UN Under-Secretary-General and
Executive Director, UNEP
Fourty years ago in the Swedish capital city of
Stockholm history was made at a UN conference on the
future of humanity and the planet. Amid rising concern
over pollution, the growing loss of species and the dying
of forests as a result of acid rain, governments agreed
that a UN body charged with coordinating a global
response to such challenges should be established.
It was the birth of UNEP and between June 1972 and
the UN General Assembly that year, countries lobbied
to host this new environmental body. In the end Kenya
won the diplomatic debate and in doing so became the
first developing country to host a UN headquarters.
Black and white photographs taken on 2 October 1973
at the inaugural celebrations show President Kenyatta,
flanked by forest rangers and game wardens, waving
his signature fly whisk while 43 year-old Canadian
Maurice Strong, UNEPís first Executive Director, stands
It was originally set up to coordinate the rest of the
UN systemís activities on environmental issues and
to provide the science to member states on emerging
trends in environmental change.
The emphasis on science has perhaps been among
UNEPís most important contributions that in turn has
led to governments negotiating key global treaties to
address emerging environmental crises.
The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete
the Ozone layer ó the protective shield that filters out
dangerous levels of the sunís ultraviolet rays ó is a case
in point. Without the Montreal Protocol, atmospheric
levels of ozone-depleting substances could have
increased tenfold by 2050 which in turn could have
led to up to 20 million more cases of skin cancer
and 130 million more cases of eye cataracts, not to
speak of damage to human immune systems, wildlife
Bringing forward the science and convening treaty negotiations
continues to this day.
In the late 1980s, as the world was struggling to understand
the implications of rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,
UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization established
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Its scientific work has become the premier risk assessment and
reference work for governments on the likely trends and impacts
of global warming and the IPCCís findings played a key role
in the decision to establish the UN climate convention and its
emission reduction treaty, the Kyoto Protocol.
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in
Johannesburg in 2002, UNEP was asked to spearhead a
partnership in order to accelerate a global phase-out of leaded
petrol. Lead is especially damaging to the brain of infants and
Since then around 80 developing countries including Ghana,
Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Vanuatu have removed
lead from transport fuels and only now are the enormous
Scientists calculate that improvements in IQ, reductions in
cardiovascular diseases, and decline in criminality are among
the annual $2.4 trillion benefits linked to ridding the world of
It is yet another example of how environmental measures and
action also links directly to the social factors and issues of
poverty, equity and livelihoods.
Since 2008, UNEP has also been championing the
Green Economy as a way of generating development and
employment but in a way that keeps humanityís footprint within
Part of the Green Economy work has been to assess and
communicate to governments the multi-trillion dollar services
that nature provides, but which until recently have been all but
invisible in national accounts of profit and loss.
So what of the future? As Environment Ministers gather in
Nairobi for their annual meeting of the UNEP Governing
Council in February 2012, all eyes are on the follow-up to the
Earth Summit of 1992, or Rio+20.
This meeting, taking place in June, may prove to be an opportunity
where the Green Economy initiative is translated into a fresh and
forward-looking way of finally realizing sustainable development
for seven billion people, rising to over nine billion by 2050.
And in their submissions to the Summit, many governments are
also signaling that the time has come to evolve UNEP itself onto
a higher level, perhaps into a World Environment Organization.
Whatever the final outcome of Rio+20 Ė it is a great compliment
to an institution when after 40 years member states express the
wish to strengthen it and to do so in its African home.