Statement by UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner on the Occasion of World Environment Day 2014 Thu, Jun 5, 2014

This year, the focus of World Environment Day - in the wider context of 2014 also being the International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) - focuses on the risks and opportunities facing island nations.

UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner speaking today in Bridgetown's Independence Square

5 June 2014

Your Excellency Freundel Stuart, Prime Minister of Barbados,

The Honourable Maxine McClean, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade,

The Honourable Denis Lowe, Minister of the Environment, Water Resources and Drainage,

Excellencies, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

Today marks World Environment Day, the largest day of global action on the planet.

And it is indeed a pleasure to celebrate this landmark event, here, in the historic city of Bridgetown - the global capital of this year's World Environment Day.

I would like to start by extending my gratitude to his Excellency, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, the honourable ministers and the people of this great nation for their generous hospitality and their commitment to chart a green economic path for development.

Barbados is a Green Economy pioneer across the Caribbean region and among Small Island Developing States (SIDS). In this regard, UNEP is proud to be a partner and an ally.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This year, the focus of World Environment Day - in the wider context of 2014 also being the International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) - focuses on the risks and opportunities facing island nations such as our generous hosts today, Barbados.

At Rio+20, member states agreed to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to build upon the Millennium Development Goals and converge with the post-2015 development agenda. The reduction of poverty and the increase of human health and wellness will be vital to these goals: and impossible without due consideration of environmental protection. This is of particular relevance to SIDS. Due to their unique vulnerabilities, they are going to require a focus in this evolving agenda.

The 52 SIDS nations, home to 62.3 million people, contribute little to climate change, emitting less than one per cent of global greenhouse gases. Yet they suffer disproportionately from its effects due to their small size, narrow resource base, high susceptibility to natural hazards, low economic resilience, and limited capacity for mitigation and adaptation.

It is clear that climate change will have an overarching negative impact on sustainable development in SIDS, complicating the task of attaining the gains that will be required to lift people out of poverty, create green jobs, and provide sustainable energy for all.

For example, fisheries play a significant role in the economy, livelihoods and food security of SIDS, estimated at up 12 per cent of total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in some nations. In Pacific SIDS, fish accounts for up to 90 per cent of animal protein in the diet of coastal communities.

Yet, climate change is expected to affect fisheries as changing water temperatures will damage coral reefs and mangroves that function as nurseries, habitats and foraging grounds for fish. This will pose a clear challenge to meeting the nutritional needs of growing populations, affect livelihoods and hamper efforts to lift people out of poverty.

Or take tourism, which is the largest source of foreign exchange for over half of SIDS. Tourism receipts represent more than 30 per cent of their total exports; in comparison, the average for the world is just over 5 per cent, according to World Bank estimates.

Climate change presents one of the most significant challenges to the sector, disrupting economies and livelihoods. For example, a 50-centimeter rise in sea-level would result in Grenada losing 60 per cent of its beaches; and coral bleaching - a process that has already begun- will further reduce the attraction for tourists.

Then there is the financial cost of adaptation to climate change: under business-as-usual models, the capital cost of sea-level rise in the Caribbean Community Countries alone is estimated at US$187 billion by 2080.

These examples demonstrate why it is so crucial to build momentum towards a robust climate agreement. Put simply, should global greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, sustainable development in SIDS will become ever harder to achieve.

The fossil fuel era, which is only about 200 - 300 years, will one day be looked back upon as a nanosecond in history.

Today, however, SIDS - while contributing little to global warming - are extremely fragile and remain dependent on fossil fuels.

Energy prices in the vast majority of SIDS are among the highest globally - in some cases electricity costs are 500 per cent more than in the US, primarily as a result of their dependence on imported fuel. Power generation in SIDS consumes in excess of 50 million barrels of petroleum annually.

Improving the SIDS power sector requires that fossil fuel dependence be halved by 2035, and a switch to a mix of renewable energy sources (ocean, geothermal, solar, wind and biofuels) be achieved.

