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Remarks by Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director to Pan Africa Media Conference

Remarks by Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, to the Pan Africa Media Conference

Nairobi, 19 March 2010 - Distinguished delegates, members of the media, ladies and gentlemen,

To be involved in the environmental agenda in 2010 is to be both inordinately concerned but also rather excited.

Firstly on being concerned: Wherever you look humanity appears to be on a road to nowhere.

Every dial on the natural or nature-based resource clock is ticking and in many cases accelerating downwards.

Perhaps one of the starkest examples is fisheries.

As we meet here in Nairobi, governments are meeting in Doha, Qatar under the umbrella of the UNEP-linked Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

One issue has been headline news globally-that is the plight of blue fin tuna or more precisely the western Atlantic stock.

By some estimates, this fishery is down 80 per cent since the 1970s: the dawn of industrial fishing.

By other estimates the spawning stock of females could, on current trends, be gone in less than five years.

It is good news that governments are concerned enough to have considered significant steps to reverse this trend, based on sound science.

It is breathtaking, when you pause and reflect for a moment.

Breathtaking that humanity with all its extraordinary intelligence-the creature with the biggest brain-could have presided over such a disaster and reached such a crisis point where only draconian action is an option.

Tuna may be hitting the headlines now, but cod-or the lack of it-regularly hits the headlines in Europe and North America.

When John Cabot, the explorer, arrived off the coast of Canada's Newfoundland some 500 years ago, cod was so plentiful they slowed the passage of the sailing ships and the crew scooped the fish up in buckets.

Not anymore.

Fisheries almost everywhere are declining, fished out and in some cases are so far gone that scientists believe the once abundant stocks will never return.

  • In 1987, around 15 per cent of global fish stocks were classed as collapsed. UNEP's last Global Environment Outlook-4 says this has roughly doubled to 30 per cent.

  • 20 years ago around a fifth of fish stocks were deemed over-exploited this has now risen to about 40 per cent.

Fishermen are catching less and less big fish.

Indeed by some estimates only 10 percent of all large fish remain-both open ocean species including swordfish and marlin found off coasts including East Africa and the large groundfish such as cod, halibut, skates and flounder.

We are also fishing down the food chain, targeting deep sea, slowly reproducing stocks that can be now be accessed by the world's high tech fleets.

So it's about fish? Well yes and no, it is also very much about people and very much about the economy.

It's about fishing communities and jobs and about coastal communities that depend on fish for protein-so it is also about food security, human security, nutrition and health.

It is also about health and safety.

The decline in fish stocks off Africa's West coast, linked with industrial, subsidized boats mainly from Europe, mean local fishermen need to spend a month at sea to catch the same fish they used to catch in four days.

It is also about the knock on effects in terms of impacts on fish-eating marine creatures.

Ultimately fisheries are part of a vast the jigsaw puzzle that underpins the health and productivity of our oceans upon which we all depend in one way or another.

And it is also about human rights and the skewed economic structures that operate in this globalized world ? fishing fleets are enjoying government subsidies of $30-34 billion a year of which $25-27 billion are for the large-scale, mainly developed country operations.

This is part of the absurdity of the world in which we live.

According to research by the University of British Columbia, the least subsidized, small-scale fisheries like those found in Africa actually catch the same number of fish as the big fleets.

But they employ 12 million people versus half a million in the industrialized fleets; use less than one-eighth the fuel as their industrial counterparts and they discard comparatively little: in other words they are far less destructive to the marine environment.

I mention fisheries, but I could equally be discussing the way we manage forests or land or a whole host of other environment-related sectors.

Or the way society promotes certain kinds of food production systems above others-unsustainable versus, sustainable agriculture; intensive versus organic.

The fact is that wherever you look we are mismanaging the environment and our nature-based asset-base.

We are dismantling the natural systems that generate multi-trillion dollar services-yes multi-trillion dollar-at an unprecedented rate.

Instead of managing natural resources, we are mining them.

Fine on a planet of a few million or even billion people-not a recipe for success, security and stability on one of over six billion, rising to over nine billion by 2050.

Next Monday is World Water Day, an annual UN event aimed at raising awareness on this most precious of natural resources.

