in Europe.

The phenomenon of globalization has also been, to my mind, a factor.

Many national governments appear over recent years to have in a sense abdicated their traditional regulatory role-abdicated it in favour of the globalized free market and a belief that they were either powerless in its path or that somehow wealth generation, free of red tape, would eventually resolve all our difficulties.

Finally, there is the question of resources. I head the UN Environment Programme established in 1972 to be the multilateral response to environmental challenges.

In 1972 we had early concerns about the thinning of the ozone layer but in many ways environmental concerns were local concerns about a lake or a beauty spot or national ones such as the loss of meadow lands to roads.

GEO-4, alongside reports like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, underline that human impacts have gone way beyond this.

We have reached a point where we are fundamentally and systematically running down the global services that nature once so abundantly and renewably provided.

So how much are governments investing in the Earth's natural assets and improved intelligent management? Well let's take UNEP. Our core funding approved from governments is around $60 million a year.

A few weeks ago, during the Montreal Protocol meeting, the front page of the Canadian newspaper Le Devoir ran a front page picture and story about the refurbishment planned this winter for the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

$100 million is the price tag-that's one hotel, in one city in one developed country over a few months versus the funds being spent to try and meet the global environmental challenges of the 21st century over one year.

Currently, consumers spend some $36 billion a year on pets in the United States.

Meanwhile, the multilateral environment agreements are drowning in a seemingly never-ending sea of decisions by governments that can often paralyze rather than energize the sustainability quest.

But it is Not all Doom and Gloom-2007 Marks a Watershed

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is the reality but in 2007 there is another one emerging too-one that, like a little bird in the hand, is cause for both optimism and for a chance to reverse the sometimes seemingly irreversible if only we can keep it alive.

I mentioned the IPCC earlier. This year they produced their fourth assessment reports.

These 2,000 or so scientists have now provided the final conclusive evidence that human beings are impacting the climate-"unequivocal" is the word they use.

There are still people who think the Earth is flat and there will always be some who believe climate change is the work of Martians or pixies or evil elves - but no serious world leader, now doubts the facts.

It has taken 20 years-20 perhaps lost years-but the full stop has been out behind the scientific debate.

The IPCC has also fast forwarded the time lines-many quite sobering impacts will occur in the life time of people in this room, not in some far off date.

The consequences of over 30 million people in Bangladesh being displaced and summer rivers running dry across Asia, parts of Europe and elsewhere as a result of glaciers melting away, is concentrating minds further and wider than ever before.

For example this year retired US military leaders and military men and women in the UK and Australia, have publicly acknowledged the security threat.

We now have well over 300 cities in the United States alone who have signed up to emission reduction strategies as are states including California.

Europe has stated it will cut emissions by 20 per cent, 30 per cent if others follow.

The IPCC this year has also empowered society to act by calculating the costs of combating climate change - perhaps 0.1 per cent of global GDP a year over 30 years.

Business and industry, far from shunning regulation and demanding less red tape in a globalized world, are calling for measures to control emissions so they can respond with cleaner and greener energy investments.

Increasing numbers of companies are also pledging action on their carbon fooprint.

For example Eurostar in Europe have said they will be C-neutral in November and Russian aluminium smelting company, Rusal, has announced its will be C-neutral by 2015.

Energy companies, worried that investments in bio-fuels could backfire if they are produced at the expense of tropical rainforests, are demanding global sustainability 'norms ands standards' which only the UN - and then through national laws - can truly provide.

Fossil fuels may still dominate. But according to a recent report by UNEP's Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative, investment in renewables has reached $100 billion.

While renewable sources today produce about 2% of the world's energy, they now account for about 18% of world investment in power generation, with wind generation at the investment forefront.

Meanwhile the flexible mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol are alive and kicking.

An estimated $100 billion of funds are set to flow from the North to the South as a result off the Clean Development Mechanism-the mechanism that allows developed countries to offset some of their emissions in developing ones via cleaner and greener energy projects.

That so much is happening is in no small measure due to the UN-either through the science and reports of the IPCC or the achievements of the climate convention and its Kyoto Protocol.

The UN is also stepping up to the bar in other ways. UNEP and UNDP for example are building the capacity of developing countries to share in the funds and projects flowing from the CDM while advancing the adaptation or climate proofing agenda.

Agencies like the World Food Programme are piloting weather or climate derivatives that pay out when droughts are forecast and well before communities are in such parlous conditions they are forced to sell their last cow or goat.

The UN is also assisting to build trust-the SG's High Level Event is one concrete example.

Just before it was held, governments across the world agreed to an accelerated freeze and phase out of gases under the UNEP Montreal ozone treaty specifically because of their greenhouse impacts.

The role of parliaments is crucial in all this-working with the UN, taking the decisions made globally and framing the national legislation needed including creative market mechanisms and price signals to enable these developments to occur and to occur swiftly.

Germany, once a minor player in the wind power sector, has leapt to number one as a result off a change in legislation that required utilities to buy a certain per cent age of renewables.

Next month UNEP - with funding from the GEF - will announce a new cogeneration initiative and one on hydro-power for the tea industry in East Africa.

This is being made possible as a result of legislation on Power Purchase Agreements approved by the parliaments such as Kenya's that allows companies; factories and tea plantations to sell surplus electricity into the Grid.

Similar national laws are aiding the take up of renewables in China and in India.

At the Secretary General's High Level Event, India's Finance Minister mentioned other emerging strategies including the raising of energy efficiency standards in sectors like the steel industry and a plan to sell compact fluorescent light bulbs at the price of conventional, energy guzzling ones.

Initiatives all driven by the science; impacts and costs of climate change but with wide sustainability benefits such as improved air quality beyond the need to just reduce greenhouse gases.

Indeed, if at the next climate convention meeting in Bali, Indonesia, governments can get down to the serious business of negotiating an international agreement post - 2012, then biodiversity may also finally get a boost.

Deeper emission cuts may allow standing forests to be part of the CDM giving economic incentives to conserve them rather than chop them down.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in fragile but exciting times. Climate change is one pressing issue but there are others some of which can never be fully solved even if global warming is curbed.

As mentioned earlier, part of the path to sustainability must include a new partnership between governments and the international environmental governance structures we have inherited from the 20th century.

Under the banner of UN reform, discussions are on-going as to the future of UNEP -whether it should be strengthened or upgraded to a specialized agency to match the realities of the 21st century.

Ladies and gentlemen,

ideally my job at UNEP might be to wind the agency down, switch off the compact fluorescent light bulbs and lock the recycled-wood doors.

Environment would be fully integrated across the UN and across governments and ministries in developed and developing countries - but that is not the case.

So a strengthened UNEP or a specialized environment organization should now be a matter of priority for nation states-a priority whose resources and funding also start matching the challenge and the opportunities facing the world today.

The word Parliament, as I am sure many of you know, comes from the French 'to speak'.

Well talking is good but action is even better. The UN and UNEP stand ready to join in this, so the fragile but exciting prospect of a more sustainable future - glimpsed through lens of climate change but through other lens too - is finally put on track.

It will not in the final analysis happen without the support of all sectors of society including you the legislators of this world.

Thank you




Further Resources

Inter-Parliamentary Union

117th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union

Environment Ministers Rise to the Challenge of Globalization and UN Reform
UNEP Press Release (February 2007)

Panel Discussion on UN Reform and the Environment
New York, USA, 9 May 2006

Global Environment Outlook - 4
Download the brochure

UNEP Resources on Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Climate Change 2007: "Mitigation of Climate Change”
Third volume of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report

20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol


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