Caribbean Community Countries estimate the shift could cost tens of billions of dollars. Despite international support for the implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action and the Mauritius Strategy, there is no mechanism in place to help SIDS transform their energy sector.

This is something that must change in order to meet sustainable energy objectives.

Indeed, this year, work in combating climate change will either take a more hopeful turn, or remain embroiled in international discussions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We know the size of the task that awaits us, which is why it is vital we seize this opportunity to address the high vulnerability of SIDS. To aid in this process, UNEP today launched two reports that show how we can transition to an inclusive Green Economy and promote sustainable development.

The first - the SIDS Foresight Report - outlines 20 key emerging challenges facing these nations, but more importantly, offers ways to tackle them. Climate change impacts are clearly flagged in this report, but I want to highlight one other particularly important point.

A cross-cutting issue identified in the report is the need to develop appropriate growth indicators that go beyond GDP and take into account climate change, poverty, natural resource depletion, human health, and quality of life.

Such indicators already exist - including the Inclusive Wealth Index, developed by UNEP and the UN University - but they are yet to enter into widespread use, even though they clearly show that current economic growth is coming at the expense of depleting natural resources.

Given the particular vulnerability of SIDS, it is imperative that sustainable development indicators are applied to track accurately the growth of these states and help factor valuable natural resources into economic decision making.

The second report is the full Barbados Green Economy Scoping study, carried out in conjunction with the government of Barbados and the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus. This report provides a practical roadmap for policymakers and businesses for the greening of Barbados' five key industries: tourism, agriculture, fisheries, building/housing and transportation.

This report is not just of use to Barbados, as the best practices laid out therein can be applied to many SIDS across the globe. The Green Economy approach offers opportunities for managing natural capital, diversifying the economy, creating green jobs, increasing resource efficiency and supporting poverty reduction and sustainable development. The analysis shows that there is massive potential in Barbados: for example in energy, where a saving of US$280 million can be made through a 29 per cent switch to renewables by 2029.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

SIDS are not passively accepting their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. The efforts of the government and people of Barbados are (repetition) obvious proof of this: forging new pathways to sustainable economic growth since the 1970s.

For example, since it was first launched in the 1970s, the Barbados Solar Water Heater program has netted the state between US$133.5 and US$137 million in energy savings through the installation of 40,000 solar water heaters.

Equally, Barbados has integrated green economic policy proposals into the new Barbados Growth and Development Strategy, particularly regarding a new renewable energy sector. Major investments are also being mobilized in areas such as agriculture, tourism, waste, and water.

Others SIDS are taking similar steps, and it is up to the international community to play its part by supporting these nations, both directly through technical and financial support, and indirectly through reducing emissions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year, World Environment Day marks an exciting new step forward. For although UNEP's remit and focus has always been avowedly global, we can now claim with full justification to have a truly worldwide reach.

Later this month, at UNEP's home in Nairobi, Kenya, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) will be inaugurated as the newly constituted UN high-level platform for decision making on the environment; tasked to chart a new course in the way the international community addresses environmental sustainability challenges.

The convening of the first UNEA represents a coming-of-age for the global environment community. For the first time, all (193) members of the UN, plus Observer States and major stakeholders, will be represented in the new assembly - thereby bestowing upon UNEA a new level of representation, legitimacy and authority.

A broad range of actors from the world of economy, finance, social sciences, legislation, the judiciary and development are also due to participate to help shape the global environmental agenda, under the stewardship of UNEA.

Now more than ever, it has become increasingly clear that the dichotomy between environmental sustainability and economic and social development should be overcome through the careful management of natural resources as the keystone of a prosperous and stable society. In this new forum, UNEP and its partners will be able to provide governments and other policymakers with the science, policy options and platform, for international cooperation to more effectively address the environmental dimension of sustainable development.

The issues facing this first session of UNEA are weighty ones which require the voices of all member states and partners to be heard. I am keen to welcome you to UNEA in less than a fortnight.

I fully expect this to be the start of a new era. We need to raise our voices to ensure SIDS are not left behind and that the world community is prepared to face up to the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Thank you and see you in Nairobi very soon.

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