This year's theme is water quality.

UNEP along with our sister agency here in Nairobi-UN-Habitat-we will bring out a report on wastewater.

The facts will be launched on Monday, but perhaps a couple of figures.

  • Globally, 2 million tons of sewage, industrial and agricultural wastes is discharged into the world's waterways

  • At least 1.8 million children under five years-old die every year from water related disease, or one every 20 seconds.

  • Over half of the world's hospitals beds are occupied with people suffering from illnesses linked with contaminated water

  • More people die as a result of polluted water than are killed by all forms of violence including wars.

You have to stand back a moment and just think-more people die from polluted water than are killed by all forms of violence including wars.

The crisis of water management and waste-water can be viewed through the lens of public health.

But you can equally view it through other lenses such as the fisheries lens, the agricultural lens, transport or the economic one.

This is the fascinating but also complicating dimension of the environment, and one which I will return to in a moment when I mention the media dimension.

Discharges of wastewater, combined with run off of agricultural fertilizers and aggravated by emissions from the transport sector, are linked with the emergence of de-oxygenated dead zones in the seas and oceans.

Hundreds of these zones, now covering an area of 245,000 square km, now exist threatening the health of the marine environment and its productivity.

So is this an issue for the water ministry or the agricultural one?

Perhaps the minister of transport has a role and of course the minister of fisheries needs to be involved?

Given that a lot of this kind of pollution is transboundary and many pollutants literally travel around the world, could it be the responsibility of the minister of foreign affairs?

Where does the environment minister fit in?

Perhaps someone needs to make the case and the links, join up the dots and make sense of what is in reality a multi-faceted challenge about the way humanity governs its most fundamental resources and its life support systems.

Resources and systems that not only underpin the lives, livelihoods and economies of this generation but those of future ones, already here and yet to be born-so it is an intergenerational issue too.

The fact of life in the early 21st century is that environment is not about protecting one or other species- be it the whales, the elephant, a butterfly or a dung beetle.

Nor is it about saving a much loved beauty spot, lake or woodland.

It is about saving ourselves ? for the impacts humanity now is having on the planet, from degradation to pollution, is fundamental changing the planet and the rules of the game.

Climate change is perhaps the most over-arching and high profile challenge of all.

It has been described in many terms: but it goes to the heart of the global economy and the foundations upon which it has been built: namely energy.

It pits the old economy, the vested interests of industries and businesses who have defined their economic models on the use or abuse of fossil fuels, against a new one.

It challenges our collective comfort zones

It requires and requests us to think about the vulnerable and the ill-prepared like the people of the Continent of Africa.

So it requires us to be generous, sensitive, forward-looking, intelligent and bring a new discourse to what we want from globalization and the institutions that operate at this level-not least the United Nations.

Above all it requests and requires change and to think and to plan beyond our day to day lives.

Something that human beings find tricky to sometimes grasp unless there is a full-scale emergency.

Climate change will be that full-scale emergency, unless we act and act fast.

A lot has been achieved: under the current UN emission reduction treaty-the Kyoto Protocol-carbon markets have emerged in a few short years.

Carbon offset mechanisms, essentially funneling investment from the North to the South, is promoting renewable energy development in Asia, Latin America and now it is taking off in Africa.

Last December, in Copenhagen was meant to be the moment when the world evolved its response to climate change onto a far more comprehensive and decisive level.

It did not happen and I am happy to discuss why in the ensuing debate.

But neither was Copenhagen the big breakdown that had seemed possible in the final days and hours.

Indeed, there are the elements of a truly cooperative deal in the so called Copenhagen Accord.

Pledges have now been received from over 100 countries-including the United States and China and the European Union and Brazil and Japan and India.

Are they enough?

By our estimates and those of several key research institutes, there is a significant gap between the ambition and where we need to be in 2020 if the world is to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees C by 2050.

Are they a start and a foundation upon which we can build? Yes.

Like the crisis in fisheries or land or forests, climate change is multifaceted. It represents multiple challenges, but also multiple opportunities.

And it is those multiple opportunities for defining a different and more sustainable development path that brings the excitement to the environmental agenda in 2010.

