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Speech by Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, to the Icelandic National Environment Assembly

Biological Diversity, Nature Conservation, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

12 October, 2007 - Thorunn Sveinbjarnardottir, Environment Minister of Iceland; the Association of Local Authorities and the Confederation of Icelandic Employees, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen, friends,

I am supposed to deliver a speech about biodiversity and ecosystems and I will.

But you will forgive me if I digress somewhat. Digress because I am excited to be here in Iceland for the first time.

It is a journey that I have promised many times to make, as Director General of the IUCN and now as Executive Director of UNEP.

Excited because there something about the experience of this island in the very north of Europe that is in many, many ways special.

Something that strikes one, a visitor on his first trip to Iceland when you look through the history and development of this country-something that the people and policy-makers here should celebrate with pride.

Something too that is worth a closer look by both developed and developing countries.

Something that echoes to the global, regional and national challenges we all face if we are to truly begin delivering intelligent, sustainable development.

Ladies and gentlemen, you know your past, your present and your future opportunities more than I.

But indulge me for a moment. Iceland is a mini miracle.

Only a few decades ago, you country was one of the poorest in Europe.

Iceland has no oil or coal and forest cover was all but lost over a millennia ago with the arrival of the Vikings.

Only around a fifth of the land is suitable for agriculture - you are dealing with the land degradation as a result of the climate, thin soils and overgrazing - Olafur Grimsson, Iceland's President mentioned only last month that your country is battling the largest desert in Europe.

Indeed, apart from fisheries and some minerals, Iceland is in many ways a resource-challenge country that echoes the resource-challenges of many other countries in the developing world.

And yet in a few short decades, this country has transformed its economy into one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and one of the top Human Development Index rankings.

A survey by Readers Digest magazine, published in September this year, has placed Iceland in the top three of green countries along with Finland and Norway.

In a world struggling for positive signs of sustainable development, Iceland has emerged as among a handful of nations that are beacons.

How you have done this should be an inspiration for others in both developed but also developing countries.

Energy security is currently a buzz phase across the globe. But Iceland recognized the necessity of this some three decades ago when the oil price went through the roof.

While others, including some of the world's biggest economies flirted with renewables but eventually returned to business as usual when the oil price subsided, Iceland did not.

Today you can proudly say that almost 100 per cent of your electricity production is from resources like hydro and geothermal.

Developing this further will require some sensitive and thoughtful planning especially in respect to hydro.

But the prize within Iceland's grasp is not only carbon neutrality and total energy security but the possibility of becoming a 21st century hydrogen exporting economy too.

Indeed, I understand you are well on your way to a 'hydrogen highway' and to a hydrogen-powered fishing fleet.

There will be those who look with envy at what Iceland has achieved and some will dismiss it as the luck off the draw - not everyone has volcanoes and the hot rocks needed to produce geothermal.

But perhaps those same people are ignoring the renewable resources they have - preferring instead to rely on expensive, polluting fossil fuels rather than leap frog into a low carbon society.

Two years ago UNEP produced a report on the state of the world's deserts under its Global Environment Outlook banner.

Among the many fascinating facts was this one: "Some experts believe deserts could become the carbon-free power houses of the 21st century. They argue that an area 800 by 800 km of a desert such as the Sahara could capture enough solar energy to generate all the world's electricity needs and more".

And what about other renewables. Take tidal power, a tried and tested technology but one that is hardly exploited despite it huge potential.

Ladies and gentlemen,

there are other "Icelands" - countries who have looked at their own unique realities and shown the courage and creativity to abandon the status quo.

When Brazil suggested it might develop a biofuel economy some decades ago, some of the big international lenders simply smirked.

But today Brazil has a well developed network of ethanol filling stations; close to 80 per cent of vehicles are 'flexi' able to run on petrol and ethanol and Brazil is exporting both ethanol and sugar cane-fuel technology.

Equally important, Brazil is committed to boost ethanol production without encroaching on the Amazon.

Ladies and gentlemen, you may wonder why a speech on biodiversity is focusing so much on energy.

Because energy is linked with development and with climate change - and climate change is the inescapable issue of our age.

And also because unless we deal with energy and with climate change in a creative and more sustainable way, then you will never deal with the challenge of biodiversity and ecosystems.

For climate change, the result of the burning of fossil fuels, challenges every country and community on this planet.

It also challenges the health and the stability of the world's flora and fauna and the ecosystem goods and services that make life possible on this speck in the Universe.

Take Iceland. In common with many northerly latitudes and high altitude regions, you are already witnessing the accelerating melting of glaciers with eventually, perhaps, impacts on water and freshwater habitats.

Weather systems are also becoming more erratic and unpredictable.

Iceland is blessed with a relatively mild climate courtesy of warm waters from the Gulf Stream and is rich, especially in bird biodiversity with 42 of European conservation concern including redshank; Glaucous gull and snowy owl.

How will these migratory birds and Iceland's other biodiversity fair if climate change triggers even more extreme weather events and the ultimate impact-a fading and failing of the Gulf Stream?

For Iceland it may deal a serious blow to your growing tourism industry. In some parts of the world, the impact of unchecked climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems could become a matter of life and death.

How will the Amazon countries and their people - let alone the unique wildlife - thrive or even survive if the Amazon forest, with its links to important genetic resources and water supplies, drys out?

This sobering scenario is conceivable if average global temperatures this century rise above a three to four degree level.

This year's series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights countless other flashpoints. In the next 35 years, most of the glaciers in the Himalayas will melt if we do not act internationally on climate change.

