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Life begins at 40!


Camilla Toulmin

Director, International Institute of Environment and Development

UNEP was born in 1972, mandated to protect and improve the environment for current and future generations. The proclamation for its establishment notes that “humankind has acquired the power to transform the environment in countless ways and unprecedented scale” — and indeed the forty intervening years of this Anthropocene age have generated major changes in facts, technology and ways of looking at the world. In that year of the Stockholm conference on the human environment, the planet hosted 3.8 billion people, as against 7 billion today; a barrel of oil sold for $3.50 compared to more than ss$100 now. The year also witnessed US President Nixon’s visit to China, symbolising the massive geopolitical shifts that have since taken place.

The early 70s also witnessed the start of the modern environmental movement. The Club of Rome’s landmark Limits to Growth spurred a set of debates which spawned Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), which I have directed since 2004, was established in 1971 by the economist Barbara Ward, who wrote Only One Earth for the Stockholm Conference. Like many in similar positions today, my professional training and career span the period from the early 70s to today — we share a common understanding of the problems and underlying drivers — and yet have not made sufficient headway in building a more sustainable planet. Much more is needed in the ten years ahead to marshal the evidence and contest the interests that block progress.

UNEP has had to tread a difficult path over the last four decades – both holding the torch for environmental matters within the UN system, while needing to be nimble in a rapidly changing landscape. Back in 1972, many of us believed that government was well-informed and farsighted, and could be relied upon to take decisions for the greater public good — in contrast to business, which pursued its own short-term interests. Science was largely uncontested and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) barely existed as a constituency within the UN system. Now it is clear that many

governments operate in a timeframe of days and weeks, while better corporate practice is thinking ten or twenty years ahead. Unwelcome evidence from the scientific community is cavalierly dismissed, and NGOs have mushroomed in size and numbers

The facts have changed a lot over 40 years. Energy use has doubled in absolute terms but intensity per unit of GDP has fallen. Global GDP per head has more than doubled, and the proportion of people living in poverty (below $1.50/day) has halved, from 50 per cent to 25 per cent. Yet, inequality has also risen with a significant shift in earnings from wage labour to investors with capital.

In 1972, China was still largely rural, and emerging from the Cultural Revolution. India and Pakistan were seeing the first impacts of green revolution technology in agriculture, with the spread of high yielding dwarf varieties of wheat and barley, which helped both countries shift from regular food shortages and famine to a regular harvest surplus. At the time, Norman Borlaug spoke of his plant breeding work having bought 40 years grace, by when new ways of achieving crop yield gains would be needed. The 2007-2008 food and commodity price spike has shown how tight are global supplies of basic grains, and how vulnerable poor people are to shortages in the global market, while recent studies show the difficult trade-offs involved in raising crop production further, given the need to contain greenhouse gas emissions and maintain ecosystem services.

In 1972, the greenhouse effect had long been identified as a potential threat, but with no sense of today’s urgency. The principal environmental hazards were air pollution (including acid rain, now much improved), ozone depletion (now stabilised) and water quality and availability (still some way to go, especially in Africa). We lived free of laptop computers, mobile phones or fax machines.

The rapid tightening of information and financial connections since has generated an extraordinary growth in trade and financial transactions, and a thick web of communication networks, the power of which was evident in the recent Arab Spring.

telephone line, itself on a shaky connection to the capital Bamako, from which the outside world could be reached on a good day. Today, I can stand in the shade in Makono Dembele’s compound, catching the signal from 30 kilometers away and chat to my office with sheep braying in the background. When the power gets low, a solar panel recharges the battery.

World politics and perceptions have also shifted enormously, from the Cold War years of the 70s through the western world’s ascendancy in the 80s and 90s to today’s much flatter, complex, multi-polar planet. Although Limits to Growth was widely decried at its time, there is a growing recognition that much of its forecast is turning out to be pretty accurate. Johan Rockstrom’s work on planetary boundaries has re-ignited debate on where such limits might lie, our uncertainty as regards the science, and need to establish “safe space” within which to operate given the possible catastrophic impact of crossing thresholds for global warming and ocean acidification.

There is also now much more questioning of our economic models and underlying assumptions. Environment has inched from a bolt-on added extra to becoming more embedded in the fundamentals of the economy, thanks to the work of Nicholas Stern, Pavan Sukhdev, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, demonstrating the need to price environmental assets and services properly to address market failure.

While IIED researchers David Pearce, Anil Markandya and Edward Barbier published Blueprint for a Green Economy in 1988, there was little pick-up by the mainstream economics community. Thanks to UNEP and others, green economic tools are now widely discussed, as is the role that government needs to play in shaping fiscal policy, procurement policy and pump-priming green investment funds. Some governments have begun testing alternative measures for gross domestic well-being: such tools must now be shaped to fit the needs and priorities of different nations: a Green Economy for Mali. Mozambique and Malawi will differ substantially from those for Kazakhstan, Qatar and Colombia.

Throughout these tumultuous decades, UNEP has initiated and supported much valuable work in partnership with others, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the IPCC (with the World Meteorological Organization), the UN Global Compact (with UNDP, UNHCR and others), and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (with the World Resources Institute, World Bank and UNDP) . It has not always got things right: in my own field, it espoused for many years a simplistic, overblown approach to desertification, showing massive sand dunes engulfing fields and villages, obscuring the complexity of dryland management, and the positive lessons being learned. Relations with the Rio Conventions have had their ups and downs, with UNEP needing to co-exist with independent secretariats which many thought should fit within its bailiwick.

If Rio, the first Earth Summit held in 1992, marked UNEP’s youthful coming of age, Rio+20 brings a moment for more sober assessment of how difficult it is to make sustainability happen. After 40 years, we can see more clearly how a combination of human and institutional characteristics push in the opposite direction: while people are capable of great co-operation and selflessness at times, they also exhibit greed and individualism, short-sighted and status-seeking behaviour. Animal spirits and instincts seem as powerful as reason and evidence. National and global governance systems are meant to contain such selfishness for the common good. Yet, powerful individuals and nations can block such a collective enterprise. Pointing out the alarming discrepancy between commitments and action on sustainable development more than a decade ago, Kofi Annan described our responses as “too few, too little, too late”.

As background for Rio+20, UNEP has published Keeping Track of Our Changing Environment, highlighting the good and bad news since 1992. It is a mixed bag. There has been a rapid increase in renewable energy investment, but solar and wind still account for only 0.3 per cent of global energy supply, and 1 in 5 people on the planet still have no access to electricity. Food production has risen by 45 per cent yet close on one billion people remain underfed, 1.5 billion are overweight and a third of all food is thrown away or wasted. In future we will have much less room for manoeuvre. On a planet where resources are increasingly scarce, we must set prices that properly represent the real value of resources and the costs of different behaviours. Only governments, acting together, can do that. UNEP has a vital role to play, in partnership with others, in clearly laying out the consequences of current practice and exhorting nations and their citizens to recognise their common interest in protecting and improving the environment for current and future generations.

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