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

The essential concept was that society might harness a significant slice of the huge stimulus packages, aimed at stabilizing and reviving the global economy, to catalyze a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient 21st century Green Economy.

An economy that better understands the realities and choices it needs to make and one that is far more intelligent about the way it directs markets to achieve multiple goals.

Renewables are a good example: A country like Kenya needs energy.

Does it buy diesel or coal-fired power stations or does it pursue a clean and high tech route?

Many companies would be keen to sell fossil fuel power stations to Kenya, they have these old technologies as it were on the shelf and would be delighted to dust them down and ship them to East Africa

For Kenya or for any country in Africa, they may at first glance look like a cheaper option.

But a cool, more calculating and more long term analysis of costs and benefits can give very different results if a wider, Green Economy lens is used.

Kenya has no coal, oil or natural gas-so these will have to be imported day in and day out at prices which may one year be $40 a barrel and next year $150 a barrel or more.

In contrast the wind, the sun and the geothermal are indigenous 'fuels' which are essentially free and price-wise stable.

Renewables also represent one of the fastest ways to get electricity to the poor and rural communities-so they can quickly fire up development and overcome poverty.

There other abundant reasons to choose this option-less air pollution, thus less sickness and health care costs.

Less pollution too of the kind that can damage forests and lakes.

Yes, but who is going to pay for the additional, up front costs?

One avenue is the carbon markets-one reason why the geothermal is taking off in Naivasha and one reason why Africa has a big stake in the UN-led climate change negotiations.

Only a few weeks ago, international carbon market support was also announced for the 300MW wind farm under development in Turkana.

Governments can also play a key role in creating the right kinds of conditions that will attract carbon market investors: not subsidies, but smart market mechanisms.

Kenya's feed-in tariff is a case in point.

Renewables is one aspect of the Green Economy and there are others.

One has, here in Kenya, been played out in the press, on the radio and on the TV over the past year.

One that underlines the role of the media in public debate, in raising real awareness of real and very challenging issues.

One that celebrates the power of the pen over the slash and burner or the bulldozer-that in the long tradition of good journalism has been exposing the few, vested interests that often benefit at the expense of the many, the vulnerable and the poor.

I am referring here to the debate surrounding the Mau forest complex ? an environmental issue for sure, but a Green Economy one too.

Because it is a human rights issue, a land tenure issue, a governance question and one that touches on every aspect of the health of this economy from tourism and hydropower to water and the future of agriculture.

It encapsulates the challenge facing a journalist-and de facto the public- trying to get to grips with the complexities and contradictions of our contemporary world.

Moreover it is a subject that underlines the challenge linked with translating that complexity not so much into simplicity.

But into a language understandable to a businessman in the industrial area; a politician in Parliament and a man or woman living in Nakuru or Nairobi.

That skill-that ability to be a polymath as the Greeks termed it and later a Renaissance man or woman-is one of the marks of a good environment correspondent.

Is it alive and well in African journalism? In my experience yes and increasingly so.

Picking up the Nation newspaper yesterday and reading its 50 Golden Years supplement, you see the images of Kenya's first President, Jomo Kenyatta and the birth of an independent Kenya.

As the years tick by the images of troubles and of triumphs emerge and then the image of the Mau comes into view, near a page on "looking to the future".

To be a journalist in Africa covering the environment is to be part of that future.

And part of that animated public debate that shines a light on choices and enables others including policy-makers to take transformative action and mediate genuine change.

Like the environment itself, being an environment correspondent is challenging, not least in the breadth of understanding needed.

It is a constant learning process for me and for you.

Sometimes it is going to be gloomy and more about set backs rather than steps forward.

But above all it is intellectually bracing.

And, given the opportunities for catalyzing real sustainable development and opportunities for billions of people, must be one of the most exciting, fresh, demanding and forward-looking beats around.

So, when one day I retire from the job of UNEP Executive Director, please be assured that I will most likely be looking to colleagues in the media for a leg up.

And heading down Kimathi Street, knocking on the Linus Gitahi's door requesting a sympathetic ear, a great deal of on the ground training and hopefully a note pad and a pen and perhaps eventually my first by-line in the Nation!





Further Resources

Pan-Africa Media Conference 2010


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