You are talking of 500 million people being affected by that directly and another 250 million people affected downstream without even calculating economically important losses of freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity.

Rising sea levels could destroy up to 30 per cent of Africa's coastline, while between 25 and 40 per cent of Africa's natural habitats could be lost by 2085.

A country like Kenya, where UNEP is headquartered, is earning around $700 million a year in foreign earnings generated by tourism - tourism largely based on that countries extensive network of terrestrial and marine parks.

The impact of climate change on that country's fragile economy could be devastating leading to ever greater tension between wildlife and nature-based resources and people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

These are the fears and these are the concerns. But you know there is another reality emerging that offers - like Iceland's pioneering approach to energy security - cause for optimism in 2007.

Humanity tends to rise to a challenge best when its back is against the wall - the IPCC this year has finally built that wall it is firmly in place - climate change is happening, it is 'unequivocal'.

Their impact studies show we are - if not backs to the wall - certainly brushing that wall with our coat tails and totally boxed in unless we act firmly and decisively over the next one to two decades to dramatically cut emissions.

But the IPCC too has given the world a door in the wall, which if nations meeting at the climate convention talks in Bali, Indonesia, in December can find the key - or at the very least begin forging it - we can exit the Doomsday scenarios and transit to a low carbon society.

For the IPCC calculates that overcoming climate change may cost annually as little as 0.1 per cent of global GDP over 30 years.

There are also positive signs that governments are finally heeding these messages and are committed to realizing a global emissions deal post 2012 under the UN.

Only some week ago I was in Montreal for the Montreal Protocol meeting that centres on repairing the ozone layer after decades of chemical attack.

Here governments - including the United States, China and India- agreed to the accelerated freeze and phase out of HCFCs specifically because of their climate change impacts.

I would like to acknowledge Iceland's important contribution to this trust-building outcome being among a handful of countries who made the proposal in the first place.

If we can achieve this victory in Montreal perhaps we can fully and globally engage on the bigger struggle to reduce C02 under the UN climate convention.

Ladies and gentlemen, lifting the threat of climate change from the planet is our biggest challenge if we are to achieve stability but one that may also generate other benefits including positive management prospects for biodiversity.

Deforestation accounts for some 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and yet standing forests, which sequester huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, remain outside the financial arrangements of the Kyoto Protocol.

One potential breakthrough in Bali would be a commitment to negotiate on including standing forests in a new international climate regime.

This is the hope of many tropical forest countries including Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It would be the kind of arrangement that would make the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment come alive in a real and practical way.

The Assessment, in which UNEP played a key coordinating role, contributed greatly to the scientific understanding of the state of the world's ecoystems.

But perhaps its real contribution was to begin putting peer reviewed economic valuations on the Earth's nature-based assets.

There are many promising initiatives trying to encapsulate these kinds of valuations into public policy and corporate accountability - but perhaps that challenge of climate change is the opportunity window we have been collectively searching for.

If serious market mechanisms can be found for forests, perhaps other sources and sinks of greenhouse gases could follow including peatlands and even soils.

Ladies and gentlemen, curbing climate change will not solve all the challenges facing the world in the 21st century.

But it is a big mirror to the challenges we face as a result of blind and unsustainable consumption and production patterns.

UNEP is working on climate change but also on a more intelligent management and less wasteful use of nature-based resources as a whole.

I am please to inform you that am initiative, supported by the European Commission and others, is about to embark entitled "The International Panel on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources".

I am pleased to announce that it will be headed by Ernst Ulrich Von Weizsaecker, formerly of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany and famous for the development of the Factor 4 and Factor 10 concepts.

I hope it can play its part in getting the international community on track to achieve the 2010 Biodiversity Target set at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

The panel will be run out of UNEP's Division of Technology, Industry and Economics in Paris - reflecting the economic important of natural resources and this need to better factor in the economics of natural assets in national, regional and global commerce and accounting.

The Panel will take its departure from initiative such as Japan's 3 R's; China's concept of a Circular Economy and the work of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

It will also utilize UNEP's Global Environment Outlook process which is now at its fourth assessment whose findings will be launched globally in New York on 25 October.

I am keen to re-assert and re-discover UNEP's intellectual credentials across the range of sustainability challenges including biodiversity. The Panel is one manifestation of this.

If human beings are to persist on this planet with a universal quality of life, then we need to utilize our natural assets in far more efficient and creative ways.

The wasteful use of our fish stocks and forests up to the wasteful use of energy are at the heart of the challenge.

Iceland gives the world a glimpse of how, even in a resource challenged country, we might be more intelligent and resource efficient in the global economy.

And I am aware you have many more ideas up your sleeves which match the challenges of today with the innovative policies of your government, business and entrepreneurs.

There is a great deal of talk about carbon capture and storage. Pumping C02 underground or into wells is one idea but worries some groups because they are concerned the gases might bubble back.

Similar fears have been express over pumping C02 into the oceans alongside concerns that this may acidify the oceans and impact biodiversity too.

Earlier this month you, along with American and French scientists launched a project to inject C02 into Icelandic lavas.

I understand that the C02 reacts with the basalt that underpins this country's geology and reacts to form a kind of inert limestone that can persist as a stable mineral for tens of millions of years.

Who would have thought, only as few years ago, that Iceland's geology might be a significant natural asset with global implications? - it underlines how some of the answers to some of the biggest questions can often be right under our noses if only we look at the world through a different lens.

Thank you

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director