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Speech by Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director at the World Challenge Awards

The Hague, 1 December 2009 - Your Excellencies and members of the Diplomatic Community; Finalists of the 2009 World Challenge Awards, Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you so much for inviting me here today to take part in this remarkable awards ceremony.

It represents the power and interactive medium of television and the internet to bridge social, environmental and the knowledge divide.

But above all it underlines the power of the human spirit and of human ingenuity to devise solutions to urgent development - sustainable development - issues.

Simplicity versus Complexity

Looking through the web site that supports these awards-and reading and watching the film clips on the various candidates-one is struck by a contrast.

That is the contrast between the often paralyzing complexity human-kind can so ably devise and tie-itself into knots with, set against the empowering simplicity of the projects and solutions show-cased today.

That complexity is no more evident than in the United Nations climate change negotiations.

They will, in less than one week's time, need to reach a fundamental and transformational milestone in the Danish capital of Copenhagen.

Over recent years the international community has been burrowing ever deeper into the sediments and intricacies of text and the minutiae of fine-detail.

What is needed in Copenhagen is for world leaders and nations to soar above the ever-widening disconnect between an opaque and seemingly remote multi-lateral negotiation and the challenge at hand.

Indeed they need to perhaps re-connect with the energy, vision and determination to challenge the status quo so evident in the projects and people in this room.

I am sure that each of you has had moments when you were told by someone that what you were embarking upon was not possible - well done for not listening, congratulations for just getting on with it despite the odds.

Let us hope that the negotiators in Copenhagen take a feather out of each and all of your caps - can get on with it despite the odds too.

Ladies and gentlemen,

as head of a UN agency we can often seem far away from the dilemmas and day-to day realities each of the finalists confronts.

But we are not odd bed-fellows but partners.

The decisions taken by governments within the UN system can, if honestly and decisively enacted and followed through, bring about change on the ground.

Meanwhile, the grass roots also grow and feed upwards giving communities a voice and empowering policy-makers by demonstrating the art of the possible and the desire of the electorate for change.

Grassroots Green Economy

In response to the fuel, food price, financial and economic crisis, UNEP last year launched its Global Green New Deal/Green Economy initiative.

In a financial constrained world, heading into a climate and natural resource constrained one, countries have simply no option but to accelerate towards a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy - one where every Dollar, euro, Kenyan Shilling and Yuan works on multiple fronts.

Each one of the finalists - indeed the vast majority of the 1,000 nominations by BBC viewers, Newsweek readers and Internet users - are living, local examples that a Green Economy is underway.

You demonstrate that instead of waiting for the Green Economy to come to you, you are building it from the ground up.

Instead of waiting for Grid electricity to come to the villages, Barefoot College's work in India and now in Africa is empowering women to build it from the village out bringing development, enhanced opportunities for education and employment, while also cutting unhealthy in-door emissions and greenhouse gases.

The biogas projects show-cased here transform a problem - namely human waste - into an opportunity as does the mushroom business in California turning old coffee grinds into fertile soils.

I could name others - the Namibian thorny bushes-into-briquettes project that solves three challenges: the need for sustainable local fuel; the needs of farmers and the needs of the cheetahs.

Mentioning some projects without mentioning others is always a limitation of such speeches - but perhaps let me just end with the Andaman Discoveries, eco-tourism project.

Part of this involves tourists assisting local communities with restoring mangrove forests.

Linking the Local to the Global

Perhaps here the UN and the global climate negotiations and local interests meet most clearly.

In Copenhagen there is a real chance that governments from the North will begin financing tropically-forested countries to conserve rather than fell their forests - this is because emissions from deforestation and forest degradation now account for close to 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

UNEP, in collaboration with scientists, have now been assessing the climate links with other ecosystems, including marine ones.

We already know that mangroves provide a range of economically-important services from coastal defenses, fish nurseries and water purification services.

It now emerges that the world's salt marshes, seagrasses and mangroves are also absorbing and locking away carbon pollution equal to around half of all the world's transport emissions.

If forests get the green light in Copenhagen, perhaps it will not be long before local communities such as those in Thailand get paid for the climate-combating services of these replanted mangroves.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In a few short moments the winners will be announced. Congratulations to everyone involved and a big thanks too to the sponsors and coordinators including Shell, BBC and Newsweek.

Thanks too to Robert Lamb, the producer and originator of World Challenge.

Grassroots organizations and governments have a central role to play in fostering the transition to a Green Economy, one able to meet the needs and the aspirations of nearly seven billion people rising to nine billion by 2050.

But so does business and so does civil society including the media with its extraordinary power to influence and to inform.

Much of what we read about, hear and see in newspapers, magazines and on the TV, radio and via the Internet is either bad news or what one might say frivolous news.

There is nothing wrong with a measure of frivolity and it is important we know about realities of the world - no one would wish for news to be sanitized.

But all too often there seems to be a sanitization or a deliberate policy to overlook good news stories.

The World Challenge Awards are living proof that this is not necessarily the case with these remarkable finalists screened and read about in living rooms, hotels, offices and café across the globe over recent months.

Let's look forward to an outcome in Copenhagen by mid-December that generates the same level media interest, not for a Green Economy opportunity missed but for an opportunity seized.




Further Resources

2009 World Challenge

UNEP awards

UNEP climate change portal

Seal the Deal! campaign

UNEP Green Economy Initiative


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